Railways in India have always been a harbinger of good times – economically. For those who enjoy digging into history to uncover the drivers of economic growth, laying railroad tracks was the best, most economical, and shortest route to prosperity for the region. No wonder even today we see the clamor for new lines and new trains from the elected officials. And they are not wrong. But now a new dimension is emerging in train and rail dynamics for economic growth. It’s a strategy that drives faster growth because all that matters is the speed of growth. The era of bullet trains, commonly referred to as bullet trains or Shinkansen, has arrived to fuel this speed of progress.
The bullet train is a super heavy investment, but it opens up a new world of rail technology. The rail systems that we have are suitable for up to 200 km/h. As we strive to go beyond 300 km/h, rail technology puts us on a different pedestal. Dedicated and elevated tracks, cab signalling, intelligent remote controls, noise reduction systems, wind effect detection, infotainment, station architecture, passenger car design and train operations are all interwoven to ensure a safe, punctual and relaxed travel experience. The existing skills will not work. It must be a fresh start.
As the country embraces these new frontiers in high-speed rail technology, the first impact will be on economic growth. Mumbai-Ahmedabad high-speed rail line approved with an initial investment of over 1.1 billion million; around 82% financed by very low-interest loans. This money is pumped at a distance of 500 km. What we are witnessing as construction gathers momentum is a sea change in attitude in the way we do our jobs. New contract standards are being introduced that reduce investment up to maturity along with security for stakeholders. New rail-laying technology is used to rapidly advance track-laying. All of these things invite investment. Since all these skills are strictly kept and the performance parameters are demanding, the investments are significant and this brings serious players. The driving force is the railway, but the shadow effect on industry is enormous. To name just one thing – the fare system and passenger access to platforms involve a complex IT architecture. It regulates the entry of passengers; provides a medium for monitoring travel trends and is immediately available for reporting. Now this mode can be easily transferred to any other area where similar situations exist, eg bus stations, nominated exhibition sites, sports stadiums, and the list goes on. And let’s not forget the existing train stations scattered across the country. Such models are scalable to any level, both micro and macro.
When we evaluate station designs, we find that train movement is only one component. The station is now a business hub, a conglomerate of shopping malls, a convention center and, most importantly, an entertainment destination. The high-speed train has redefined the station concept. Convert this to economic growth. In addition, growth is expected to continue to increase over time. To make it more understandable, consider the growth at New Delhi or Chennai or Jaipur railway station. The transformation would not have been possible without the railway. With the advent of high speed, we’re knocking on the door of sustained double-digit growth.
High-speed connectivity also has other dimensions. Due to special tracks and high-speed trains, Tier 2 cities will experience a big boost in industrial growth. One of the essential components is faster access to an industrial cluster without resettling the population. What it translates to is amazing growth for cities like Anand, Bilimora, Bharuch, Virar, Boisar and Vapi on the Mumbai Ahmedabad corridor where the bullet train is scheduled to stop. The new connectivity should offer a comfortable “morning-evening-back” scenario even to air travelers who land in Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Vadodara or Surat. With all the other ingredients for economic recovery already in place, quick, convenient access to world-class standards should be the eternal gel.
The experience of spectacular growth was demonstrated by similar bullet trains in Japan, China and France. Today, the Tokyo-Osaka Shinkansen takes more passers-by than the airlines because the travel time between work centers is much shorter and also results in much lower costs. The introduction of high-speed travel has brought efficiency to their lives. This leaves more time for work and networking. Likewise, domestic airlines in France are no longer the choice of travelers. Up to about 800 km of high-speed travel is now a new normal. Even without the first high-speed rail line waiting to take shape, state governments in India are working on strategies to roll it out in their area.
The Make-in-India policy has changed the Indian economic landscape. When the high-speed project took off, a large number of orders were placed with Japanese companies. Within a few years, the tables have turned and a majority of civil contracts are now being contracted by Indian infrastructure companies. And they all qualify under strict Japanese standards. More is likely to be heard in the signaling and rolling stock sectors, where the technology is firmly held by the Japanese firms. The policy of the Modi government has ensured that the “Make in India” policy not only brings production to India, but also accelerates it. This can be clearly seen on the Indian Shinkansen. Because it is a new technology, there are greater opportunities.
If we recall, advances in space technology spilled over to the defense arena and then to ordinary life, pumping the economy with new technology applications. Something similar is likely to happen in the high-speed rail sector. Just as India started under PM Narendra Modi, it will come as no surprise that there will be a full Indian version of the bullet rail and the economy suitably revved up for the target of $5 trillion or even more.
(Arunendra Kumar is the former Chair of Railway Board, India. The views expressed are personal and exclusive to India Narrative)