Bullet Train – A Dream Or Reality

In the world today, pollution is a major problem but with the rise of new technologies, we hope to diminish this problem forever. New inventions are on the way to tackle these types of problems. Some inventions have already been introduced, such as hybrid cars, electric scooters and other electrical machines. While some are yet to become a worldwide reality, like the “Bullet Trains” that are high in speed and shaped like a bullet. In fact, bullet trains are streamlined so that they
can travel faster offering amazing benefits like a quiet, high-speed mode of mass transportation with low environmental dangers.

In Japan, bullet trains are known as “Shinkansen” the world’s first truly high speed locomotive. Japan’s train travel offers the fastest point-to-point service of any rail line in the world. But the best addition of the trains in Japan is not their speed but their frequency, there are about 6 trains  available in an hour; therefore, you are never being late for your train, you can be just early for the next one. Since bullet trains are an effective way of transportation being fast almost noiseless, non-polluting and luxurious, Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi proposed the first bullet train in India for Ahmedabad-Mumbai link covering 534 kilometres at about 300 kilometres per hour speed. Embracing the idea of bullet trains means that the Railways will rid itself of a lobby that has always advocated enhancing train speed with minor changes.

Currently the fastest train in India is Shatabdi which runs at 140 km per hour, the record, which was previously held by Rajdhani Express which clocks a speed of 130 km per hour. But the world has moved on, with France, Spain, China, Germany, Italy, South Korea and Japan boosting trains that zip at 300 km per hour. India, in sharp contrast, has been stuck in a time warp for decades. Bullet trains are very efficient in resource utilisation, be it time, money, land or energy. The lower limit of the proposed High Speed Rail is about 300 km/h which is much higher than the allowed road speed limit in India. High Speed Rail can accommodate more passengers at far higher speeds than automobiles. A typical passenger rail carries 2.83 times as many passengers per hour metre width as a road.

In many countries, like Germany and China high speed Railways share tracks with freight trains. This can help
move around goods faster. Even if the tracks are not shared, the high speed network will free capacity for rail freight on the conventional network. As more goods are moving faster, it helps the common man by bringing down the prices and empower businesses to scale and speed. An investment in high speed trains will increase efficiency, be environment friendly, economically profitable, and empower the businesses and the common man.

However, this won’t be easy. Sure there are and will be challenges. There will be challenges regarding the traffic optimisation, finances, construction, land acquisition and many more. But we can overcome them. We have done this time and again. We have succeeded on several challenging initiatives, and few years down the line—this will potentially be just another such success.

Recently India has invested around $17 billion to build its first high speed train system with the help of Japan. And the best part is Japan will fund more than 80% of the project cost providing loan at 0.1% interest which will lead to rapid growth over the next 50 years. The Indo-Japanese bilateral trade has over a period in time developed into a strategic and global partnership in the Indian-Pacific region.

There are reasons to be positive about this project and there are also reasons that make us wonder if this should be the first priority of a nation with large section of its population below poverty line. We have to look at it from all points of view and form our own opinion on this.

It is reasonable to argue whether that money could be spent in upgrading much more slow moving train infrastructure. The Union Government could double the speed at a fraction of this cost with newer tracks and trains. Another criticism is that the ticket price will be as expensive as the air tickets pointing to questions on its success. However, we should realise that the emphasis on the necessity of the project for India is appreciated by the masses.

Millions of businesses thrive and millions of people live, directly or indirectly on Indian Railways. Therefore, in addition to its financial objectives, it has to achieve a social goal and this is why it is, unlike many rail networks around the world, controlled and run by the government. Naturally, any investment by the government on the Indian
Railways is seen by the public as an act for the welfare of the people. But the politics and too much of bureaucracy have made, operationally, the whole network as one of the most inefficient railway networks in the world. The consequence is not just longer travel time or loss of taxpayers’ money.

Travellers regularly meet with fatal accidents and also face innumerable incidences concerning their safety. Given the seventy years of heritage of poor management during post-Independence era, the effort to improve both financial and operational performances of Indian Railways appears to be a herculean task. Even if we assume that a complete organisational overhaul is possible, given the size, the financial requirement may reach few hundreds of billions of dollars. Finally, the taxpayers would pay a major part of the above funds and also the interest on borrowings for something for which the outcome is unknown.

Given our competency in project management, we may have to spend more than a decade before we can see substantial difference in performance. As any economy is deeply linked to its transportation and communication infrastructure, until we do it (or rather complete the overhauling process) our economy must suffer.

The bullet train project is about trying an alternative approach which is easier in terms of effort and project management but may have financial burden. The investment, however, would build an alternative high-speed network that uses latest of the technological advancements and is safer.

More strategically, we can use the new network for long-distance travel while utilising the existing one for short-distances. Please look around and analyse some of the major technological innovations where governments as well as private enterprises are putting hundreds of billions of dollars. A good number of such big technological developments relate to the transportation sector. No one has any doubt that these efforts are going to drastically change the way businesses would be conducted in future.

In such a scenario, the Indian Railway, with an average speed of just above 50km/h looks medieval and would definitely hamper our economy at a time we are aiming to become world’s third largest economy after the USA and China.

Critics argue that the bullet train project is not financially viable and is a wastage of taxpayer’s money. The Prime Minister, on the other hand, argued that the project is coming very cheap. Please note that the repayment of the loan will start only after 15 years with an annual repayment of lesser than Rs. 3,000 crore. For India of 2035, it is indeed an insignificant amount.

A businessman or an entrepreneur or someone from the working class would only see an economic opportunity in saving time and improving convenience. Thus, keeping in mind the India of the future, building a pan-India network of bullet trains would definitely be a rational investment decision for the government.                              

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