The Indian bullet train project is underway after a historic agreement between Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe during the Japanese prime minister’s recent visit to India.
The full potential of Indian rail transport is yet to be realised, with a reduced burden for both passenger and freight routes via road, sea, and air long overdue, and cuts in travel time frequently discussed but more often neglected.
“One option is the introduction of high-speed railway networks. Over the years, debate has been intense because these projects have mixed implications for politics, economy, and society. Government determination to reform rail infrastructure and provide faster means of public transport has led to the implementation of the bullet train project,” said Pooran Chandra Pandey, CEO of the DOC Research Institute, a Berlin-based think tank.
The agreement with Japan paves the way for 500 km of rail infrastructure between the industrial town of Ahmedabad and India’s financial capital, Mumbai, over the next five years. A soft Japanese loan for 81 percent of the project cost, at an unprecedented rate of 0.1 percent over 50 years is ushering in a new era of Indian- Japanese bilateral partnership.
“This project has a significant bearing on both the regional balance of power and global trade relations, with Japan one up on competitors like China and Germany, its two most potent rivals in terms innovation in rail infrastructure and technology,” Pandey stated, explaining that “Japan has led the way in high-speed rail, and remained far ahead of competitors like Germany, Italy, France, and China”.
“Bilateral developments with Japan also assume greater significance coming a few weeks after the Doklam stand-off between China and India. The issue was solved diplomatically and its resolution was accompanied by the Indian prime minister’s ‘Make in India’ initiative gaining global acceptance, in part through less than subtle support from his Japanese counterpart,” Pandey added.
It is worth noting that previous bilateral infrastructure projects supported by China and Russia have failed to gather momentum and largely been seen as non-starters in their attempts to modernise Indian rail infrastructure.
The bullet train project has been criticised too, with the conflicting interests of Indian state-level politicians alive to the contested distribution of project infrastructure, and safety concerns being highlighted repeatedly.
“Such an ambitious project has economic, social, and political aspects domestically, and of course plays a strategic role internationally, setting a clear vision for regional partnerships with commercial gains. A spike in land prices along transport corridors is also expected, potentially unlocking dormant economic activity by putting more disposable income in the hands of those along the routes,” Pandey told ANI in an email interview.
He went on: “The strength of the Japanese government’s support may draw a line between long-term partners and fair weather friends, and could additionally trigger commercial competition for fast-track regional connectivity that goes far beyond a re-setting of regional geo-strategic influence. In effect, this adds muscle to India’s nuanced ‘Act East’ policy stance.”
Pandey also predicted, “this kind of activity will spur domestic Indian organisations in both the public and private sectors to build further partnerships with Japanese industries”.
Indian Railways now ranks among the world’s largest rail networks, with 115,000km of track and 7,172 stations, and daily movement of 12,617 passenger trains, 7,421 freight trains, 23 million travellers, and 3 million tonnes of freight.
“This accolade comes with its fair share of difficulties in terms of overall management,” said Pandey, “Administration, passenger facilities, technology, track upgrades, safety standards, and marketing all represent challenges. Significant reform is the only way to meet rising public demand for safer, shorter, and more cost-effective travel.”