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Snapshot

The Mumbai-Ahmedabad Bullet Train paves the way for a massive economic shift in the region.

A lot has been said in the recent past about the High Speed Rail (HSR), also known as the Bullet Train that is to connect the financial capital of India, Mumbai to the business city of Ahmedabad in neighbouring Gujarat. It recently got an approval for an extension to Pune and Nashik as well.

However, taking only the Mumbai to Ahmedabad line into consideration, the line has plenty in store for India and its economy. A quick look at Japan’s progress would show how the bullet trains managed to contribute in adding to prosperity in that country. Japan’s economy was devastated post the second World War, but it still managed to build the 55 0km Tokyo-Osaka Shinkansen line between 1989 and 1964, in time for the Tokyo Olympics. The new route cut down the journey from six hours and forty minutes to four hours. The same journey today takes two hours and twenty minutes at a speed of 285km/hr.

The Shinkansen cleverly upgraded Japan’s existing railway network by innovating newer systems such as wider tracks, switching from 1,500 volt DC to 25,000 volt AC for power supply, regenerative braking, air-sealed trains, automated signalling and major tunnelling projects through the country’s not-so-friendly terrain. In 2014, after 50 years of operation, the Shinkansen had carried 10 billion passengers and yet the number of fatalities due to derailment or collision had remained zero. The “bullet train” did something rather unusual: it turned far-flung areas into proper residential pockets, allowing people from practically anywhere to travel far and wide on a daily basis for work, as well as give a boost to tourism.

Now, coming back to India, the bullet train means a lot to the Mumbai-Ahmedabad region. Arguably, the biggest beneficiary of this corridor would be the city of Mumbai itself. Mumbai is the financial capital of India with a highly decentralised business district. The Fort Area and Nariman Point in South Mumbai forms its primary business district, housing major entities such as the headquarters of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), and the Bombay Stock Exhange (BSE). Bandra-Kurla Complex (BKC), the secondary business district houses various large banks, another RBI office, the National Stock Exchange (NSE) as well as India’s largest diamond market, The Bharat Diamond Bourse. It is also the enclave where the International Financial Services Centre (IFSC) and the terminal of the Bullet Train is to be built. The Central Business District of Belapur (CBD Belapur) acts as a tertiary business district in Navi Mumbai. BKC itself is poised to be a major transit hub. It is the interchange node for two Metro Lines, and is also the terminal for one of the ropeways proposed. At the same time, it lies very close to the Bandra and Kurla Railway Termini and not very far from the airport. With Mumbai, being a major business and finance hub (it houses India’s second busiest airport and two largest ports), it makes all the more sense for Mumbai to be the first city to get the Bullet Train.

Now, among the other cities on this route, Thane, Virar and Dahanu are important suburbs of Mumbai. This railway line will provide faster access to Ahmedabad from these stations. The train will impact traders in Gujarat the most. The fastest train on this route, the Mumbai Central to Ahmedabad Junction Shatabdi Express is the most popular train as well. It takes six hours and 45 minutes to cover 491km, while a flight takes an hour. A lot of Gujarati businessmen on the route prefer the train journey over the flight, for a valid reason too. On a flight from Mumbai to Ahmedabad a few years ago, I learned from a co-passenger who was a businessman that he preferred the train simply because it allowed him to keep his phone on, and make business calls even while travelling.

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Render of DREAM City, Surat
Render of DREAM City, Surat

However, if one were to discount the benefits that Mumbai would avail from this corridor, multiple cities in Gujarat would be major beneficiaries. The first among these are the industrial towns Umbergaon and Vapi in the Valsad district. The former houses a lot of factories while the latter houses a lot of chemical manufacturing units. Both towns sprung up in 1980s, triggered by trade unionist Datta Samant’s textile mill strikes in Bombay. While both these towns are close to Mumbai, any legal or regulatory matter (for factories) would require a trip to Ahmedabad or Gandhinagar where most Central and State bodies have their offices. Many factory owners in Umbergaon live in Mumbai, and travel up and down every day for work. Further, Vapi also serves as a gateway to the tourist and industrial towns of Daman and Silvassa, both Union Territories.

The next major towns connected are Surat, Bharuch and Vadodara. Of these, Surat and Bharuch play a prominent role in the country’s shipping sector. Surat is also known as the Diamond City due to its large number of diamond merchants. The proposed Diamond Research and Mercantile (DREAM) City in Surat will also house India’s largest diamond exchange, larger than its Mumbai counterpart. Connectivity from one diamond-city to another, just what the doctor ordered.

Of course, this would mean that the municipal and state administrations of Gujarat would have to work on providing better connectivity with both the existing Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS) as well as a Metro rail corridor connecting DREAM City to the Bullet Train station.

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GIFT City Tower 1 (Photo Credit: SAM PANTHAKY/AFP/Getty Images)
GIFT City Tower 1 (Photo Credit: SAM PANTHAKY/AFP/Getty Images)

Further ahead comes the industrial and educational hub of Vadodara and finally, Ahmedabad. Ahmedabad, along with being a major industrial and business hub, is also home to the upcoming Gujarat International and Finance Tec (GIFT) City. Similar to Surat, Ahmedabad would also require construction on its delayed MEGA (Metro-Link Express for Gandhinagar and Ahmedabad) project to be taken up on a war-footing.

The Mumbai-Ahmedabad corridor is among the most industrialised corridors in India, making the High-Speed Rail inevitable on this stretch. Culturally, it would be beneficial because Gujaratis make up close to 19 per cent of Mumbai’s demographics. Keeping current congestion and traffic in mind, this corridor would do what the opening of the Mumbai-Pune Expressway did in the early 2000s. Tickets are set to be priced at 1.5 times that of a First-Class AC ticket, which costs Rs. 2,000 on the Mumbai-Ahmedabad Duronto Express, and not Rs. 75,000 as claimed by Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal.

So why not improve the Conventional Rail System?

This is a question often asked by many people along with scepticism that the HSR would cause the downfall of the existing railway network. Both will coexist, and the HSR will not take away the existing network. The question was again asked recently when Talgo managed to complete the Mumbai-New Delhi journey in 12 hours as opposed to the Rajdhani Express’ 16 hours. The Mumbai-Ahmedabad railway line, is already congested, especially in Mumbai, where it shares its tracks with the Mumbai Suburban Railway. Therefore, the HSR makes sense as a parallel corridor.

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Shanghai Transrapid Maglev Train (Photo by China Photos/Getty Images)
Shanghai Transrapid Maglev Train (Photo by China Photos/Getty Images)

If we are going for High-Speed Rail, why not the Maglev?

Another important question, why are we pushing for a conventional track based system instead of the Magnetic Levitation (Maglev) train that can achieve speeds of up to 603km/hr? Maglev trains have a higher cost of investment, are more power-intensive than regular trains, but for India, is not so suitable for a specific reason. The first commercial Maglev line in the world, the Shanghai Transrapid, connecting Pudong Airport to Shanghai City Centre, was built at a cost of $1.2 billion in 2004. The train was developed jointly by Siemens and ThyssenKrupp while the track was built by local Chinese firms.

The Specific Reason why the Bullet Train makes sense

The Bullet Train will cost India Rs. 97,000 crore to build, out of which 81 per cent (Rs. 79,000 crore) will be funded by Japan via a loan. Rs. 9,800 crore will be borne by the Centre, with the remaining borne by the two state governments. However, what is important to note is the nature of Japan’s loan with its interest rate of 0.1%, with India having to pay back this loan over a 50 year period with a 15 year moratorium prior to that. In common language, India starts paying the loan back 15 years after the loan period begins, which gives us enough time to build, start operations and earn back some amount of the investment before paying back the loan which is only for the export of the Shinkansen technology to India.

Another point to note is the transfer of technology. Japan will transfer or licence part of the technology to be used by India for future lines. Another win-win for us.

The bottom line is that the Bullet Train will change a lot of things in the Mumbai-Ahmedabad corridor. It will redefine work-home commutes, business operations and import-export projects too. While it has been said that GIFT City will take away Mumbai’s glitz to Ahmedabad, the Bullet Train will partially reverse that and amalgamate the entire region into one super economic zone.

Once the line is in progress, the Nashik and Pune extensions can follow, with further expansions to Nagpur, Hyderabad, Bengaluru and Chennai. This will serve a host of cities such as Kolhapur, Solapur, Hubbali-Dharwad, Belgavi, etc. Every corridor offers a vast economic and socio-cultural potential that can better serve the local populace.

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