'A Mumbai-Ahmedabad flight will take less time'

Updated: 21 November, 2019 08:49 IST | Prutha Bhosle | Alkapuri

Experts and activists fear the bullet train may not be economically viable

Krishnakant Chauhan of the Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti. Pics /Sneha Kharabe
Krishnakant Chauhan of the Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti. Pics /Sneha Kharabe

Alkapuri: Krishnakant Chauhan, a former Mumbaikar, has visited 150 of the 198 villages in Gujarat that are set to lose land to the bullet train project. He says he supports the public transport system but has serious reservations about the bullet train. According to him, the price that farmers are paying for it may not be worth it.

Brought up in Dharavi, the commerce graduate moved to Surat a few years ago to pursue social work. "I wanted to support, guide and assist families as well as advocate the cause of protecting our natural environment. So, when I got the chance to be associated with Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti (PSS) in Vadodara, I was happy. I joined hands with PSS's Rohit Prajapati, an environmental activist, and there has been no looking back," says Chauhan when we meet him in Vadodara.

Aiming for a December 2023 completion, the bullet train is based on Japan's Shinkansen technology for which a Memorandum of Cooperation was signed between India and Japan on December 12, 2015, and the estimated cost is Rs 1,08,000 crore. But, both Chauhan and Prajapati feel the price that farmers will pay is too high.

"This train is targeting fertile land, livelihood and the environment. As per the feasibility report, the train is going through reserve forests and mangroves, requiring the felling of around 80,000 trees," says Prajapati.

On December 8, 2018, Chauhan and he wrote to Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), requesting it to look into the several loopholes the PSS listed in the bullet train project. "It took 50 years for the first bullet train in Japan to break even. The cost will only increase the per capita debt burden and it will also make it difficult for the Indian Railways to manage its priorities and economics," Chauhan adds.

Prajapati says it's not just the economics, but even the logistics that don't add up. "The Indian government is promoting waterways and air travel. It is establishing airports in tier II towns. All major cities, including Ahmedabad and Mumbai, are well connected by air. In addition, there is the national highway and an express highway connecting the two cities. Work is also on for a Western Dedicated Freight Corridor."

Rohit prajapatiRohit Prajapati, a member of Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti in Vadodara, was also a part of the Narmada Bachao Andolan

The two argue that even the government has, in the past, argued that the bullet train isn't feasible. Dinesh Trivedi, chairperson of the Standing Committee on Railways (2014-15), of the Ministry of Railways (Railway Board) of the 16th Lok Sabha in a report submitted the same year stated that the bullet train project is "financially unviable". The report, a copy of which is with mid-day, states, "The committee feels that if the amount equivalent to that proposed for the bullet train is used for execution of the long pending railway projects, the benefits to the general public would be much higher."

Interestingly, in May 2015, a few months after this report was published, the former railway minister, Trivedi, had said: "The Centre is planning bullet trains when people travel like 'cattle' in locals. First think about these people, and then talk about something else. On the one hand we talk about 'Chandrayaan' and on the other, people are forced to travel like this. First make the common man's travel dignified and then talk about bullet trains. The bitter part of the truth is that the foundation of the Indian Railways is shaky."

Improve Virar's condition first

"Only a person living in Virar knows how horrible the current local railway network is," says Shashikant Sonawane, member of Palghar's Adivasi Ekta Parishad (Bhumi Sena). "Why isn't the government upgrading the suburban railway lines? If they want to concentrate on public transport, then the Indian Railways should be their priority." Sonawane says a source from the Indian Railways told him, "With the Rs 1 lakh crore that is being used to build the bullet, they [Indian Railways] would have modernised the existing railway system across the country. But, nobody seems to be talking about this."

Ashok DatarAshok Datar, Transport expert

Ashok Datar, transport expert, agrees with Sonawane. "The bullet train is not viable. I have travelled in Japan, and the volumes using the bullet train are huge. Here, we don't have those numbers of people travelling in trains. When you build such expensive infrastructure, it needs to be planned properly." He continues, "Most importantly, they are not updating the existing track, they are building a parallel track. This means there will be loss of land, mangroves, forests and wildlife. I feel we should be giving attention to better technology instead; such as the freight corridor to transport goods. This will also decongest the roads."

Currently, the fastest train operating on this sector is the Ahmedabad Duronto Express, which takes six-and-a-quarter hours to reach Mumbai Central from Ahmedabad running non-stop between these two cities at a maximum speed of 130 km/h. The ticket price for the bullet, however, is expected to be around Rs 3,000, and the journey between the two cities will be covered in three hours. For the same price, one can take an hour-long flight between Ahmedabad and Mumbai. Thus air travel, Sonawane argues, is a far more convenient option. "When we have flights, local trains, buses and private cars that can run between Ahmedabad and Mumbai, why do we need the bullet train? Also, if they say they are doing this to decongest roads, why is the government building the Vadodara-Mumbai Expressway?"

On the question of the viability of the project, the India office of JICA responded over email, saying: "The first loan agreement of this project was signed on September 28, 2018, as Tranche 1, and the second loan agreement was signed on October 29, 2018, as Tranche 2. The repayment period of these loans is 50 years. According to the plan, 35 trains per direction, per day will be operated on inauguration. Later on, as demand rises, the number of trains will be increased. Expected traffic volume per direction, per day is 17,900 at inauguration and will increase." The agency didn't respond to mid-day's questions regarding terms of the resettlement plan, selection of the route and compensation.

Current trains running empty

In 2017, activist Anil Galgali filed an RTI on how many people used the Mumbai-Ahmedabad rail network. The reply showed that due to fewer passengers on the Mumbai-Ahmedabad section, the Indian Railways-Western Division booked a loss of nearly R30 crore in the last quarter.

Krishnakant Chauhan says the first bullet train in Japan took 50 years to break evenKrishnakant Chauhan says the first bullet train in Japan took 50 years to break even

Galgali in his RTI query had asked about the seat occupancy on all trains between Mumbai and Ahmedabad (a six-hour journey). To which, the Western Railway reportedly responded saying that in August, September and October 2017, 40 per cent seats went vacant on the Mumbai-Ahmedabad route and 44 per cent on the Ahmedabad-Mumbai section.

NHSRCL on how the bullet train plan was finalised

Why has this route been finalised when there are freight corridor and expressway projects planned on the same belt?
NHSRCL has been entrusted with the construction of Mumbai-Ahmedabad High Speed Corridor.
How does the government plan on repaying the soft loan taken from Japan? By which year do you see this happening?
The loan repayment will be done through earnings.
How many trips will the bullet train make in a day?
There will be 70 trips made (35 each way) every day.
By when will the bullet train start running?
Target date is Dec 2023.

Ticket price needs to be Rs 1500: IIM-A STUDY

Japan has offered a concessional loan of Rs 97,636 crore to fund 80 per cent of the project cost with a repayment period of 50 years beginning from the 16th year of operation at an interest rate of 0.1 per cent. A report released by the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIM-A) in April 2016 states: "The proposed bullet train between Mumbai and Ahmedabad will have to ferry 88,000-118,000 passengers per day, or undertake 100 trips daily, for the Railways to keep it financially viable. So, we need three trains every hour in each direction. For this to be achieved, the report says, the Railways needs to set the ticket price at Rs 1,500.

Year bullet train is expected to start

Speed in kmph of the Mumbai-Ahmedabad Duronto Express train

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First Published: 21 November, 2019 07:21 IST

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