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A critical overview of the Indian Shinkansen

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The Shinkansen is one of the most reputed and reliable train systems in the world. Shinkansen is Japanese for ‘New Trunk Line’ & English for ‘Bullet Train’. It has established a record for being punctual, clean and insanely efficient leading to it arguably becoming Japan’s lifeline much like how the Delhi metro and Mumbai local are lifelines for their respective cities.

Recently, India and Japan have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to open a similar system in India connecting Ahmedabad to Mumbai, at a cost of nearly Rs. 1 lakh crore which will entirely be financed by the Japanese government. Moreover, an interest rate of 0.1% will be levied by the Japanese government which along with the principal amount can be paid up to 50 years after India gets the system up and running.

A Special training school to manage High Speed Rail (HSR) too will come up in the city of Vadodara. It will reduce the travel time between the two cities by over 5 hours, which means one can now cover the distance in under 3 hours travelling at a speed of over 300 km/h. Apart from reducing vehicular pollution, road congestion, snarling traffic jams and unjustified passenger waiting times, the train will usher in a system built on professionalism, reliability, responsiveness and transparency.

All this looks and feels great. But then again, the picture isn’t as rosy as it appears. Going by the fact that India will have to pay back the loan with interest which may cross Rs 1.5 lakh Crore easily, the amount of foreign debt that India will generate is enormous. Moreover, there have been close to 586 train accidents in India in the last 5 years alone. 53% accidents were due to rail derailments. To ensure that the Shinkansen’s ‘Zero Safety Record’ remain spotless; many technical and human safeguards need to be put in place.

Just because Shinkansen’s safety and security aren’t faulty in Japan, that doesn’t means that the same can be said for India given that the topography, forest cover and socio-economic factors are quite different in the latter. Just to give an example, there are close to 4000 unmanned rail crossings which results in a huge number of casualties. Shockingly, people even resort to stealing railway sleepers and Pandrol clips to sell in the black market. The Indian government needs to ensure that safety and security in and around the Indian Shinkansen is clearly addressed.

Moreover, the expected fare of the Indian Shinkansen would be approx. Rs. 5000. One can get a plane ticket booked for the same route in 3000 Rs. So, going by the cost benefit analysis, India’s Shinkansen needs to work out a more robust business model that would not burden the common citizen as well as the India’s exchequer and generate respectable profits. Going by the fact that India’s per capita income may likely touch Rs. 1 lakh by the 2018 fiscal, this may not be prove to be a problem but still affordable and efficient transport is on everyone’s mind. Also, going by the fact that bullet train cannot become a part of urban rapid transit system in a short time is another major drawback that needs to be carefully thought about. If last mile connectivity can’t be ensured, then India’s Shinkansen is nothing less than a white elephant.

Coming to on-board catering services, the Indian Railways faced a major embarrassment. Recently, in May 2017, in response to a RTI filed by activist Ajay Bose, food items were sold at 10 times their normal MRP in Central Railways zone, the burden of which fell on passengers in the end. Even the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) remarked in a recent report that after extensive survey of 74 selected stations and 80 trains, it was found that catering facilities and sanitary hygiene were in a deplorable state. The Indian Shinkansen needs to keep in mind that if food is served on board, it needs to be of good quality and not just a shoddy affair.

Going by these major drawbacks in existing rail infrastructure, the idea of deploying bullet train in India is still questionable. Only if India’s Shinkansen can set a precedent for awesome management, corruption free work culture & humaneness towards passengers to name a few, much like what the Delhi metro under ‘Metro Man’ E. Sreedharan achieved can the experiment be called a success. Until then, India’s bullet train is akin to similar to taking a bullet to the head. 

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