Bullet train and rail safety

About ten days ago, the Business Standard newspaper carried a brief story featuring four tweets by Mr. P. Chidambaram, the former Finance Minister, on the need for railway safetey and how money spent on bullet trains should be spent on railway safety. On the face of it, it is unexceptionable. But, it is unfortunate.

But, the truth is, as stated many a time in this blog, that the soft loan – very, very low interest rate for a long term – that is being extended by Japan is only for this project. The Government of India is not diverting funds for this. There will be some money that the Indian Government has to put in. But, it is a very small sum.

Check this out from the ‘Hindustan Times’:

Funding

To fund the ambitious Rs 1,10,000-crore project, a loan of Rs 88,000 crore will be taken from Japan. The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) will fund it at a low rate of interest of 0.1% per annum. This loan has to be repaid to Japan in 50 years, with 15 years grace period. [Link]

Ajit Ranade had written cogently and eloquently on why the project makes sense. He wishes the project Godspeed. He is quite right on this one. The project has much to commend for itself, inclding Rail Safety. Ranade writes [emphasis mine]:

The MAHSR is one of the crown jewels in the robust Indo-Japan relationship. Its concessional funding of $15 billion, at an interest rate of 0.1 per cent, is from Japan International Cooperation Agency, to be repaid over 50 years after an initial 15-year moratorium. This funding is specifically earmarked for MAHSR and is not fungible.

Japan is an acknowledged world leader in high-speed rail technology, whose focus is on reliability and safety. Their approach is integrating transport and development, not merely to achieve high-speed connection.

The project envisages technology and skill transfer, indigenous manufacturing and employment. Don’t forget that Japan had a major role to play in India becoming a hub of small-car manufacturing in the world. That’s the story of Maruti Suzuki.

Japan also was instrumental in the setting up of Delhi Metro. It may be useful to note that the Tokyo metro system is one of the world’s most sophisticated, with 158 lines criss-crossing 2,200 stations serving 40 million passenger rides daily. All this with a near-zero accident rate. Hence the safety aspect of MAHSR has the Shinkansen mindset and approach behind it.

Just as the Indian Space Research Organisation inspires, so would the Bullet Train project, both on safety and on technological excellence and even punctuality. Certain discontinuous opportunistic leapfrogging is necessary from time to time. That is what this project would do.

As for safety in Indian Railways, read what Sunil Jain wrote in ‘Financial Express’ after the Elphinstone Road tragedy [Emphasis mine]:

And Suresh Prabhu lost his job as Railway minister following the Kalinga-Utkal Express derailment – while the poor man had done well to focus on eliminating unmanned railway crossings where 60% of fatalities used to occur in the past, when push came to shove, he hadn’t managed to stop the derailments. But how could he? In 2012, the Anil Kakodkar panel said India needed Rs 1 lakh crore for fixing safety and said it wasn’t safe to use the 52kg/m tracks or the 43,000 ICF coaches – this got highlighted in all the recent accidents – but the Railways is too broke, so we fix what we can (albeit at a faster pace under Prabhu) and leave the rest to God.

As a former Finance Minister, Mr. Chidamabram should come out in support of the Delhi Metro fare hike and oppose the politically motivated resistance to it. See here.

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