Japan helps India break ground on first high-speed railway

September 26, 2017

Earlier this month, India broke ground on its first high-speed line. The 316-mile route will connect the country's largest city and economic hub, Mumbai, with Ahmedabad, an important industrial center in the heart of the country. (For reference, that's about the same distance at Chicago to Cincinnati.) Trains are expected to travel at speeds of up to 220 mph, reducing today's 7-hour trip to just over 2 hours.

India has been studying five different high-speed corridors for several years with help from a variety of international interests, including French and Italian firms. As the studies progressed, Japan emerged as a leading partner. The deal to study and build this line was finalized in late 2015. Japan is providing expertise, its Shinkansen technology, and a 50-year, 0.1% interest loan to pay for the $17 billion project.

India's decision to rely on Japanese technology and expertise may be surprising, given that its more immediate neighbor, China, is the world's most prolific builder of high-speed rail. It's possible India chose Japan based on a desire to have the project built on time, in budget, and without corruption. The Shinkansen's bulletproof safety record was also likely a factor.

Safety is a serious concern on India's railroads today. A fair portion of the tracks and equipment date to the British colonial era. The common image of an Indian train is an overcrowded one, with people hanging out the windows and riding on the roof, moving mere inches away from the obstacles of a dense urban enviroment. Largely because of conditions like this, there were more than 26,000 railway-related deaths in India in 2015.

Like the Shinkansen in Japan, India's new high-speed line will be built entirely on an elevated structure, eliminating grade crossings. It will likely have few or no connections to the conventional rail network. Although this will ensure safety, it doesn't take advantage of the Phased Network Approach, and will limit the flexibility and usefulness of the line until connecting routes or extensions are built.

The line is expected to haul its first passengers in late 2022.

Photo by Jayakumar Ananthan

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