Now that Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe have inaugarated bullet train project, there is a lot of questions being asked. Yes many are genuine questions. Is the project worth it at a cost of 110000 crore rupees covering a distance of 500 km? Critic like Mr. Akaar Patel argue that there are so many trains (~200), great air connectivity, and a 6 lane expressway between Ahmedabad and Mumbai. According to report to become viable, the train has to carry approx. 100000 passengers daily. So why Bullet train?
Bullet train has minimal impact on Indian rail financing : The bullet train is likely to cost around 110000 crore rupees. Approximately 88000 crore rupees out of 110000 crore rupees, of the project will be financed by Japan at a nominal interest of 0.1% to be paid over fifty years. Spread over 50 years, India will have to pay 1700 crore per year plus interest (@0.1%) per year. The remaining expenditure of 30000 crore if spread over five years, will cost exchequer around 6000 crore per year. So in effect, bullet train has miniscule effect on Indian railway financing, which has a budgetary allocation of Rs. 55000 crore in 2017 -18, with 20,000 crore set aside address passenger safety related issues.
Bullet train has no bearing on safety issues of Indian rail : It has been argued that Indian railway is plagued by inefficiency, poor punctuality, poor hygine, frequent accidents and generalised poor safety record. So it is a valid argument that instead of spending on luxury items like a bullet train, Indian railway should address more mundane issues. As discussed above, if anything, bullet train project will not drain finances of Indian railway . Issues like safety, punctuality, hygiene etc are addressed by Indian railways separately. Let me look at two points here :
Railway is a public transport which is subsidised by government to fulfil its obligations to society. Yet railway needs money to address myriad issues it faces, including passenger safety. At least for a decades railway passenger fare has remained frozen, on the other hand number of trains introduced have increased. This may have impact on rail passenger safety due to impact on track maintenance.
- According to experts, a minimum of 2 hours at regular interval is needed for track maintenance. In busy routes, say Delhi – Kolkata, such interval is less than 20 min. As a result maintenance work has been affected.
- If trains are deliberately delayed, to maintain tracks then it may lead to loss of punctuality. Managers and administrators allow passage of trains over tracks that have not been maintained adequately.
- Rail accidents due to various causes have come down over the years. The number of derailments remain a problem. Out of a total of 1,14,907 km track in the country, 4,500 km should be renewed annually. In 2015-16, of the 5,000 km of track length due for renewal, only 2,700 km of track length was targeted to be renewed.
- Even though we agree railway fare is subsidised to help fulfil social commitment, let us compare fare of Indian rail and British Rail. So next time we criticise Indian railways for service, we should remember the numbers. Travel from Delhi to Kolkata, a distance of 1500 Km, costs around Rs. 3000 in an AC 2 Tier coach of superfast Duronto express. We get refreshments, lunch/dinner and breakfast / snack as part of fare. By contrast, a distance of London to Glasgow is 500 Km, costs around 150 pounds (roughly 15000 rupees). One has to buy snacks / meals from ones own pocket. Did this affect rail safety, it may appear so. So Indian raiway is heavily subsidised. Why not remove subsidy and pour on rail safety, speed and punctuality?
Bullet train may actually indirectly improve rail safety? Many non viable trains can be phased out, if people take liking for bullet train. More time will be available for track maintenance.
Why put all eggs in one basket?
If we go beyond routine utilatarian arguments and look slightly beyond, we must appreciate that every country and society needs options. It is upto people to decide whether they avail those options or not. Take for example of travel between Delhi and Kolkata. A few years before Duronto express was introduced. Not one, but two. One for Howrah and one for Sealdah. One coould always argue what was the need? There were two Rajdhani express trains, and many other mail and express trains. Not to mention, there were at least five airlines operating between two cities – Air India, Jet, Indigo, Spice Jet, Go Air, Vistara. Today, we do not get ticket in any superfast train unless booked well in advance. People who used to travel by regular trains have moved up into superfast trains because it cut travel time. Given time bullet train may be similarly adopted by public. If it lower travel time from six hours to two hours, why not?
Many have argued that bullet train will cost more than air ticket. Railway minister has said ticket for Ahmedabad to Mumbai will be around Rs. 3000. It should be remembered that for an one hour air travel, one has to reach airport at least two hours before. So infact one is spending three hours to fly. If the time becomes comparable or less at same price, people may opt for bullet train.
Bullet train not at the expense of education, healthcare, and other social spending
It has been said that Bullet train costs higher than Indian education budget. In India, children at the age of two are malnourished, have stunted growth, have poor intellectual ability. All these arguments are true. These issues have been there before bullet train arrived in India. Improvement in social welfare did not happen because of lack of funding, but for poor administration and accountability?
In the name of public transport, everyone knows what kind of infrastructure that was created. Railway stations used to reek with smell of human excreta. Public toilets were unusable. Public transport buses had godawful design. An able bodied male will find it difficult to board, forget about women, elderly and sick.
If public funding of social welfare should remain the topmost priority, then India must gt out of space research. Does anyone remember in initial days how much public funding was needed for the organisation to arrive a the stage where it is now. Space research has no direct bearing on public health, education, sanitation etc etc.
Only a shortsighted person pits one activity of government against the other. Like interim prime minister of India, Chaudhuri Charan Singh, had stopped preparation of India for Asian Games of 1982. Only after Mrs. Indira Gandhi came back to power, the activity was resumed. Cancellation would have brought bad name to India as a host of an international event. Many intangible benefits accrued that cannot be counted in monetary terms. For example, expossure to international athletes, creation of an awareness to sports, and availability of sports infrastructure. Similarly, bullet train infrastructure will be an Indian asset. Indian engineers and technicians will learn how Japanese work and think and their dedication to work. All these will be good for India.