11 Dec 2015 19:11 IST

Bullet trains or white elephants?

The idea of a bullet train in India sounds exciting, but how viable is it?

As Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe begins his Indian visit today, the limelight will be on the announcement to build India’s first bullet train that will link Mumbai with Ahmedabad. The Indian Cabinet had cleared the $14.7 billion-proposal on Thursday.

It helped that Japan has offered to finance 80 per cent of the project cost at an interest rate of less than one per cent. With this, Abe’s government has taken an early lead over its Chinese counterpart, which is working on a similar project to connect Delhi with Chennai.

On initial thoughts, a bullet train sounds like a good idea. Sure, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will get one more excuse to brag, but travellers too will benefit. A bullet train will cover the 543-km stretch between Mumbai and the Gujarat city in about two hours, reducing the present journey by five hours. That will immensely help the estimated 40,000 people who travel between the two cities daily.

But does India really need a bullet train? Can Indian Railways, struggling to give basic facilities such as cleanliness, timeliness and hygiene food, manage this gigantic project?

International experience

When Japan introduced the first of its Shinkansen, or bullet trains in 1964, it was after years of research on how to upgrade the existing network of narrow-gauge lines. Mass transportation was an issue to move people in the populated industrialised corridor between Tokyo and Osaka. A big factor that made the trains, which ran at a speed over 300 kmph, viable was the availability of cheap power, thanks to its nuclear plants.

Other countries such as France, where the high speed rail network has succeeded, have relied on subsidies to make the operations viable.

Does India have cheap power, or enough money to subsidise high cost travel?

Many in India like citing the ‘successes’ of China’s high speed rail network. Though a late entrant, in 2003, the country now boasts of the largest network of high speed rail in the world.

Though no one can be sure of figures when it comes to China, experts world over believe that much of the Chinese network is running on a loss. Worse, the tariff is so high that many working class Chinese prefer to spend more time in the ordinary trains rather than empty their pockets on bullet trains.

In India

Modi wants to build the railway equivalent of the Golden Quadrilateral, the road project initiated by his BJP predecessor, and former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. But the project comes with a heavy price-tag. The Delhi-Chennai corridor will cost $20 billion. The Mumbai-Delhi link will need a similar investment.

The Chinese government might also provide India loan for the projects. But how does India plan to pay back these loans? The bullet trains might struggle to make money. Tariffs will be close to air fares, limiting the clientele. Close to 90 per cent of Indians can only afford to travel in a second, or unreserved, class.

The development of a high speed rail network needs a separate set of infrastructure. This will not only include expensive new rails, but also new stations. A visit to New Delhi railway station, or a ride in one of the Mumbai locals, will show that India doesn’t need new stations, but a re-haul of the present ones.

So instead of asking Abe for help and money to build a network to run bullet trains, what if Modi seeks assistance to make Indian Railways more efficient? Wouldn’t that be more prudent?

It is not that the NDA government hasn’t done it. In September, Railways Minister Suresh Prabhu had visited Japan for a similar venture. And Japan has, in-principle, agreed to help modernise Indian Railways and participate in the latter’s $140 billion investment ambition in the next five years.

Surely, modernisation and technological upgradation of Indian Railways is more important than having bullet trains that could become white elephants. But with a Prime Minister given to mega announcements, one fears that gimmick will rule over prudence.