Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, along with his Indian host, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, laid the foundation for the first high-speed rail-track in India in Ahmedabad today. An important step in building India’s creaking rail infrastructure, but is it the best utilisation of railway’s scarce resources?
It is said to be Prime Minister Modi’s pet project. It is expected to catapult India into the very exclusive league of countries that operate high-speed train networks and be a shot in the arm for infrastructure projects that have always lagged behind and act as brakes on the Indian economy.
Almost since the day that Modi became the prime minister, he has been speaking of bringing the bullet trains to India. During his numerous visits around the world, notably in China, France, Germany, South Korea and, of course, Japan, he had discussed the issue with his counterparts.
And finally, India settled for the Japanese Shinkansen train system, popularly known as the Bullet Trains. The highlight of the on-going visit of Abe to India is indeed this project as the two leaders jointly lay the foundation stone of India’s first high-speed train, linking the financial capital of Mumbai to the industrial hub of Ahmedabad, in Modi’s home state of Gujarat.
Japan will build a dedicated 508-km long track for the Shinkansen and the project is expected to be completed by December 2023, though India’s new Railway Minister, Piyush Goyal, told media recently that Modi had asked for the inaugural run on August 15, 2022, to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Indian independence.
Japan’s selection was based on several factors. First was safety. The Japanese system, one of the oldest high-speed networks in the world, has had an accident-free record for nearly half a century. Another reason was, of course, the excellent geostrategic relations between the two nations and the personal equation between Abe and Modi, who have met at least 10 times in the last three years.
But the winning stroke for Japan was the financing solution offered by the country. Of the total project cost of INR 1020 billion (15 billion euros), Japan has offered to finance nearly 87 percent in a long-duration soft loan, carrying an interest rate of 0.1 percent. India would have 50 years to repay, with a 15-year moratorium.
To overcome the challenges of land acquisition, the single biggest factor behind delays of most infrastructure and industrial projects in the country, the Indian Railways has gone in for an elevated track for nearly 470 km, of the 508-km distance between Mumbai and Ahmedabad. But there would be a challenging 7-km undersea tunnel, part of a 27-km-long tunnel.
Goyal says that the bullet trains would initially run with 10 coaches, with a carrying capacity of 750 passengers, though the length could be increased to 16 coaches later. He also says that the Indian Railways would run 70 daily services on the sector, putting the system’s daily capacity at over 53,000 passengers.
The project is crucial for both the partners. For Japan, this is the first export order for their Shinkansen, as most buyers have been put off by the extremely high price of their trains. For the Indian Railway, which has a creaking infrastructure that is nearly 100 years old, getting hold of the latest technology and fastest trains in the world could be a major shot in the arm.
Between two extremes
Despite its perceived benefits, psychological as well as real, the world’s most advanced train system somehow sits extremely ill with the current state of affairs of the Indian Railways. The fourth largest train system in the world, with a track length of nearly 70,000 km, carries about 25 million passengers and over 3 million tonnes of freight every day.
However, most of the tracks and the signalling system are old and dilapidated as very little investment has been made in upgrading or renovating it. India is currently upgrading only about 1200 km of tracks every year and at the current rate, it would take nearly 50 years to finish the upgradation, by which time the whole cycle would have to begin again.
That the creaking and overloaded system is bursting at the seams is witnessed from a sharp rise in the number of accidents and the fatalities in these accidents. The last five years have seen 436 accidents, of which 242 have been caused by derailments. The number of deaths in these accidents has risen from 81 in 2012 to 238 last year.
The paucity of funds lies at the heart of the problems of the Indian Railways. The railways need over 45 billion euros to meet their current requirements up to March 2020. However, the government has allocated about 5-6 billion euros per year, over the past few years it has managed to spend less than half this amount, adding to the backlog.
With 1.54 million employees on its payrolls and its revenues under huge stress due to low passenger fares and high competition from road transport for the freight, the Indian Railways has not been able to manage its budgets. This has led to delayed hirings even for key positions such as safety personnel. According to an estimate, the Indian Railways are short of 100,000 persons for its track inspection and other positions, key to safety.
The railways also face challenges in improving communication between drivers and conductors or guards of the trains, between two moving train themselves and between the trains and the station crew. It is only now that the transporter has gone in for installing GPS devices to track its trains better and signalling equipment upgrade is also progressing at a snail’s pace.
Though several valiant efforts at cleanliness, the state of ordinary Indian trains leaves a lot to be desired and indeed even the ‘prestigious’ trains like Shatabdi and Rajdhani have a tired and old look.
The average speed of most Indian trains is about 40 km per hour and the average of Shatabdis is only a tad better, but still under 50 km per hour. Punctuality, never a strong point for the railways, has slipped again terribly in the last few years, with many trains delayed every day by a number of hours, without any other reason than track congestion.
All of these areas touch every single of the 25 million passengers that use the train system in the country every day. The government would do better to first resolve these problems that affect the masses than spend a pile or borrowed money on creating an infrastructural white elephant, which even in the best case scenario can only be a reminder of how shoddy the rest of the system really is.
Unable to bear the cost of wages, the railways, which has the unenviable stature of being the world’s largest single employer, with the entire capital expenditure budget of the Indian Railways has averaged around INR 550 billion a year.