Bullet train: Adding speed to the Gujarat model

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The proposal for a bullet train between Ahmedabad and Mumbai got sudden acceleration on September 14 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe together launched the project in a pompous ceremony at a place which has been associated with Mahatma Gandhi, a great champion of non-motorised and low-speed technology.

The timing of the high-speed rail corridor launch only reiterates Modi’s attempt to add vigour to his Gujarat model of development and attract voters in the assembly elections to be held in the state later this year. Will he succeed? This is a difficult question because the turn of events in Gujarat’s politics have been creating fatigue for the BJP for quite some time.

It is obvious that recent political developments in the state have necessitated changes in the 503 km-long high speed rail corridor project. Angry attacks by the Patel community and high morale of the Congress after the victory of Ahmed Patel in the Rajya Sabha elections made it necessary for Modi to bring the bullet train in the poll discourse.
The new development pitch of the Prime Minister is evident in his statement on the occasion, “This is not just the beginning of high speed rail. While looking forward at our future needs, I consider this new railway philosophy as the lifeline of a ‘New India’. India’s uninterrupted progress has now been attached to a much faster pace.” The schedule of completion of the project, from 2023 earlier to August 15, 2022 now, has been changed to give the narrative a sound logical base.

The idea of the bullet train is not new. The project began taking shape in 2009 when the Rail Budget made the provision of studying the feasibility of three corridors including the one that has been launched. The Ahmedabad-Mumbai corridor had Pune in it and all the studies were made accordingly. Pune was dropped from the map as the length between Mumbai and Pune was not considered remunerative enough as to be awarded with such a high profile project.

Initially, Japan was not even in the picture. The feasibility studies were awarded to a consortium led by French giant SYSTRA. The Indian Railways’ RITES was one of the collaborators while the study of financial feasibility was awarded to French National Rail (SNCF).

The Manmohan Singh government was in a dilemma because the feedback on the financial feasibility of the project was not encouraging. Expressing doubts over the project’s prospective revenue earnings, the SNFC said that the travel cost would simply be beyond the reach of the middle class. According to the French PSU, those who would be able to afford the three-hour journey would not be in such high numbers as to make the project viable.

The UPA started to rethink the whole idea. The Railway Board also suggested against adopting a speed which is beyond the control of the Indian Railways. Taking a middle-path based on research findings and viability issues, the then Congress-led government decided to go for semi-high speed and to increase the speed of existing trains.

This was the time at which Japan stepped in with full diplomatic might. Prime Minister Abe persuaded the then Indian Prime Minister Dr Singh, who was visiting Japan, to accept the offer of a feasibility study by Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). He accepted the offer with some riders. “Indian Railways have looked into the possibility of High Speed Rail (HSR) corridors for passenger traffic in their long term perspective plans. Japan’s Shinkansen system is well known for its efficiency and safety record. Such capital-intensive projects will be considered in accordance with our infrastructure requirement, national priorities and financial resources. We welcome Japan’s interest and would be happy to look at Japan if we decide to take up High Speed Railways in India,” he told the Japanese media.

Dr Singh reiterated the same vision when the Japanese Prime Minister was in India six months later. By then, the JICA had already started doing its feasibility study. The then Railway Minister Mallikarjun Kharge had almost rejected the proposal, terming the project as “difficult”. He had cited problems in land acquisition and the high cost involved in it. JICA had the deadline of July 2015 to complete its study, but before its results were known the new BJP-led NDA government announced that it would build a bullet train corridor between Ahmedabad and Mumbai.
The acceleration in the speed of the bullet train project has really been breathtaking.

The then NDA Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu went to Japan soon after receiving the JICA report and prepared the basis of the declaration which was later made by Modi in Japan. Railway ministry officials were not happy over the speedy decisions. They were not even satisfied with the terms with which the Japanese loan was coming in. Eighty per cent of the loan was to come from Japan and the rest of the expenditure to be borne by the governments of Maharashtra and Gujarat and the Central government. The amount to be borne by India is Rs. 88,000 crore.

However, Modi praised PM Abe in all possible ways and went to the extent of saying that the loan defied business considerations. He said that the 0.1 per cent loan is not possible in any of the banking transactions. But this is a half-truth. According to senior Railway officials, the interest is to be paid in Yen which makes it a bad loan because of the fluctuations in the currency rates. The fluctuation in Indian currency against Yen is expected to be 3 per cent per year. The loan is to be repaid in 50 years. The actual amount to be paid would be much higher than the loan amount. This aspect is not being made public. There is a veil of secrecy that surrounds the entire agreement.

Even otherwise, the project seems far from being viable. The train will pass through 12 stations and the journey is likely to cost 2700-3000 per person. Keeping in view the current rail-price, it is too high to be accepted by average
Indian travellers. The project seems to be unviable in a scenario in which the number of passengers of the railways is fast deceasing.

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