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India’s bullet train faces 5-year delay: High costs, Japan firms not so keen

The Indian Express has learnt that the Railways now expects the project to be commissioned fully by October 2028, instead of the original timeline of December 2023.

Written by Avishek G Dastidar | New Delhi |
Updated: September 6, 2020 7:16:40 am
Workers at the Sabarmati hub of the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project, in Ahmedabad. (Express/file photo)

FROM LOW participation by Japanese companies to tenders cancelled because of steep rates quoted by bidders, India’s first bullet train project is stuck on multiple fronts — and staring at a delay of around five years.

The Indian Express has learnt that the Railways now expects the project to be commissioned fully by October 2028, instead of the original timeline of December 2023. The revised timeline has been estimated after talks with the Japanese team that is working on the project, sources said.

“We can maybe compress the timeline to some extent if all the outstanding issues are resolved quickly. But in such a complex technical project, the timeline cannot be compressed to a great extent,” a senior official told The Indian Express.

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The 508-km Mumbai-Ahmedabad High Speed Rail Corridor is being constructed with an 80 per cent loan from Japan at 0.1 per cent interest and a 15-year moratorium, with the system to be built mostly with Japanese technology on the lines of the Shinkansen.

India had been keen on opening at least a portion of the project by August 2022, to coincide with 75 years of Independence. And the Railways officially maintains that the original timeline is still in place.

“As per the feasibility study, the target date for the completion of the project is December 2023,” said a spokesperson of the National High Speed Rail Corporation Limited (NHSRCL), the implementing agency, which was set up in 2016 with equity participation by the Rail Ministry and the Maharashtra and Gujarat governments.

However, The Indian Express has learnt that the tender for the most crucial section — a 21-km underground stretch, including a seven-km section under the sea near Mumbai — did not find Japanese participation and could not be finalised in the first attempt earlier this year.

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Besides, in many of the 11 tenders originally meant to be executed by Japanese companies, the prices quoted were up to 90 per cent higher than estimates indicated by the project consultants. India has refused to accept the huge escalation, it is learnt.

The construction of the 21-km stretch alone would require large, advanced boring machines that would employ a special technical method to safeguard a flamingo sanctuary nearby in Maharashtra — this would require over 60 months to complete, as per latest assessments.

The other area of concern is procurement of rolling stock. As per the Japanese, only Kawasaki and Hitachi are eligible to supply the trains. However, it was found out that both companies could jointly submit only one bid, leading to a single-tender situation, which the Indian side wanted to either avoid or a call to be taken “at the highest level”, sources said.

A Joint Committee Meeting between India and Japan, which could not take place earlier this year before the Covid outbreak, is expected to resolve the outstanding issues as they are beyond the purview of the Ministry or the implementing agency, sources said.

“A clearer picture on the possible delay will emerge only after the next Joint Committee Meeting between the two countries,” an official said.

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Sources also said that the stepping down of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe due to health reasons will not officially affect the deliberations. However, they acknowledged that it was Abe’s personal rapport with Prime Minister Narendra Modi that helped push the project in many critical areas.

According to the original feasibility study, work was supposed to have started by December 2017. But currently, only about 100 hectares of the required 430 hectares have been acquired in Maharashtra. In Gujarat, owing to active support of the state government, the process to acquire close to 1,000 hectares will be complete by the year-end.

The Railways has also taken a policy decision to allow Indian companies to participate in tenders for civil construction, including the 21-km tunnel stretch and tracks. Three critical civil work tenders for the Mumbai station, and other large sections of the project, are scheduled to be opened in September.

Referring to the progress achieved so far, the NHSRCL spokesperson said: “About 63 per cent land has been acquired for the project and tenders for civil works for 345 km out of 508 km alignment (68 per cent of civil works) are already floated. This includes six stations (including one underground station in Mumbai). The works related to utility diversion are progressing well and the construction of Sabarmati passenger hub in Sabarmati has also started. The hostel building of High Speed Training Institute (which is presently being used for Covid patients) and training tracks in Vadodara are also completed.”

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