The High Speed Railway (HSR) project inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe, on Thursday, must be seen in context. In 1853, India’s first railway train covered the 34 kilometres between Bombay and Thane in about an hour. More than 160 years later, the average speed of the Indian Railways is just about two times that historic journey. At 60 km/hour, the average speed of the Indian Railways is among the slowest in the world. Gatiman, India’s fastest train, attains a top speed of 160 km per hour. But if things go according to the government’s plan, in 2022, the HSR at its peak will operate at more than twice this speed. It will travel between Mumbai and Ahmedabad in two to three hours, slashing the 508-km journey by about six hours.
For the Indian Railways, which has been dogged by a plethora of problems — including those related to safety and punctuality — the HSR’s cutting-edge Shinkansen locomotive technology could be a game-changer.
A symbol of post-war Japanese industrial rejuvenation, the Shinkansen has a well-earned reputation for reliability. Since it was launched in 1964, the train has not had a single accident and its average delay is less than a minute. The carbon footprint of a passenger travelling by a HSR train is about the fifth of an air traveller.
The government estimates that the HSR will attract more than 35,000 commuters every day by 2023, enabling the railway system to win back the creamy layer of travellers from the aviation sector. But apart from diverting road and air travellers, the HSR — like all efficient transport systems — could generate a new class of passengers as well. Unlike air travel, it will serve smaller centres, many of them tier II and tier III cities, en-route, providing a multiplier effect to the economy. The government estimates that the project itself will generate about 40,000 jobs. The technology transfer that Japan has agreed to is expected to boost the government’s Make in India programme.
But the Indian Railways needs upgradation at several levels. According to the Anil Kakodkar Committee Report, submitted in 2012, nearly 19,000 km of tracks are in desperate need of modernisation. In June, the Minister of State for Railways, Rajen Gohain, admitted in Parliament that more than 50 per cent of railway accidents are due to derailments. While the government is justifiably upbeat about the HSR project, it should not lose sight of the other problems of the Indian Railways.