Does India Need Bullet Trains?


Ever since the NDA government took charge at the centre in 2014, the buzz about high-speed bullet trains has been growing louder.  With the arrival of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in India, today, the country looks forward to a great step forward in the translation of this dream into a reality. The Indo-Japanese joint venture that will make India’s first bullet train possible is set to take off tomorrow (September 15, 2017). The two Prime Ministers will lay the foundation stone for the bullet train infrastructure project that is likely to cost about over INR 1.10 lakh crore (for the first link alone). Japan has promised to extend a soft loan covering over 80 percent of the cost to India. The project is a collaboration between Government of India owned Indian Railways and the Japanese firm Shinkansen Technology. Apart from transfer of technology, Japan’s loan repayment terms too have been very mild. India is to repay the amount over the next five decades and the interest shall be a meager 0.1 percent. The very first bullet train is set to cover the route between Mumbai, India’s financial capital, and Ahmedabad, the PM’s home state. This link is expected to be up and running by the year 2022, the 75th year of India’s Independence.

Need Vs. Necessity

All this excitement regarding the introduction of bullet trains in India now leads us to the most important question – Does India really need high-speed rail (HSR) or bullet trains?

There are a number of strong arguments and reasons which support the introduction of HSR in the country –

  • Indian railway boasts of one of the largest rail networks in the entire world. On an average day about 23.07 million passengers use Indian Railways for travel and commutation. Indian Railways also carries over 1.2 billion tonnes of freight (2013) each year. Given the stature of the organization it seems strange that HSR has not yet been introduced in the country.
  • The introduction of new technology and capacity building is one of the best gains that India will achieve from introduction of bullet trains. Hundreds of Indian Railways officials are now set to be trained in Japan and this learning is likely to be disseminated through the new Railway University which is to become operational very soon.
  • The introduction of HSR is a key facility that is likely to cut down on time and cost of travel across key financial sectors or links. This in turn will make way for more investments and enterprises and generally boost “Make in India” initiatives.
  • One of the key concerns in recent times is the high rate of unemployment in the country. Introduction of bullet trains will generate employment by the thousands – particularly in cities such as Pune, Indore, Chennai, and NCR where the components are likely to be manufactured.
  • HSR is a highly energy efficient mode of travel. At a time when India is growing serious about its green energy goals, HSR comes as a big boon. It cuts down on power needs and ATF fuel as well.

While each of these is a compelling reason by itself, there are a number of reasons why critics have been opposing the introduction of HSR in the country –

  • The high cost implications of bullet trains in a country like India automatically translates into depriving other high priority projects and areas of prospective funding. INR 1.10 lakh crore is likely to go into the Mumbai – Ahmedabad link alone. This could have been utilized in creating more education and employment opportunities, generation of clean energy, women’s welfare, farmer’s loan waivers and other such areas.
  • The aviation sector in India is highly developed and low cost airlines are aplenty. Most of the middle class travelers prefer to buy cheap discounted air tickets these days. Given this scenario, introduction of high speed bullet trains seems redundant.
  • The cost of setting up bullet trains across the country is an exceptionally high one. Apart from the financial implications, it also involves displacement of settlements and environmental damages – effects that have not yet been explored or studied adequately.
  • There is also the very real fear that bullet trains may become an elitist facility. If the tickets are not priced judiciously, the facility (constructed at a very high cost) may still remain unavailable to the masses.

If HSR bullet trains must or must not be introduced is no longer a choice. We may, however, take a closer look at the downside of its implementation and try to smooth out any disadvantages.