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High costs may push the bullet train off track

ht view Updated: Sep 16, 2014 22:52 IST

‘Shinkansen’, or the ‘Bullet’ train, introduced 50 years ago in Japan, has evolved into many avatars — in Europe as TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) and China as CHR (Chinese Highspeed Rail) — and is now poised to enter India in a big way.

For the train to run at more than 250 km/hour, the track has to be elevated, or protected from any trespass. While a surface-level high-speed track may cost up to Rs 10 crore/km, the elevated variety’s cost could reach more than Rs 120 crore/km and the 520-km Mumbai-Ahmedabad section could easily set an investor back by Rs 60,000 crore.

A Shinkansen trip from Tokyo to Kyoto, 514 km and completing the run in just two hours, costs Rs 7,700, not much lower than an average airline ticket, and could be the same for the Mumbai-Ahmedabad trip — one way.

As in Japan, these high-speed trains need volume, provided by daily commuters, to be profitable, and while the Japanese International Cooperation Agency would be glad to extend a loan providing its industries an avenue for export, the profitability of such a venture anywhere in India remains highly doubtful.

Given the scale of investment and uncertain passenger volume, even big companies with deep pockets may hesitate to opt for the project and ultimately the government would have to pick up the tab by getting the newly created HSRC (High Speed Rail Corporation), a subsidiary of the Rail Vikas Nigam Ltd, into the act.

While the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation’s success story was very much scripted by the leadership of E Sreedharan, a former technocrat from the Indian Railways, the high-speed saga could prove to be a different story. Sreedharan’s commitment and dedication ensured not only a timely completion of the project but also enabled DMRC to start paying back the loan four years ago, thanks to a massive public response with footfalls reaching more than 2 million a day.

However, the venture could provide Indian industry an opportunity to enter the highly lucrative area of manufacturing rolling stocks for high-speed trains, provided Japan, an acknowledged leader in this technology with a number of technological collaborations with Indian corporations, is willing to play ball.

Perhaps the Integral Coach Factory, Perambur, Tamil Nadu, with its excellent manufacturing facilities and a record of exporting 361 bogies and 447 coaches to 13 Afro-Asian countries, could become the flag bearer for India’s export thrust of rail-related equipment.

RC Acharya is former member of the Railway Board. The views expressed by the author are personal.