Opportunity & Challenges in India’s First High-Speed Rail Project

Japan, which has matured in evolving such technologies and is seeking opportunities for investments, is providing a loan that would cover 80% of the estimated project cost at 0.5% interest, with a 15-year moratorium followed by a 35-year payback period.

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Bullet Train
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Overview

The 534-km Rs 01 trillion Mumbai-Ahmedabad High-Speed Rail project that will operate trains with average speeds of 200-250kmph will be a game-changer in terms of inter-urban connectivity and establish India as a market for such technologies. Japan, which has matured in evolving such technologies and is seeking opportunities for investments, is providing a loan that would cover 80% of the estimated project cost at 0.5% interest, with a 15-year moratorium followed by a 35-year payback period. While it is of great value that the nation has both financial and technological support from Japan for building this line, multiple challenges need to be overcome, illustrated as under:

  1. Issues Related to Route design
  • Detailed Alignment Choice: Detailed alignment choice is one of the major concerns, especially when it is overground, keeping in view land acquisition challenges versus providing access to the population along the corridor. If the alignment goes closer to urban growth areas to provide access, there would be issues of land acquisition, pulling down buildings, the possibility of destroying heritage structures etc.
  • Location of Stations: The location of stations is an important issue to be addressed. Various questions relating to whether the stations should be the city centre connecting existing railway stations, or in an adjacent station, or periphery of an urban node need to be answered judiciously. 

The trade-offs are providing better access and connectivity versus costs due to land and structures. From a long-term point of view, being in the periphery of an urban node, apart from reducing costs, could help generate urban growth around the station and even in shifting the centre of gravity of the urban area. In the short run, however, traffic ramp-up will take time. This would be required to be mitigated through excellent feeder services. 

The specific location of the terminal station in Mumbai is still courting controversies. The Maharashtra government does not seem willing to give land in a major commercial growth node, as requested. Instead, the state government is suggesting that the station could be located in the land that belongs to the railways. This could have implications on the catchment at the Mumbai end.

  • Number of Stations: In general, for MAHSR, there would be a demand for more stations. While this will increase the catchment, it could reduce the average speed due to a higher number of stops. One way around this would be to have different service categories like fast (stopping at all stations) and super-fast (only at major cities). It should be noted that the bigger catchment will be from the smaller cities that may not have access to airports. For example, while an Ahmedabad-Mumbai passenger may still consider air a viable option, the high-speed train is a great boon for the Anand-Mumbai or Ahmedabad-Vapi passenger. Having stations with connectivity to airports like at Ahmedabad, Vadodara and Mumbai will increase catchment of long distance air passengers who could then connect to the cities in this corridor and vice-versa.
  1. Evacuation facilitation: At each station, it would be important to have fast and multiple means of evacuation, to increase the catchment and propensity to travel.
  1. To begin with, efficient bus services, as well as accessible parking lots for private vehicles, should be provided.
  2. In Mumbai and Ahmedabad, where metros are under construction, it would be important to provide seamless metro connectivity.
  3. At major stations, where passengers could move to other trains, the transfer must be seamless.
  1. Land Acquisition: This is a critical issue, especially where the alignment would veer off from existing railway lands. The challenges can be best addressed by the line going over the ground, where the actual acquisition would be limited to the footprint of the pillars. Designs would be required to be developed in such a way that the footprint is minimised. Experience from land acquisition for transmission lines and metro corridors would come in handy.
  1. Human Resource Development: It would be important to train a large number of Indian engineers and managers for design, construction and operations at standards that would be essential for high-speed rail, including for stringent safety standards. It would also be important to train Japanese senior management, who need to spend considerable time in India to train and oversee the required activity. The Japanese managers would need to be oriented towards Indian conditions and the prevalent professional culture. In recognition of this, as part of the project, a large training centre is being put up. Along the same lines, IIM Bangalore is setting up an India-Japan Study Center with the mission of improving India-Japan mutual understanding and complementary skill building in the domain of management including for infrastructure.
  1. Future Expansion: It would be useful to have a perspective on how the expansion of this line would happen. Once the proof of concept of High-Speed Rail is established, there would be demands for expansion. In an earlier proposal, the line was actually to go beyond Mumbai to Pune, but was not found to be viable initially. Such visioning would be useful in bringing greater support from the government of Maharashtra.

Introduction

In 2022, as India marks its 75th year of independence, Indians were expected to experience the thrill of a bullet train ride. But the railway minister recently said that the likely date for Ahmedabad-Mumbai high-speed rail project has been pushed back by several years—to 2026, perhaps. The project is entangled in land acquisition battles and construction delays.

Crucially, by 2026, only a 50 km stretch between Surat and Bilimora in Gujarat—a mere 10% of the overall 508-km corridor—is expected to be up and running. Pilot runs would commence on this stretch, with the train clocking a speed of 300 km per hour; much faster than any train currently operational in India, but far slower than the global benchmark for high-speed trains.

Mumbai-Ahmedabad High-Speed Rail (MAHSR)

The plan for the MAHSR corridor was first set into motion in 2013. In 2014, a study was commissioned, and the final report was submitted in July 2015 by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). The Japanese government also agreed to fund the project via loans offered at concessional rates. The Union cabinet approved the project in December 2015. An agreement was signed with Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). The project was inaugurated in 2017 and was scheduled for its first run in 2022.

It is the first and only approved bullet train till now. It will connect Gujarat’s capital with India’s financial capital, Mumbai. It will pass through three districts in Maharashtra, eight in Gujarat and will cut through Dadra and Nagar Haveli. National High-Speed Rail Corporation (NHSRCL) is the implementing agency of the project. So far, the NHSRCL has completed the final location survey and geotechnical investigation and has obtained the statutory clearances.

Other High-Speed Rail Projects

According to a report, the Union budget 2022-23 may announce a New Delhi to Varanasi high-speed rail corridor. A Mumbai-Nagpur corridor is also likely depending on the clarity with regard to funding. The NHSRCL is in the process of preparing detailed project reports for at least five more proposed corridors: Delhi – Ahmedabad, Delhi-Amritsar, Mumbai-Hyderabad, Chennai-Mysore and Varanasi-Howrah.

Importance of High-Speed Rail Projects (HSR) 

After the Metro train projects, the bullet train project is considered as a second transport revolution. The reasons can be detailed as under :

  • Global Experience: The HSR has an economic multiplier effect. Since the introduction of the first Shinkansen in Japan in 1964, high-speed trains have proven to be an undeniable technological, commercial and popular success. Many countries like the UK, France, Germany, Spain, China and, most recently, the US have adopted the technology.
  • Role of the trains in India’s development: In India, trains have played a significant role in shaping the growth of the domestic economy since the late-1800s. Currently, Indian Railways operates one of the largest rail networks in the world—transporting more than 22 million passengers a day and moving more than 1.2 billion tonnes of goods every year. The high-speed rail network, once in place, is expected to further catalyse India’s economic growth and act as a stimulus for the development of satellite towns.
  • Improve India’s GDP: According to a study conducted by the London School of Economics and Political Science and the University of Hamburg in 2008, cities that are connected to HSR systems tend to witness a rise in their gross domestic product (GDP) by at least 2.7 percentage points compared to their neighbours that do not have an HSR station. The reason for the differential was improved market access with faster and more efficient commuting.
  • Technological Revolution: The HSR corridor will pass via Thane creek in Mumbai, which is a protected sanctuary housing mangroves and a population of flamingos. In order to avoid disturbing this habitat, the rail corridor has been proposed to traverse through a 21 km tunnel, of which 7 km will be under the sea. Several new technologies are expected to be used for the first time in India to surmount this construction challenge. Similarly, Light detection and ranging (LiDAR) technology will also be deployed for the first time in a railway project in India.
  • Cleaner Transport Mode: According to the International Association of Railways (UIC), high-speed rail is eight times more energy-efficient than airplanes and four times more efficient than automobile use. It will also decrease greenhouse gas emissions and improve air quality.

The project is also expected to create a lot of employment opportunities, increase economic activity, boost productivity and improve mobility.

MAHSR: Various Challenges 

Challenges in Land Acquisition: Land acquisition has been completed in most stretches that fall within Gujarat and Dadra Nagar Haveli, especially after the Gujarat High Court dismissed a string of petitions filed by farmers. But the rail corporation is facing significant challenges in acquiring land in Maharashtra, especially in Palghar and Thane districts. In Palghar, the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 protects the Adivasi community’s access to land and resources as most of the land here belongs to tribal people and communities belonging to scheduled caste. Land acquisition, whether for a public or a private purpose, often requires prior community consent via the Gram Sabha. The villagers fear displacement and financial insecurity. An estimated 14,884 households stand to lose their land and over 37,000 trees are slated to be cut down.

Significant engineering Challenges: NHSRCL also has to tackle significant engineering challenges, particularly in the final leg of the corridor, which will enter Mumbai from under the sea.

Other Challenges: 

  • With the advent of new technologies like Hyperloop Transportation Technologies , which proposes making travel as fast as 760 miles per hour, investing a humongous capital on bullet trains seems like an outdated investment.
  • The Indian Railways is in a worrying state. There is a need to strengthen the present infrastructure of the railways. At this time, the operation and maintenance of HSR will pose many challenges even if it is privatised. 
  • A project report by the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad estimates that at least 1 lakh passengers at fares approximately Rs. 1,500 per 300 km would be required daily for the project to make investments even. Considering the low airfares in India, it is challenging. 
  • The estimated cost of MAHSR is Rs. 1.1 lakh crore, which is massively expensive. Though India receives funding from Japan (81%), the power demand and up-gradation of existing infrastructure will be more costly. Hence, India cannot afford such enormous public expenditure now, especially when India is facing the Omicron threat.

Steps required for speedy implementation of HSR projects in India

  1. The government has to understand that the water-forest-land is an asset for the Adivasi community, it is their identity and culture. Hence, the policymakers and administration should give priority to systematic, sustainable development work.
  2. State governments need to be actively involved in the land acquisition process to get clearances faster.
  3. Ideally, the Central government should complete the impediments of the MAHSR before announcing any other bullet train projects. This can help prevent of diversion of attention and resources, which usually slow things down.
  4. The government has to push for technology transfer of HSR. This is because there is no mention of the transfer of technology anywhere in the agreement.

The HSR projects will revitalise India’s smaller towns and cities by opening up avenues for mixed land use, tourism and business opportunities. Though India is ready for bullet trains, land acquisition policies and others are not ready to welcome the development. Hence, India needs to reform those policies that hinder the HSR projects.

Summary & Conclusion

Since the introduction of first Shinkansen in Japan in 1964, high-speed trains have proven to be an undeniable technological, commercial and popular success. Many countries since then have adopted the technology and invested in what today has become a vast network of high-speed rail lines. Most notable among them being countries like U.K, France, Germany, Spain, China and most recently U.S.A, Australia and South Africa among others. In India after a long wait of more than seven decades post-independence, the 508 km long first Mumbai-Ahmedabad High Speed Rail project is still underway, there are countries that have in the past adopted HSR and are now in the process of expansion because its efficiency resulted in a positive long-term spillover effect in the regions served by it.

Though, the opinion-makers may question the suitability of developing an expensive infrastructure such as HSR at a time when the world economy is unstable. But the silver lining is that by focusing on developing a project like this right now can reap long term socio-economic benefits that in turn can elevate India’s position as a stable and sustainable economic power in the times to come.

Below mentioned are some of the economic benefits India’s Bullet Train project can generate and with an overall impact on its people. 

The long-term economic impact of the HSR project

It has been observed globally that countries or cities that have HSR network are more competitive and are better positioned to attract tourism, businesses, jobs, and skilled workforce. Countries like Japan, Germany, France, UK, South Korea, USA and Russia that have successfully adapted the HSR technology and have seen an upsurge in their economic status. As a developing economy, India’s chances of matching up to these bigger economies can get a boost with the completion of Bullet Train project as it will not only put India at a higher pedestal of technology & connectivity but also open doors for more foreign investment, development of new businesses and enhanced lifestyle for many. 

  1. Travel Time: HSR world over have proven to be a great time saver. Because they are reliable and promise faster and efficient transportation of passengers, it helps them save time, energy and money. With the completion of the MAHSR project, the travel time between Mumbai and Ahmedabad will be brought down to under 02 hours, which otherwise by road is around 8-9 hrs (depending on the traffic situation) and by plane is 4-5 hrs (including time taken to reach the airport from the destination, check-in, boarding, total flight & landing time) right now. People who often commute between these two states for business or work purpose can this way reach their destination much faster, carry out their work and even return to their hometown in much lesser time and at lower cost. To top it, they can save some energy for the next day’s grind as well- all in a days’ time. Being stuck in traffic for longer hours adds stress to daily life that often leads to lower productivity. With ease of connectivity that the HSR project offers, people working along the belt of the corridor can take a sigh of relief.  Also, the money saved here can be pumped back in the businesses, which can in turn help boost the economic prospects of not just individuals but also that of the country’s overall economy.
  1. Free from weather constraints: In India, during monsoons water logging leads to traffic congestion and road blockages everywhere and being stranded on the road for hours becomes a norm. With people spending most of the time stranded on the roads, not being able to reach their destination on time, flight cancellations, train delays, meetings getting cancelled and other chaos especially in big metropolitan cities like Mumbai. All this leads to a loss of a lot of money not just for individuals or businesses but to overall economy as well.

Bullet train although, may not be the ultimate solution to dealing with the monsoon situation in the country and nor does it promise to provide answer to commute woes during monsoon but since it can operate in all weather conditions, it can indeed provide some relief in the traffic congestion situations during not just monsoon but any other weather problem like hail, storm etc.

HSRs generally, are not subject to road congestions so they operate on schedule every day without delay- especially during peak travel time or rush hours. A strong case for this has been built by Japanese Bullets Trains, which are globally known for their punctuality and known to run efficiently during all seasons. Such is the reputation of the trains that when a delay happens even by a matter of seconds, it makes for national headlines and apologies to the passengers are issued. It does help that the technology being used to lay the tracks, designing of the train and other matters related to its operations is world-class. Confidence can be drawn from the fact that a similar operational & management efficiency is expected in India with the completion of the project since it’s the same Japanese technology that will form the base of country’s first Bullet Train project. With more and more people reaching their destinations on time and without any hassle, it will become another reason for enhanced productivity at work and money being pumped in the economy.

  1. Economically viable and beneficial in long Run: Not just people, but even cities along the line of the corridor are expected to have greater connectivity and experience a jump in their socio-economic status. All the 12 stations of the project — BKC, Thane, Virar, Boisar, Vapi, Bilimora, Surat, Bharuch, Vadodara, Anand, Ahmedabad and Sabarmati – are expected to gain big time with the completion of the project. HSR projects in various countries has successfully spurred the revitalisation of smaller towns and cities and bridged the gap between metropolitan and tier 1, 2 and 3 cities by opening up avenues of not just commute but also of mixed land use, employment, tourism and business. 

Here are some benefits of making inroads in smaller towns with Bullet train and how it can foster economic development in smaller cities and towns along the project route: An HSR project like Bullet train can link cities together into an integrated region that can then function as a single stronger economy. For example; Vapi is famous as the city of chemicals. As the largest industrial area in Gujarat in terms of small scale industries, the kind of impact it can make to the economy of not just Gujarat but that of the country can be imagined if it has better connectivity to a financial hub like that of Mumbai. Faster connectivity between the two cities using the HSR can give a jump to the demand for the products being produced in Vapi, which can lead to a positive effect on the entire production chain. With the similar model replicated for all the other cities along the length of the HSR project corridor, one can expect nothing but a great deal of economic surge in the country. Greater need for production means increased need for labour and other workforce. An HSR project can have a direct as well indirect impact on the labour market as well. Direct impact can be seen from the skilled workforce that would be required immediately for the work related to the project.

According to an estimate, the bullet train project is expected to create 4,000 direct job opportunities, along with 35000 to 40000 indirect jobs. Approximately, 40,000 construction workers are also expected to be employed during the set up period of Ahmedabad-Mumbai bullet train. MAHSR will also give rise to the tourism industry along the corridor. Be it Upvan Lake in Thane, Arnala Fort in Virar, Wilson hills in Vapi or Gira Falls in Bilimora, the corridor is filled with numerous tourist attractions. It also includes historical sites like Pavagadh Fort (Anand), Surat Castle (Surat), Lakshmi Vilas Palace (Vadodara) among many others. Places like Dang Darbar in Bilimora, Dashashwamedh Ghat in Bharuch, Gandhi Ashram in Sabarmati will make popele witness the true culture of these places. Advent of Bullet Train will catapult the tourism sector of this area resulting in giving boost to the hospitality industry as well. 

Moreover, the HSR Stations will also act as destination spots and will enhance the economic activities. From mixed use real-estate development to hospitality & tourism and from needing labour in big and small industries that will eventually come up in the area to the need for engineers, architects, designers, manufacturers, skill development & training, logistics, marketers etc. It will also offer workers a wider network of employers to choose from. Surge in jobs would mean more influx of money which in a way can help the economy at both state and country level to grow as well. For someone running businesses in both Mumbai & Ahmedabad, HSR project will not only make travelling between the two cities easy but also cut on the cost and time that they’d incur while travelling through roadways or airways.

  1. Promoting Skill Development: For any country to climb up the ladder of social & economic prosperity, its human resource can be a critical and essential determinant. Low skills perpetuate poverty and inequality whereas skill development can reduce unemployment, raise income and overall improve the standard of living of people and communities. Therefore, a project like the Bullet Train India makes a lot of economic sense as it is not only going to open up doors for employment generation but also skill development for the existing as well as potential workforce. With new innovative projects and technologies coming into the country, a lot of potential for the young workers to upgrade their skills, learn newer ways of working and have a critical scaffolding can be envisaged that can help them move ahead in their careers and plan for a better future for themselves and their families. 

For the Bullet Train project in particular, both India and Japan is going to play a major role in helping train the employed workforce of the project to develop skills that make more economic sense. As part of the transfer of technology, employees will be sent to Japan as well as be trained here in the country. Since, the technology used for the project is coming from Japan, gaining mastery of the tools, technology, material and systems will help the workforce to adapt effectively to higher global demands going forward. It will increase their prospect to stay relevant in the constantly changing landscape of technology and have access to better and improved systems and procedures which when applied to any field can yield benefits.  

Along with this, in order to establish smooth operations of MAHSR and to generate a work force that is effective& equipped with high level of knowledge, NHSRCL is developing a world-class HSR Training Institute in Vadodara, Gujarat.  At its completion, the institute is expected to become the hub of knowledge, technology for skilled engineers and operators who will be at the core of delivering excellent service quality. The HSR Training Institute will be imparting training through customised training programs for fields as diverse as Construction, Project Implementation & Management, Operations, Maintenance, and Customer Care among others.

  1. Self Reliance, Make in India: Another interesting aspect of the project is giving thrust to the ‘Make In India’ initiative. The amalgamation of Japan’s technology and India’s expertise in creating world-class parts can prove to be a boon for the project. As part of Transfer of Technology (ToT) aspect of the project, for the parts that are to be made in India, Japan will share their blueprints and methodology behind their creation with their Indian counterparts. Further then, India, under the ‘Make in India’ scheme, will then replicate and recreate these elements related to the project as per the terms of the plan.   
    It is through the promotion of these two drivers that India will set up manufacturing facilities in the country, generate new jobs, upgrade the skills of its existing workforce, give a boost to allied industries (steel, cement, electrical components & infrastructure etc.) and get a toehold on the new and upcoming technologies being used by Japan. While the technical prowess will be brought in from Japan, Indian companies will play a major role in India-level requirements such as creation of parts as well as fitting the tracks when complete. Target items for ‘Make In India’ & ‘Transfer of Technology’ mainly include in the field for Track Works,  Electrical Work, Civil Works. The various sectors in India that would be directly benefitted are :
  • OHE Steel Mast
  • Rail Turnover Prevention Device
  • Embedded Inserts
  • Cement Asphalt Mortar (CAM)  
  1. Boom in Real Estate: A project like Bullet train needs support of an equally world-class infrastructure. With the increase in passenger movement along the length of the project corridor, it is but given that other big small real-estate projects like schools, townships, commercial hubs, industrial buildings, independent houses, big and small retail and commercial shops, office complexes, entertainment hubs, Hospitality (highways, railway sheds etc). will also come up. With so much of economic activity happening around these towns, a boom in the real-estate market of these areas cannot be underestimated. No doubt, there will be plenty of development opportunities along the 508 km route of the Mumbai-Ahmedabad High Speed Rail Project.

With more people coming and staying in areas near HSR a boost in business of ancillary industries and other amenities in the mix like malls, shops, hospitals, educational institutes, hostels, hotels, restaurants etc., will also have to be developed. This again leads to a better economic prospect for the country.
Social leveller: The HSR development overall will bring in positive results for those involved in the process directly or indirectly. Right from project beneficiaries to those who will be providing construction or any other kind of support, improved standards of living await on the upside. Improvement and better opportunities for livelihood is at the center of the planning of the HSR project, therefore, one can expect a more efficient economy going forward. For those who have given up their personal land for the project, an upliftment from their previous lifestyle beckons. With more money flowing in the family, they can provide better education to their children and increase their prospect of a prosperous life ahead.


Metro Rail News is conducting a 2nd Edition InnoMetro 2022 on 28-30 April 2022, virtually focusing on Seamless Mobility. Join InnoMetro 2022 for a detailed discussion on the topic “Opportunity & Challenges in India’s First High-Speed Rail Project”.

Join as a delegate: https://bit.ly/3uihjkd

Join as a Speaker: https://bit.ly/3N7lcRj

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