Railway workers repair the tracks next to derailed coaches of a passenger train at the site of an accident in Khatauli, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, India on August 20, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi
Railway workers repair the tracks next to derailed coaches of a passenger train at the site of an accident in Khatauli, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, India on August 20, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

The Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe is in India to inaugurate the prohibitively expensive ‘Bullet Train’ project between the Indian cities of Mumbai and Ahmedabad, at a time when the Indian Railways are reeling under a spate of accidents. Japan has struggled to export the ‘Shinkasen‘ for years, lobbying with the US, among others. India is now its first international buyer.

The estimated $17 billion (Rs1.1 trillion) Mumbai-Ahmedabad High Speed Rail (MAHSR) project comes at a time when critics feel that the money could have gone towards improving basic safety and services. The Indian Railways are critical to the Indian economy and is considered a political hot potato.

Unsustainable costs

The expected cost of the tickets is expected to make it unsustainable, even though Railways Minister Piyush Goyal promises to make the high-speed train journey affordable to the common public.

The money to be spent on MAHSR could have been earmarked for upgrading the safety of the fourth largest railway network in the world. A spate of derailments during the past three weeks had alarmed millions of train travelers and forced the federal government to sack some top railway officials and move Railways Minister Suresh Prabhu, who had  offered to resign, to another ministry.

Since Mumbai’s crowded trains had been soft targets for terrorists, the bullet train project featuring 21 km of tunnel with seven kilometer going under sea at Thane Creek raises security and safety concerns, as well.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Japanese counterpart Abe jointly laid the foundation for MAHSR project at Sabarmati station in Ahmedabad on Thursday.

The 508-km rail track work for the project using Japanese ‘Shinkansen’ (bullet-train) technology is expected to be completed by 2022. The bullet train passing through 12 stations and running at 320 km per hour will cut travel time between Ahmedabad and Mumbai cities to two to three hours from seven hours. Mumbai, India’s financial capital has a large Gujarati population who travel often to the capital of their home state in Gujarat. Prime Minister Modi, a Gujarati, was the Chief Minister of the state before moving to the Center in May 2014. The inauguration comes months ahead of the state going to the polls.

The 10-car bullet train with a capacity of 750 people will carry 36,000 passengers per day. It will have 16 cars in future and 35 trains will run in one direction every day.

After commissioning of the project, 4,000 people are expected to get jobs for operation and maintenance of the high-speed line. It is likely to generate indirect jobs for 16,000 people.

Safety & hygiene challenges

The bullet train was among the promises given to voters by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) during the campaign for 2014 national elections. When Modi visited Japan in November last year, he traveled by bullet train from Tokyo to Kobe to visit a plant making cars for such trains.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pose in front of a Shinkansen bullet train before heading for Hyogo prefecture at Tokyo Station, on November 12, 2016. Photo: Kyodo/via Reuters

While dream projects like MAHSR will certainly help the rich move faster between cities, Indian Railways need to focus more on upgrading safety measures and facilities for millions of passengers in existing trains. Derailments were happening even after Goyal took office.

The minister has formulated the following plan to reduce accidents:

  • Replace rails on old and accident-prone tracks with those procured to lay new lines
  • Replace old couplings that join coaches with center-buffer couplers which can prevent pile-up of coaches during accidents
  • Replace all traditional train cars with Linke-Hoffman-Busch cars in a decade
  • Install anti-fog LED lights in train engines for safer operations during winter
  • Remove all unmanned level crossings by 2019

All these safety steps are easier said than done. Although railway budgets in the past had focused on passenger safety, accidents continued unabated with over 70 mishaps recorded since 2010.

The 2017 railway budget has proposed a safety fund of Rs 1 trillion to be spent over the next five years. But passenger safety depends on timely use of funds for track and signal upgrades and alertness of train drivers and signalers. Human error by railway staff and others like trespassers is blamed for many train accidents in India. Besides safety, food and cleanliness are a major concern for passengers. A recent official report said food served in stations and trains are unfit for human consumption.

Some of its key findings are:

  • No cleanliness and hygiene maintained at kitchens in railway stations and in pantry cars in trains
  • Impure water from tap used in preparation of food; uncovered waste bins and food stuff attract flies, rats and cockroaches
  • Contaminated and recycled food stuff found along with those whose shelf life has expired; unauthorized brands of water bottles sold.

Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) is planning to set up new kitchens and upgrade existing ones and bifurcate preparation and distribution of food. Meals for trains will be picked up from selected kitchens owned, operated and managed by IRCTC. Toilets remain dirty in most train cars. The situation may improve only if all the 55,000 train cars are fitted with 140,000 bio-toilets by 2019.

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