What is wrong? What should be done?

Is bullet train the solution to common man’s woes?

There has already been a lot of debate on the topic of bullet train that the Modi government has recently announced. The only logical argument on which one cannot disagree to the introduction of the bullet train is that in the present world, we can leapfrog in terms of development because of the available technology. Incremental development is no longer necessary. For instance, supposing we did not have mobiles in our country and want to introduce the same, we do not have to first establish 2G, 3G networks etc because we can straightaway establish 5G networks.

The objective should be to develop both short distance and long distance travel. Bullet trains are definitely meant for long distance travel
while you have metros and subarban train systems for short distance travel. So, the bullet train and subarban train system or metros are not mutually exclusive. Metros have come to India so I am sure that any place any new short distance travel requirement will be filled by metros. Similarly, bullet trains may be the solution for the future even though till now it has not happened. However, I think there is a big drawback of bullet trains when compared to aviation system. The cost of providing airports and planes is faster and cheaper. So I am not sure about the viability of bullet trains in the long term vis-a-vis air travel.

So what will be the best solution for India. As far as long distance is concerned, India already has a wide network of railways. We need to take advantage of the same and start replacing the current system with new safe and faster trains and tracks which when supplemented by air travel will serve the purpose. Today, every technology is up for sale. Hero motorcycles seperated from Honda because it knew it can get the technology that it wants from other sources. This system can also be supplemented by few bullet trains if necessary but I think air travel will be a serious competition to trains not only because of cost and land acquisition problems but also because air travel infrastructure is more flexible as compared to that of bullet trains.

The drastic need to India today is short distance and intra city travel. I believe the demand for this will grow exponentially because of practically everyone entering the workforce as we have already seen in Delhi, Gurgaon and Mumbai. It is pertinent to point out that requirement of short distance travel is practically everyday by a larger section of the population while long distance travel is required by a miniscule of the population and that also much much less frequently as compared to short distance travel.

Lets get down to the situation in Mumbai. I remember travelling by the local train in Mumbai over two decades ago. When churchgate station came, I was literally carried out of the train, to the platform to the staircase and out of the station by the crowd itself. I had to make no effort. Such was the rush at this station. I couldn’t imagine the situation now until I saw the visuals on the the TV.

When I was just thinking about the current situation, I realized that may be (I am no technical expert) we are missing a great opportunity. Today, if one has to build a new metro line in Mumbai it would be almost like reaching the moon because of space contraint. But fortunately, we have open land available where local trains run. What if we can use the same space to build multilevel metro system and start replacing the current system with faster, safer, efficient metro system, we will be in business. I think it can be done because I know of a construction company which has accomplished amazing construction projects around the world. I think this idea needs to be explored seriously.

We need to think of the present as well as the future. Do we need bullet trains? We need to consider the cost and whether it is better option than air travel. I have a cousin who flies everyday back and forth between London and Sweden for work. Did that require huge investment or land? Practically nothing. If demand dwindles, number of flights can be reduced. Another argument given is that we will have access to technology. As mentioned above, we can buy technology. What options we have for short distance travel? Roads and metros.

So what should we do? We should replace the current railway system with new, faster and efficient system for long and medium distance travel which should be supplemented by air travel. Metros for short distance and intra-city travel which will replace the bus and the taxi system thereby reducing pollution. For Mumbai, my suggestion is to replace the current system with a multilevel metro system as we have the land available and till this new system is built, take drastic steps to make the system as safe as possible.

Even if Modi is hell bent on bringing the bullet train which I think he is and will not change his decision, let him go ahead but at the same time he should announce a solution for Mumbai locals and the railway system of the country. Otherwise, just being adamant to bring the bullet train would be nothing but a political image building exercise for the PM at a serious cost to the nation not only in terms of money but also more importantly in terms of time and maybe lives lost. Also, most importantly again the common man will keep on suffering – so whats new.

Lastly, let me also comment on Piyush Goel’s statement that whoever opposes bullet train has “old thinking” and maybe “anti-national” also. I would just like to state every person has a right to think and express his views. I can assure you that there are lot of intelligent thinking people in this country and he should not assume that he or his party has a sole rights over “new thinking.” Let hear other people’s view point and do what you think is the best. There is nothing wrong with “expressing” and “listening.” “Doing” is left to each person as per his choice, power and authority.

More later.

Avinash Narula

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