AS India prepares for the launch of its first-ever bullet train project, commuters of the world’s second-most populous country say the government should also focus on another important aspect of travel: making regular trains run on time.
On Thursday, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will lay the foundation stone for India’s first bullet train in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat.
The move by Abe, who starts a two-day visit to India on Wednesday, highlights an early lead for Japan in a sector where the Chinese have also been trying to secure a foothold, but without much success.
Modi has made the 500km-long high-speed rail link between the financial hub of Mumbai and the industrial city of Ahmedabad in western Gujarat, a centerpiece of his efforts to showcase India’s ability to build cutting-edge infrastructure.
But despite the huge effort and impressive technology, many in India are still frustrated by delays, sometimes stretching for hours on end, which has made a daunting task out of traveling along the country’s inefficient railroads.
One of them is 19-year-old Rahul Roy, whose family had waited some eight hours before the Farakka Express from Delhi to Bengal’s Malda departed from Lucknow station recently.
According to India’s NDTV, the exasperated college student said the bullet train project sounded like science fiction although delays on normal trains were run of the mill.
“The bullet train is a good concept but how about investing some money into maintaining punctuality on these trains? I waited for this train to leave since 7am… It’s 3pm now. It is a terrible waste of my time. When will that change,” Rahul asked.
His mother, Sapna Roy, said was excited at the thought of traveling fast.
“I saw this bullet train news on the phone a few days ago. I think Modiji is doing the right thing. It will benefit everyone. Maybe if there is some emergency sometimes I can also board a bullet train and go somewhere,” she said.
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Shambhu Nath, a 45-year-old government sports trainer traveling in another coach with his school team , said the bullet train was a good idea but improvements were needed on existing railways.
“As long as trains like this one have better facilities, better cleanliness and most importantly, a better safety record,” Nath said.
Over the last month, India reported five train derailments, of which one incident claimed the lives of 120 people in Uttar Pradesh.
“The track condition is not good. The trains are not clean. The bullet train concept is good but what about maintaining punctuality and safety on trains that general people take. If safety can’t be assured, then what’s the use,” Nath said, as quoted by NDTV.
India’s Railways Minister Piyush Goyal welcomed the prospects for growth brought by Japan’s high-speed “shinkansen” technology.
“This technology will revolutionize and transform the transport sector,” the minister said.
In Tokyo, a Japanese foreign ministry official told reporters, “We would like to support ‘Make in India’ as much as possible,” referring to Modi’s signature policy to lure investors in manufacturing.
“And for that, we want to do what’s beyond the Mumbai-Ahmedabad line and achieve economies of scale.”
India would make “all-out efforts” to complete the line by August 2022, more than a year earlier than planned, the government said this week.
Japan is providing 81 percent of the funding for the INR1.08-trillion (US$16.9 billion) project, through a 50-year loan at 0.1 percent annual interest.
Additional reporting by Reuters.