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International Relations

India's first bullet train project gets going

Predesign work started, groundbreaking ceremony in 2017

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi takes a tour of Kawasaki Heavy Industries' Kobe plant with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on November 12, 2016. (Courtesy of Press Information Bureau of India)

TOKYO -- The detailed design study for India's first high-speed railway project, has formally begun.

The project involves the construction of a 505 km line connecting Ahmedabad in the western state of Gujarat and the country's commercial capital Mumbai using Japan's shinkansen technology, shortening the journey time between the two to just over two hours.

Plans foresee the Mumbai terminal station built under the Bandra Kurla Complex, a modern business hub in the north of the city where a large number of major domestic and foreign companies have offices.

India's first undersea tunnel will be built between Mumbai and the next station Thane.

With the Indian government bringing forward the groundbreaking ceremony to within 2017, trains could be speeding along the line at 320kph by 2023, revolutionizing the country's transportation infrastructure -- an area in which the country has lagged behind of China.

According to feasibility studies, the line will have 12 stations between Ahmedabad, where the adjacent Sabarmati station will serve as the terminal, and Mumbai. A rapid service will only stop at Surat in Gujarat, home to diamond processing plants and textile companies, and the ancient city of Vadodara, famous for its oil industry.

The minimum two hours and seven minutes it will take the bullet train is a mere third of what the existing express train takes. The planned fare for the entire route will be about 3,300 rupees ($50.38), 1.5 times the price of a first-class ticket for an air-conditioned coach on the existing special express.

High Speed Railway Corp. of India, which is tasked with implementing the project, plans for 10-car trains to make the round trip 35 times a day during the initial year, carrying 35,800 passengers a day. By 2053, the company aims to increasing the number of cars to 16 per train, daily services to 105 and number of passengers to 185,800 a day.

The target figures could be changed depending on more detailed demand forecasts at a later date. The high-speed trains will run on the same 1,435 mm track gauge as Japan's shinkansen bullet trains. Rail yards will be built in Sabarmati and Thane.

The feasibility study proposes constructing embankments for 64%, or about 322 km, of the line; elevating 28%, or 144 km; and building tunnels and bridges for the rest.

The Indian government wants to see a fully elevated corridor, however. A fully elevated railway would raise safety by preventing people and animals from getting close to the tracks, but it would push up overall construction costs.

Aggregated project costs, including land-purchase, are estimated at 980 billion rupees, with Japan ready to help financing primarily through yen loans.

There are nine urban centers with a population of over 1 million along the planned route. Mumbai alone has 12 million inhabitants, Ahmedabad has 5.8 million, while Surat and Vadodara are home to 5 million and 3.6 million respectively.

Soft power

Late last year, the Japan International Cooperation Agency signed a contract to entrust the detailed design study to a consortium led by Japan International Consultants for Transportation, or JIC, a subsidiary of East Japan Railway, in which West Japan Railway and Tokyo Metro have also stakes.

By 2020, the consortium will forecast demand, set fares and devise a train operation plan, as well as handling preliminary design work for structures like tunnels and bridges and drawing up an overall construction schedule.

A JIC project manager said, "conditions surrounding the construction of a high-speed railway in India -- such as weather, which is harsh there, and the quality and standards of materials -- are considerably different from those in Japan. So we are now comparing and adjusting to these technical matters."

The design study will address not just the technical side of the project but also the "soft" aspects, such as assisting in environmental control and monitoring and preparing guidelines for acquiring land and moving residents. Additionally, it will plan for a health and sanitation campaign, including HIV prevention education, for construction workers coming from across India.

The Japanese consortium expects that expertise amassed since 1998 through helping with the construction of the Delhi Metro Railway can be applied to the soft aspect of the high-speed rail project.

Japan's public and private sectors have already started a variety of railway staff training programs for India. In the current fiscal through March 2017, nine officials from India's Ministry of Railways began studying as government-sponsored foreign students at graduate schools in Japan while training was given to 300 young staff at the ministry.

Furthermore, Japan and India have reached a basic agreement to open the HSR Training Institute in India by 2020 to educate railway staff who will operate the bullet train service. JICA will be responsible for laying out the school plan and devising training programs.

If all goes to plan, construction will begin and end in years immediately preceding general elections -- slated for 2019 and 2024. The project will therefore likely become a hot topic during both campaigns. "The construction schedule reflects such intention of the Modi government," said sources close to the project.

Challenges ahead

An underwater tunnel and underground station are just two of the many engineering challenges involved. 

"In Ahmedabad and some other stations, platforms for bullet trains need to be built right above or next to existing railway stations to ensure easy transfer," said a director of the Railway Bureau of Japan's Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transportation and Tourism. "This makes construction extremely difficult."

Another problem is procurement conditions. The Japanese side wants to bring rolling stock and other equipment from Japan. Modi's "Make in India" campaign means New Delhi insists on manufacturing them domestically to promote the transfer of technologies.

When the Indian Air Force planned to purchase fighters, negotiations between India and French aircraft builder Dassault Aviation stalled as India was adamant on licensed production in the country. To what extent this will affect imports from Japan remains to be seen.

The states of Gujarat and Maharashtra -- strongholds of Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party -- through which the line will run, are expected to cooperate with the project.

A cause for concern, though not a serious one, is the current Land Acquisition Act, which calls for consent from 70% of affected residents and paying compensation equal to 2-4 times the official land price.

Recently, India has seen low-cost carriers, like IndiGo and GoAir, rapidly expanding their route networks, with their one-way tickets selling for just above 2,000 rupees. 

If they are to succeed in creating the first high-speed rail project in South Asia, India and Japan have to contemplate extensive supportive measures, including developing areas along the railway and luring industries to the area.

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