The foundation stone for the Bullet train project was laid down near Sabarmati railway station in Gujarat today. The first bullet train will leave the station in five years. But, before it becomes a reality, the railways has to overcome several obstacles.
With rising concerns over safety of trains in backdrop, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe today laid the foundation stone of the ambitious bullet train project at the Athletic Stadium in Ahmedabad.
The National High Speed Rail Corporation Limited (NHSRCL) will be undertaking the execution of the 508 km-long Mumbai-Ahmedabad High Speed Rail (MAHSR) project. The overall estimated cost of the Mumbai-Ahmedabad is Rs 1.1 lakh crore.
The bullet train project is expected to not only give a fresh outlook to the railways but also give impetus to the regional economy. But, the ambitious project faces several challenges.
Route design of the bullet train between Ahmedabad and Mumbai is major challenge for the railways. The railways does not own the continuous patch of the land on the route. It needs to acquire lands from the owners.
The route design involves identification of favourable gradient, density of population, nature of settlement and environmental assessment. If the route passes through high density settlement areas or urban centres, it would necessitate pulling down of buildings involving possibility of destruction of heritage structures. Land acquisition in urban areas may be followed by litigation which may delay the project.
The decision of having railway stations and halts of trains including superfast trains has been subject to political considerations in the country. Several super-fast trains were slowed down to increase the number of stoppages to accommodate political constituencies. There are a number of examples of this in northern and eastern parts of the country.
The stations and stoppages for the bullet trains have not yet been decided. But, there are talks in the railways ministry suggesting that there may be a maximum of 10 stopping stations for the bullet trains.
The 10 stations on the Ahmedabad-Mumbai route are, Sabarmati (where foundation stone was laid today), Anand, Vadodara, Bharuch, Surat, Bilimora, Vapi, Boisar, Virar and Thane.
If the bullet train stops at all these 10 stations, it will take almost three hours (2.58 hours) in reaching Mumbai from Ahmedabad. The other proposal is to have just two stoppages between Ahmedabad and Mumbai at Vadodara and Surat. If the bullet train stops at only two stations, it will travel the distance between Ahmedabad and Mumbai in two hours.
Land acquisition has been a controversial issue in the country. The land acquisition laws, in cases of major projects, have resulted in delayed acquirement of land and plethora of litigations.
The amended land acquisition law is pending before the Rajya Sabha as the Opposition parties stalled it in 2015 objecting to doing away with mandatory social impact assessment and consent clauses (not less than 70 per cent).
Though, the railways has said that the project would require acquisition of only about 825 hectares of land along over 500 km between Ahmedabad and Mumbai.
The railways, further, said that the bullet train would run 92 per cent of the route on elevated tracks. About six per cent of the bullet train route will run through tunnel in the hilly regions while the remaining two per cent will be on the ground.
Railway Minister Piyush Goyal has advanced the deadline of the bullet train project by a year from August 15, 2023 to August 15, 2022 to match the date with the launch of New India mission of the Narendra Modi government. Though, officially the 2023-deadline remains on paper.
But, the issues of land acquisition, finalising route design and laying down of tracks through hilly areas, across rivers and passing through some of the densely populated regions make the deadline look ambitious.
The railways has not yet finalised the fares for bullet trains with officials saying that it is premature to discuss at this stage. However, the department has finalised the categories of seats for the bullet trains - executive and economy. The economy class fares are likely to be comparable with the AC-II tier pricing for the Rajdhani Express trains.
The ticket fare also involves profitability of the bullet train projects. Comparisons are being drawn from the metro train projects of Delhi, Bangalore, Mumbai and Lucknow. None of the metro train projects are overtly profitable.
But, the railways is hopeful of setting a better example. The railways expects that in the initial years, the bullet trains on the Amhedabad-Mumbai route would be carrying 1.6 crore passengers annually.
The railways will be operating 35 bullet trains initially. The number of bullet trains will be increased to 105 by 2053. The department expects that by 2050, the bullet trains will have around 1.6 lakh commuters daily.
Japanese loan is to be repaid by 2067 and the railways hope that by 2050, the bullet trains would be making profit. Japan has extended a low interest loan of Rs 88,000 crore to be repaid over next 50 years. There is a moratorium of first 15 years for repayment of the Japanese loan, which would be repaid over the next 35 years at 0.1 per cent interest.
The Indian Railways has been in news in recent times for all the wrong reasons. The Ministry of Railways saw a change of minister following a series of train accidents.
The change at the ministerial level has not yielded immediate results as far as train accidents are concerned. Hours before Railway Minister Piyush Goyal made the announcement about laying down of foundation stone of the bullet train project near Sabarmati railway station in Gujarat, a Rajdhani Express train derailed at New Delhi railway station.
The Indian railways has witnessed nearly 590 train accidents in the last five years. A majority of them, 53 per cent, were caused by derailment of the trains. In many cases, the tracks were found lacking proper maintenance and upkeep.
Japan's bullet train has the annual average of less than 1 minute delay with 100 per cent safety. To emulate that in India will be the biggest challenge for the Indian railways.