The Indian Railways, child of the British economic interests in our nation, has come a long way to acquire the tag of the third longest network in the world. Carrying around 25 million people every day, contributing majorly towards the livelihood of masses, and holding the distinction of one of the world's largest employers, it certainly forms the golden thread of country's economic fabric. In fact, until 2016, the financial budget was preceded by a separate railway budget because of the staggering share it had in government's revenues. This archaic practice now has been scrapped by the present government by merging both, thereby expected to relieve railways of financial stress. Nevertheless, the image of railways is marred in the international scenario because of the high risk to the commuters' safety, and this is rather unsettling while we vaunt it to be our nation's lifeline.
The financial health of railways is severely critical and this casts shadow over the rate of investment therein which is abysmally low and therefore fails miserably in living up to its claim that passengers' safety is non-negotiable. There are various methods which the government is mulling to ameliorate the situation, but one important aspect that will be the cynosure of this essay will be comparing the need of accident free and bullet trains. This has assumed significance in view of the recent massive derailment of the Indore-Patna train, shattering numerous lives and families and shuddering the entire nation. Even more dreadful was to know that the casualties could have been minimised, had the train coaches been upgraded with the ones that are already widely in use in Indian trains.
With such flippancy and laggardness displayed in the matters of public security, it is necessary to contemplate about another technological leap in the name of Bullet Trains, which have been proposed by the government and are modelled along the lines of Japanese Shinkansen network. The average speed of Indian trains is about 160km/hour, whereas it runs at a speed of 320km/hour which can considerably cut down the travelling time. However, it would be fallacious to equate high speed trains with the accident prone ones. This Japanese train is acclaimed to have an unsullied record in safety with not even a single catastrophe till date since its inception. But then, it is altogether a different poser if we can emulate the same technology with perfection, given the huge bureaucratic negligence, depleted power resources and other social conditions prevalent in the country. The cost of the Mumbai-Ahmedabad project is a whopping Rs.98, 000 crore, and considering that the existing train network is long overdue to receive an overhaul, this venture doesn't seem much sagacious. A sequitur of high costs is high fares, making it affordable only to few. What worse, its utility might be diminished if the gap between the train and plane fares isn't enough to please the users.
The project also raises serious issues of displacement of the squatters on the lands which might have to be acquired to bring it to fruition. This doesn't augur well for the social costs and is bound to produce resentment. However, certain benefits of the bullet trains are quite riveting. Apart from making the journey entertaining, comfortable and less time consuming, it could shore up the 'Smart Cities' mission as it would obviate the need of people to congest urban areas by migration. Since their operation requires electricity instead of fuel, it is capable of giving a major fillip to the green environment vision and stint the incessant deforestation.
If we trace back to the causes of railway debacles in the recent past, derailment is the major culprit. The tracks are dead old and are being utilized beyond their shelf-life. This is one sector where the technology has not been able to hold a candle to others. Dearth of anti-collusion devices and fire detecting systems, poor signalling systems and unmanned crossings are some other rudiments which the government needs to start working upon.
It is therefore incontrovertible that the plight of railways can be surmounted only through a technological evolution. Bullet trains can certainly be one step in that direction, but its introduction before revamping the present obsolete structure would amount to jumping the guns. It would be an unsavoury picture where the elite trains run parallel to the outmoded ones; that whereas an ordinary person who prefers or affords the traditional trains is exposed to risks, we brag about the high speed and snazzy bullet trains. No amount of desire for convenience and speed can offset that for safety, and thus the priority should be new-fangled coaches, tracks and signalling systems, and it is only after reassuring itself of all these requisites that the railways should ratchet up the plying of bullet trains.
- Bharti Garg