Last week, Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe laid the foundation of the bullet train. It received the familiar criticism of whether India really needed a bullet train. Political opponents like the Congress were confused about whether they should take credit for the bullet train or be critical of it. As it turned out, they did both! Some journalists, well past their neutral date, decided to link it to other priorities.
Essentially, most of the criticism about the bullet train is by people who prefer to travel by air and have probably not been on a train in years. But as someone who travels almost exclusively by trains, I can tell you that this is a big development and energises an arterial travel network that is the chosen mode of transport for most Indians.
Do the recent spate of derailments bother me as a train traveller? They most certainly do and it must be a priority, along with unmanned crossings, for the Railway ministry since passenger safety is non-negotiable. I am also concerned that the catering staff cannot solicit tips anymore — overworked and underpaid, tips are helpful. Also, these are solicited at the end of a trip and it is completely voluntary. It doesn’t impact your experience if you choose not to tip and, trust me, many don’t. It’s also true that some travellers find this aspect an irritant. I think the best solution is to keep it optional.
Should security at railway stations be improved in these times of terror? Absolutely! There are many access points to a platform and each must be manned; there is also room for foul play when the train makes its journey. These are all legitimate concerns, but I am still pleased about the bullet train.
In his comments during the foundation ceremony, the new Minister for Railways, Piyush Goyal, stated that at the time the Rajdhani was launched, there was criticism as well, but now most want to travel only by such trains. It will turn out to be a prescient statement, for the foundation was laid not only for a bullet train, but also for a new way to travel in future. Sure, there are rail enthusiasts like me who will travel to Mumbai or Ahmedabad to just get on the train once its ready, but this wont remain a curiosity like a ride in a theme park. The bullet train will change the way we travel. One sector at a time.
The other day I was sitting with two captains of two different private airlines. I asked them about air travel and the fear of flying. It was an intriguing discussion. One point they made was that they had seen an increase in this condition, more so because there were many first-time fliers these days. More people are able to afford air travel, the kind who only used to travel by train and hence those anxieties came on board. Air travel is no longer the privilege of the elite few as it had been in the past. The same will happen with the bullet train as well, since modes of transport get democratised real fast. Only 20 years ago, the car was a privilege, now it’s a necessity. The captains also told me about a well-known politician who once took their flight and when asked where his wife was remarked that she didn’t fly the budget airline but a pricier option. Snobbery will stick around even as travel becomes more accessible; I guess the status quoists can take some comfort in that.
But back to the bullet train, here is why it’s awesome! Not because it pulls me back into ‘I once wanted to be an engine driver’ childhood excitement, but because it brings good in so many ways.
Let’s start with safety. This train will be designed like the Japanese Shinkansen, which has an unimpeachable record of zero passenger fatalities in 50 years of operation. What has also been in the news lately is fuel prices. This train has proved to be three times more fuel-efficient than planes and five times more fuel-efficient than cars. Ethical travel is on its way. Because this system is also environment friendly, CO2 emissions are one-fourth of travel per km when compared to a plane and two-seventh when compared to a car! So if the airline snobs bring you down, this is your comeback. There have been studies on the economics of it and how towns connected by high rail systems show an increase in GDP of up to 2.7 per cent (courtesy, the London School of Economics, of course!), but that’s for another column. This is a good place to close by mentioning the most obvious: It’s also a time saver, so to borrow a cliché, time is after all money! Read more