Defer Bullet train to improve safety in Railways

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Dear Hon. Prime Minister,

In yet another catastrophe, 23 people died in a stampede on the Elphinstone Road Station foot overbridge on 29th September 2017 while on their way to work. They died because the bridge was too narrow to take the increased pedestrian traffic as people took shelter from the rain. They were the latest victims of the crumbling infrastructure of Indian Railways.

In 2016-17, 238 lives were lost in train accidents, one of the highest death tolls in recent times. While the 2017-18 budget has seen a higher allocation to Railways, including the setup of a 1 lakh crore rupees ‘Safety Fund’ over the next 5 years, very little impact is seen on the ground as accidents continue to happen with sickening regularity.

In response to the latest accident, the Railway Minister, Mr. Piyush Goel has announced a slew of timebound measures to enhance safety in Indian Railways with special focus on Mumbai. This is laudable but insufficient as Indian Railways has and will continue to struggle for funds.

On the other hand, a mega-project to setup a Bullet Train corridor between Mumbai and Ahmedabad has been inked in September 2017. The estimated investment is Rs.1.1 Lakh crore over the next 5 years. We believe that your government is poorly prioritizing deployment of our scarce resources in this prestige project which the nation does not need and cannot afford. Please consider the following facts:

1. Flights as an alternative: The current one-way airfare on the Mumbai-Ahmedabad sector ranges from 50%-100% of the projected fare of Rs.3,000 on the bullet train. There is a faster and cheaper mode of transport available on this sector today!

2. Passengers served: The track length on this sector is 508 km or just 0.58% of the total running track length of 86,937 km in the Indian Railways. Even if this route may have higher traffic, only a tiny proportion of rail travelers will be served by this bullet train.

3. Financial terms: The fact that this project is being funded by a soft loan from Japan (0.1% interest) to the tune of 80% of investment cost, with a 15-year moratorium on repayment is often offered as a justification of the project itself. This reasoning is just wrong.

a. Indian Railways still has to bear 20% of the investment cost via equity directly. This is 22,000 crore rupees, which is not a small amount by any stretch.

b. Irrespective of the favourable conditions of the loan, the nation will still have to pay the remaining 88,000 crore rupees. We will still be paying for a project we do not need.

c. The loan itself is denominated in Japanese Yen. With much lower interest rates in Japan, the Yen is very likely to appreciate against the Rupee (as it has historically), thereby nullifying the low interest rate.

d. The operational maintenance cost will likely require additional budgetary allocation when money for simple infrastructure upgrades like the Elphinstone Road foot over bridge is difficult to find.

e. Cheap financing cannot be a justification for implementing a project, particularly of this scale. There should be a need for it, and there isn’t.

4. Transparency in decision making: We are concerned at the unseemly haste in making this major policy decision without proper public consultation. It was incumbent on the government to publish all relevant facts but the basic project evaluation metrics have not been shared in the public domain.

5. India’s prestige: It has also been said that this project will enhance India’s prestige in the world. Nothing impacts India’s prestige more than its citizens dying in a stampede while on their way to work, because the government could not provide them with basic infrastructure.

Mr. Prime Minister, we are sick of the continued apathy and negligence of successive governments which seemingly have no regard for loss of human lives as well as the inhuman travelling conditions. We do not care about the 70 years of poor governance of the past. As the government of the day, we expect you to make decisions which are in the best interests of all, and not a privileged few.

Before we reach for the stars, let us at least learn to walk. We want a renewal of infrastructure with a high emphasis on safety. We don’t want any more rail accidents. We want stations and trains to be clean and with functioning toilets. We want you to ensure women’s safety. We demand accountability of all officials. We want this, not just in Mumbai, but across the country.

We appeal to you to defer this Bullet Train project and reallocate this investment to infrastructure renewal and safety assurance for all rail commuters, not just in Mumbai city but across the country.

Mr. Prime Minister - you have a close affinity to the railways due to your own life story. Let your legacy to the world be in making Indian Railways a global leader in safety, where zero human lives are lost. Nothing else is acceptable.



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