India takes a technological leap of faith by flagging off the bullet train project

Deal set.
Deal set.
Image: Kyodo/via Reuters
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

India is finally getting ready for a bullet train.

The country, used to its creaky behemoth called Indian Railways, has for long been fascinated by the high-speed Japanese trains. It was even part of Narendra Modi’s electoral promise in the run up to the 2014 national polls.

On Sept. 14, Japanese prime minister (PM) Shinzo Abe laid the foundation stone for a bullet-train stretch between Ahmedabad in Gujarat and Mumbai in Maharashtra. ”I hope to travel by the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train next time I am here,” Shinzo Abe said following a ceremony in Sabarmati, Ahmedabad.

The $16.9 billion project will mostly be funded through a 50-year loan from Japan at a 0.1% annual interest rate. On completion by August 2022, it is expected to cut down the 500-kilometre journey between the two cities from eight hours today to three hours.

The route will have 12 stations and will include a 7km under-sea tunnel. Indian Railways will need about 825 hectares of land for the project. The trains will have a top speed of up to 350km per hour, more than double that of India’s fastest trains today.

The project is likely to generate some 1.5 million new jobs in the country and the government is firming up plans to set up a similar project between New Delhi and Amritsar via Chandigarh. Modi and Abe also laid the foundation stone at Vadodara for an institute to train around 4,000 people for the project.

India will be the first country to import the Shinkansen bullet-train technology after Taiwan.

The project, apart from aiming to boost India’s infrastructure sector, is also being seen as a way to leapfrog its transport technology which is still largely obsolete, despite the sector’s size.

Many have questioned it for its cost-benefit ratio, though.

“This is not the right time for bullet trains in the country but there is a need for improving existing facilities, speed, infrastructure, and comforts of passengers,” E Sreedharan, known as India’s Metro Man and among the country’s best-known railway engineers, said last year.

“I was questioned when will India have bullet train? Now, when the project is being launched, they are again questioning what is the need,” Modi said on Sept. 14.

Yet, others have cited its long-term benefits in support.

“We’d see an entire ecosystem come up around manufacturing of locomotives and rolling stock for future bullet trains, as well as the entire component value-chain, with thousands of suppliers,” a report in The Times of India newspaper said.

Set up in 1853, the 164-year-old Indian Railways is the world’s fourth-largest railway network and India’s largest employer with 1.4 million people. It operates 19,000 trains—12,000 passenger and 7,000 freight—daily, raking in a little over Rs1.4 lakh crore ($20 billion) annually.

However, it has been bogged down by mismanagement, government apathy, obsolete technology, and an abysmal safety record over the years. Meanwhile, heavily subsidised passenger fares have choked revenue. Modi is now looking to change all that, promising to invest over Rs8.5 lakh crore ($134 billion) to modernise the railway infrastructure.