Biting the Bullet

India and Japan launch Mumbai-Ahmedabad HSR project

The wait is finally over. In a much-awaited development, the Government of India and the Government of Japan launched the development of the Mumbai-Ahmedabad high speed rail (HSR) corridor project, also known as the Bullet Train Project, on September 14, 2017. The Rs 1.1 trillion project aims at providing an impetus to the government’s Make in India and technology transfer mandates. Once operational, the project will not only speed up development across the two economically significant state capitals, but will eventually lead to the corridor developing as a single economic zone. The project further signifies the establishment of strong ties between the two nations with Japan extending both technical and financial assistance for project development.

In the making

Among the several HSR corridors planned and announced by the central government, the Mumbai-Ahmedabad HSR (MAHSR) is the first sanctioned project and will connect the capital cities of Maharashtra and Gujarat. The 508 km corridor will span a length of around 156 km in Maharashtra, 351 km in Gujarat and about 2 km in Dadra & Nagar Haveli. It will have 12 stations – Mumbai, Thane, Virar, Boisar, Vapi, Bilimora, Surat, Bharuch, Vadodara, Anand, Ahmedabad and Sabarmati – of which only Mumbai will be underground, while the rest will be elevated. Of the total length, 92 per cent of the route will be elevated, while 6 per cent will be underground and 2 per cent on ground, for which a total land requirement of 825 hectares has been estimated.

As a part of the agreement signed between India and Japan, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) will finance around 81 per cent of the total Rs 1.1 trillion requirement through a soft loan with a repayment term of 50 years and a moratorium for the first 15 years. The loan will have an annual interest of a minuscule 0.1 per cent provided under the overseas development assistance programme. The loan interest will therefore roughly work out to just Rs 70 million-Rs 80 million a month. This project is the first infrastructure project in the country to have garnered funding on such favourable terms.

The Shinkansen advantage

The Ministry of Railways (MoR) has opted for the Shinkansen technology due to features such as zero fatality rate and a delay record of less than a minute. Japan’s Shinkansen E5 series bullet trains have been identified for the project. The project will further acquire the technology required for disaster prediction and prevention, which will be essential to ensure safety in train operations. To begin with, the bullet trains will have 10 coaches each, capable of seating 750 passengers. In the future, Indian Railways (IR) plans to add another six coaches to increase the seating capacity to 1,250 passengers. Besides, 35 bullet trains will be operated. Initially, 24 bullet trains will be imported from Japan, while the rest will be manufactured in India.

Looking back

In July 2015, the feasibility study for the Mumbai-Ahmedabad HSR corridor was jointly undertaken by JICA and the MoR, following which the ministry incorporated National High Speed Rail Corporation Limited (NHSRCL) in February 2016 and contributed equity along with the Gujarat and Maharashtra governments. The joint venture (JV) of NHSRCL, Japan International Consultants for Transportation, Nippon Koei and Oriental Consultants Global Company Limited was appointed as the general consultant for the project, along with a separate environment consultant.

As of September 2017, the schedule of dimensions and manual of standards and specifications for the track, tunnels, bridges, signalling, telecommunications and the operation control centre has been finalised; the ground survey has been completed using the aerial LiDAR (light detection and ranging) technique; geotechnical investigations have been largely completed and the social impact assessment consultants for Gujarat and Maharashtra have been appointed. Meanwhile, the right-of-way requirement regarding land acquisition is under finalisation.

Meanwhile, Kawasaki Heavy Industries and Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited have been identified for the development of rolling stock for the project. Also, a fare of almost 1.5 times that of a first class “A” category ticket has been proposed for the corridor. Further, the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore will be setting up an India-Japan Study Centre with the mission of improving mutual understanding between India and Japan and undertaking complementary skill building in the domain of management including that for infrastructure.

Focus on Make in India and transfer of technology

The MAHSR project has a two-pronged objective of realising the Make in India mandate and undertaking the “transfer of technology” during the course of implementation.

With regard to the Make in India mandate, action is currently being taken as per the accepted concept paper guidelines under the guidance of the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (DIPP) and the Japan External Trade Organisation (JETRO). Further, four sub-groups – track, civil, rolling stock, electrical and signalling and telecommunication – along with representation from Indian and Japanese industry, NHSRCL, DIPP and JETRO will be identifying potential items and subsystems for taking forward under the Make in India initiative.

Meanwhile, in order to kick-start the transfer of technology, more than 100 Japanese railway engineers have arrived in India to initiate the process of training local officials. Around 300 rail engineers will be sent to Japan to receive training on high speed track technology and will later become the backbone of India’s high speed ventures. Further, the construction of the High Speed Rail Training Institute has started in Vadodara, which will eventually be fully equipped with modern machinery, simulators, etc., comparable to the institute in Japan. The institute will be functional by end-2020 and will be utilised for training nearly 4,000 employees over the next three years, who will then be responsible for undertaking the operation and maintenance works of the MAHSR project. This will reduce dependence on foreign engineers and lay a strong foundation for undertaking more such projects in the future. Further, the Government of Japan has also offered 20 seats per year for a fully funded master’s course from Japanese universities for serving Indian Railway officials.

Economies of scale and scope

Besides offering speedy travel between the two states, the project aims to develop India as a “world factory” with the transfer of Japanese HSR technology. Many JVs between Japan and India are expected to come up in the next few years for the manufacture of various rolling stock components, which will greatly benefit Indian industry. Further, around 4,000 direct employment opportunities are expected to open up along with 20,000 indirect jobs.

Furthermore, the construction sector will get a huge impetus with respect to new technologies and a better work culture. While construction workers will receive specialised training, other new areas of skill development will include the construction of ballast-less tracks, under-sea tunnels, etc. Such skills will go a long way in developing similar projects across the country.

The corridor is also expected to boost urban and industrial development along its length, in addition to providing enormous capacity and ease of travel between the two cities. The Make in India objective will further ensure that most of the investments made in the project will be ploughed back into the country.

The other side of the story

An infrastructure project of this magnitude is certain to face challenges with regard to design, choice of alignment, and the location and number of stations. If the alignment is taken closer to urban settlements then issues relating to land acquisition, removal of buildings, the possibility of destroying heritage structures, etc. exist. Similarly, the location of stations will put forward another dilemma of whether the new station should be in the city centre connecting existing railway stations, adjacent to existing stations or at the periphery of an urban node. Overall, trade-offs will exist between providing better access and connectivity and the cost of land acquisition. Another challenge will be determining the number of stations along the corridor. While there will be a greater demand for more stations, the trade-off will be between lower average speeds and higher number of stoppages.

Another critical issue likely to be faced is that of land acquisition, especially when the alignment veers off IR land. Therefore, the design will have to be such that the footprint of the pillars is minimised. The human resource development challenge will also have to be addressed. A large number of Indian engineers will be required to be trained for designing, constructing and operating at standards essential for HSR, including for stringent safety standards. This issue is being dealt with to a large extent with the setting up of a training institute. Training Japanese officials will also be a must so that they can train local personnel and oversee operations of the corridor and, moreover, become oriented with the prevalent conditions and Indian culture.

Next steps

Some industry experts regard the project as an “expensive toy without appropriate use”. There are firm believers of the theory that the investment entailed by this big-ticket project could be better utilised in more productive ventures. The development of a low-cost airline could be a more suitable proposition – it would entail a much lower cost and, to some extent, offer similar benefits. Nonetheless, discounting the project’s negatives, it will certainly be a game changer for IR. For the railway sector, after seeing decades of underinvestment this is a much-needed financial push. The MoR seems confident that the project will be completed one year ahead of schedule, given the pace of work.


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