Trivedi's exit may put the bullet train project on back-burner

Trivedi's exit may put the bullet train project on back-burner

Former railway minister Dinesh Trivedi was seen as someone who had a head over his shoulders and one who could bring perspective to the development of the railways.

He had diagnosed that the failure to increase the fares for many years had hurt the railways badly, especially its modernisation and safety programmes.

He also wanted to give a push to India’s long-pending dream of introducing bullet trains and in this connection, had met the visiting Japanese prime minister Yoshihiko Noda in New Delhi on December 27 last to seek Japan’s help to make it a reality.

But, Dinesh Trivedi failed to reckon with his tempermental leader, Mamata Bannerjee, who can’t see anything beyond cheap electoral politics. When Trivedi presented the railway budget on March 14 proposing moderate increase in fares, Mamata did not rest until he and his proposal were dumped unceremoniously.

Mukul Roy who replaced Trivedi, promptly rolled back the fares. While Trivedi had estimated to generate additional revenues of Rs 6,500 crore from fare hikes to modernise the railways and increase rail safety, Roy’s reversal would let the railways generate only Rs 1,000 crore more.

With reduced revenues and the shadow of safety issues still hanging, Trivedi’s plan to bring in the bullet trains is in a limbo.

Under Trivedi, the Indian Railways had recently fast-tracked the project to run bullet trains in six select corridors and readied the Cabinet note for setting up of a high-speed rail authority.

The railways officials had ‘intense negotiations’ with the visiting Japanese delegation, seeking their cooperation for introduction of a high-speed train that can run at 300 km per hour. Trivedi believed that Japan, which runs Shinkansen (the Japanese name for bullet trains), could show India the way “as both nations face a similar situation as far as population density and station-to-station distances are concerned”.

He had also been impressed that during the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan in March 2011, the bullet trains suffered no casualties as their in-built anti-quake brakes came to timely rescue.

High-speed train corridor

India has been thinking of bullet trains for a while now. In 2009, Lalu Prasad talked of introducing a high-speed train corridor in India, and took a ride on the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto at 340 kmph. Shinkansen has over four decades of flawless safety record of operations as far as bullet trains go. In fact, among the operational bullet train systems worldwide, Japan’s Shinkansen and France’s TGV trains are the most successful.

Spain has the Talgo and recently a Spanish-Saudi consortium won a Saudi high-speed (300 kmph) contract “to equip, operate and maintain for 12 years the 450 km Haramain high-speed line currently under construction between Mecca, Jeddah and Medina.” The Talgo has a long association with the United States. President Obama has cited Spain as a country with high-speed railway systems worth emulating.

But the Indian Railways is no Shinkansen, TGV or Talgo, and is considered one of the most corrupt government organisations in the country, according to the Central Vigilance Commission’s annual report for 2010. The CVC report revealed that “every third official penalised for corruption in the country belongs to the railways.”

India, with one of the largest conventional rail networks in the world, is beset with the same kind of problems that ambitious China is grappling with currently in its quest for high speed. If cutting corners, corruption, mishaps, cover-ups, and technical faults have raised big safety concerns about China’s operational bullet trains, India’s biggest problem is the massive public trust deficit in its rail networks considered ‘dangerous’ and potentially fatal.

China’s experience with running bullet trains has been tragic, though a spokesman of the Chinese ministry of railways had said on July 7 last year that China's high-speed rail technologies are “much better than those used by Japan's Shinkansen”.

But on July 23 last year, a bullet train crashed into another high-speed train in Wenzhou in east China's Zhejiang province, killing over 40 people, injuring 200 and triggering widespread public anger. For the sake of this story, we would stick to terra firma only and not discuss high-speed Maglev trains which use magnetic levitation to make the trains ‘fly’ along a guideway a few inches above the guideway surface, by using magnets to create both lift and thrust.

China recently said it would punish a former railway minister and 53 officials following a long-awaited investigation into the Wenzhou crash. In India, every time a train mishap happens, a blame game ensues between different authorities and officials. Adding to the mess is the fact that political compulsions of railway ministers make them add more trains on routes without upgrading of tracks and other equipment needed to bear the extra load, thus seriously raising safety issues.

Admittedly, China's rail safety record is better than India’s. Journalist Lloyd Lofthouse has compared the numbers going back to 2007 for India, China, and the US. He found that out of the 177 rail accidents during that period, 20 per cent of them actually occurred in the US, 15 per cent in India, and only 4 per cent in China. But Lofthouse found that the death toll in India was far greater.

With Trivedi stepping down, safety concerns being raised in several quarters, and ways to generate more funds for development of the railways have been put on the back-burner. So also an ‘elitist’ project like the bullet train.

(The writer is a Delhi-based journalist)

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