Bullet Train: Do we need it?

Bullet Train: Do we need it?
As a railway buff, I love the technology story of the bullet train. However, it is not appropriate for India, in the current configuration as negotiated by Prime Minister Narendra and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe for the Mumbai-Ahmedabad high-speed rail line, for which they laid the foundation stone on September 14.

The Shinkansen bullet trains were introduced in Japan in 1964 and traversed the 500-plus kilometre distance between Tokyo with Osaka, the two biggest metropolises in Japan, in just 3 hours and 10 minutes. Japan took a giant step from slow Meter gauge trains to a new generation of futuristic locomotives that put it in an exclusive niche among railways globally. The first comparable trains elsewhere would arrive in Europe only in 1985, 21 years after the Shinkansen was launched.

The Shinkansen was disruptive technology at its best. Contemporary aircraft were no match for it as they used noisy, fuel-guzzling jet engines, and airports required large swathes of land, which the Japanese people resisted. The Shinkansen was an immediate and sustained success, crossing the 100 million passenger mark in less than 3 years and one billion passengers by 1976. Japan is highly urbanised, and the Shinkansen trains depart at intervals of a few minutes, connecting densely populated cities. However, in the more than 50 years of its existence, the superfast track mileage of the basic spine of the Shinkanshen has increased only five-fold, from 515 km in 1964 to 2,764 km currently.

With a few exceptions, super-express trains worldwide are currently proving to be economically non-feasible, due to the strides made by aviation technology over the last 50 years.

Today’s turbofan-propelled aircraft have high payloads, better fuel economy and are quiet, thus being much more economical than greenfield bullet train projects. The Japanese never had to consider competition from the aviation sector when they initiated the bullet train project. Clearly, Indian bullet trains are never going to be economical compared to air travel. A feasibility report by IIM-Ahmedabad indicates that the bullet train will have to run 100 trips a day to break even.

Much is made of the bullet train being largely paid for by a generous loan from the Japanese, at marginal interest rates and repayable over a half century. While at first sight these terms seem too good to be rejected, a closer look tempers the euphoria. All the technology is going to be procured entirely from Japanese suppliers. So, at least in the short term, there is not going to be any technology transfer. The Yen will come in, and go back into Japanese hands. Even if interest rates are low, the principal has to be returned in Yen and the exchange rate risk is entirely to be borne by India. While fluctuations of the exchange rates over 50 years cannot be predicted, going by experience, it is not unreasonable to assume that it may add a 10% cost to the return of the principal, rendering to naught the negligible interest rate offered.

Given these facts, there is not the slightest doubt that our government is rushing headlong into buying a white elephant. The fact that the elephant is being paid for by a loan given to us by its seller does not change the mathematics of profitability. It only transfers the responsibility to pay for our indulgences onto our unsuspecting children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.

What India is doing right now is to pick up inappropriate, non-competitive and expensive technology in a clumsy effort to show to the world that we have arrived. Speaking of the ripple effect of industries being rejuvenated in the 12 cities that will be connected by the train is wishful thinking. Are all these places languishing today for the sole reason that they lack a bullet train to connect them? If money of this kind is available from any investor at these rates, it is best used to improve India’s creaking railway system and build state-of-the-art city metro rail systems. The consequent relieving of congestion will spur a much larger order of economic growth.

Yet, even though the bullet train is a financial disaster, this is not to reject all technology; India should be at the forefront of transportation technology.

Up to the 1960s and 70s, the desire to be faster spurred countries to innovation, regardless of the costs involved. Thus, we saw bullet trains, the Concorde supersonic passenger aircraft and its Russian equivalent, the Tupulev TU 144, and the English Channel-crossing SRN4 hovercraft, being showcased not only as transportation icons but as symbols of nationalism and collaborative endeavour. Yet, they have all disappeared today. Most of these machines did not ever make money, and others, like the hovercraft, swiftly disappeared when competing modes of transport took over. The reason why pure speed is no longer smart is because the incremental gain in speed beyond 350 kmph is gained at huge incremental cost. It takes more and more energy to push air out of the way when one goes faster. Clearly, the romance with pure speed is now behind us, sacrificed at the altar of economics.

India should make a bold move to disrupt surface transport in the 21st century, just as Japan did in the 60s. For example, there is great potential in exploring hyperloops -- transportation pods that run inside a vacuum tunnel, touching aircraft-like speeds with greater economy and less pollution.

India has proven to the world that it is capable of breathtaking scientific advances – our Mars mission, which cost less than a Hollywood movie, is an example. We have a huge pool of scientific and engineering talent that could work on cutting edge, disruptive technology. National pride will be served better if India leapfrogs to the front, much in the manner they have done in Space technology, and brings to fruition cutting-edge transportation solutions such as hyperloops. This is a better option than wasting money, even if we are blowing up a foreign loan, to buy a useless, expensive foreign trinket.

(The writer is a former IAS officer and a railway enthusiast)

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