Is the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train just a pipe dream that has been sold to the nation? Or will it not just be a giant technological leap with good economical returns but also a financially viable investment for a private entity? The moment railway minister DV Sadananda Gowda proposed the facility while announcing his budget, a furious debate broke out within the railway bureaucracy.
Many have called Gowda's plan to put a whopping Rs 60,000 crore into the bullet train project illogical since the railway minister himself said that the cash-strapped railways would require Rs 50,000 crore per year just to finish ongoing rail projects in the country.
"Why do we need a bullet train when the rest of the railways system is so badly in need of rejuvenation? If it is just to take our pride of place among developed nations, it doesn't help our reputation much that the rest of the train network is so primitive," said a railway official.
Another official said that the plan should be to augment the capacity of sectors that had heavy passenger rush rather than getting into what is nothing but an attempt to 'show off'.
Those in favour of the bullet train proposal said that while the project as a whole would be non-viable for any private firm in terms of investment, certain sections of the project might yield good returns.
"There are economic returns as well which have to be considered, like a cut-down on expenditure on fuel for those who travel by road, or the greenhouse gas emissions that will be reduced. A bullet train system between any two big cities will create huge employment opportunities as well. It is just the technological progress that a big railway-oriented city like Mumbai needs to take," said another railway official.
Bullet train project moving at snail's pace
The ground reality of the project is that it is several years away from reality. In fact, the feasibility report on the project will be turned in by experts from the Japanese Industrial Cooperation Agency (JICA) only by mid-2015. Various studies on the project are still ongoing. For instance, experts on training and safety-related aspects of bullet trains will be visiting Western Railway this week.
The last major meeting on the subject happened in the first week of April with representatives from Maharashtra, Gujarat, the JICA and railway board officials attending it.
The bullet train project:
The plan is to run trains at speeds above 300 kmph between the two cities in around two hours.
The general consensus is that the line should start from Bandra-Kurla Complex, to Thane and onward to Virar.
While the state government is keen that the line also touches Belapur to bring Navi Mumbai into the ambit, railway officials said that detour is best avoided.
The state is keen on a bullet train terminal at BKC with a connection to the BKC metro station envisaged as part of the Colaba-Bandra Seepz metro line.
There is still some ambiguity over where the terminal at Ahmedabad would be. The railways are of the view that it should be a little away from Ahmedabad station.
The line was to start from Pune, but the Mumbai-Pune leg was dropped due to the massive expenditure involved in laying a high-speed network in the mountainous terrain around Pune.