India’s ‘Ambitious’ Bullet Train Project With Undersea Tunnel Picks Pace; First Run In 2026 Despite Hurdles

Japan’s then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended a groundbreaking ceremony for India’s first-ever bullet train in September 2017. Despite facing several hurdles on the way since then, the latest reports indicate that the high-speed train program is finally “on track.”

The complex project will miss the initial deadline set for the end of this year owing to several factors that posed hurdles, including political opposition and COVID-19-related delays. However, the renewed vigor is a sign of a connection between India and Japan that is also gaining strength.

In February this year, reports in the Indian media indicated that the work finally kicked off on the project after a prolonged wait. Besides being India’s fastest train, this high-speed rail will be the first in India to have an undersea station.

Several hundred people are working nonstop in Gujarat, a state in western India. Their goal is to ensure that the project, based on the shinkansen (bullet train) and being aided by Japan, is finished before the first trial run, which the Indian side anticipates will take place in 2026.

A senior National High-Speed Rail Corporation Limited executive in charge of the Surat project told Nikkei Asia that work is in full swing.

He further stated that 650 people work round-the-clock in three shifts of eight hours each on the Surat (a city in Gujarat) station project alone. This section of the project is expected to be finished by June 2024.

Mumbai–Ahmedabad high-speed rail corridor - Wikipedia
E5 Series Shinkansen set in Japan, which will be the rolling stock of Mumbai–Ahmedabad high-speed rail corridor/ Wikipedia

The nation’s first “bullet” train will travel through western India’s landscape, covering the 508.17 kilometers between India’s two mega cities – Mumbai and Ahmedabad – in under two hours. The train’s nickname comes from its shape and speed, which resembles a bullet.

According to the plan, of a total of 508.17 kilometers of rail track, 21 kilometers have been planned to be underground, whereas the rest will be elevated. There will be 12 stops along the whole Ahmedabad-Mumbai bullet train line, with eight in Gujarat and four in Maharashtra.

Last month, when Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida visited India, Modi stated that the Mumbai-Ahmedabad rail connection was “progressing fast” between the two countries. The two nations also signed a loan agreement for the fourth installment of INR180 billion (US$2.1 billion) in official development assistance from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

Indian Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra, during a media briefing, had then said, “Both leaders took an assessment of the current status of the implementation of the project, which I think is progressing well.”

The project has become symbolic of the cooperation between the two countries. Although the project catching pace to be ready in time for the 2026 deadline is commendable, several hiccups warrant examination to understand the complexities related to such a grand-scale project taken up by India.

The Behind-The-Scenes Of India’s Bullet Train Project

At the project’s inception, the INR1.08-trillion project was pushed through by the two leaders. JICA is footing 81% of the bill at a 0.1% interest rate. As per the agreement, the 50-year repayment period will start after 15 years of receiving the loan.

Japan’s E5 Shinkansen technology will be used to develop India’s much-anticipated bullet train. The Japanese company is known to have a zero-fatality record, making the new train safe and giving it superfast speed up that will allow India to join the club of countries with very high-speed railways, including China.

The project received harsh criticism from Uddhav Thackeray, the leader of a Maharashtra-based political party who was chief minister of the state from November 2019 to June 2022.

The project was also opposed by farmers, whose land had been acquired by the government for its implementation. The progress in land acquisition has been slow in Maharashtra, causing delays for the project.

From the beginning, Uddhav Thackeray’s party sided with farmers who opposed it, telling local media in 2017 that a bullet train is not the desire of India’s common people and will “cater only to the rich-and-wealthy classes.” According to the argument, the money would be better used on traditional train projects, such as updating Mumbai’s aging network.

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Not just that, India’s opposition parties have termed the project as “redundant,” costing the same as the air travel between the two cities. “If you can travel between Ahmedabad and Mumbai in just one hour [by air] at the cost of only 3,500 rupees, why would you not do that?” Deepak Kesarkar, a Shiv Sena functionary, told a local news outlet.

Some people have expressed concerns about the bullet train project’s excessive cost, the eviction of residents due to land acquisition, and the project’s possible adverse environmental effects.

The pandemic made acquiring land more difficult because of this opposition. But soon after Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party partnered with a breakaway faction of Uddav Thackeray’s party in mid-2022 to establish a new coalition government in Maharashtra, the project picked pace.

“We had some problem in the state of Maharashtra, but as soon as we had a change in government… they immediately gave permissions,” Ashwini Vaishnaw, India’s Minister for Railways, said at an event in March. “Right now, we are targeting 2026 August as the date for running the first [bullet] train, and [in] 2027, a larger section [is] being opened,” the minister said.

In the 2022-23 budget, the railway ministry had allotted Rs 5,000 crore for the project when the work was primarily restricted to Gujarat. However, according to National High-Speed Rail, 99.17% of the land required for the project had been purchased as of March 25. The progress, thus, is evident.

Earlier, a report by the Indian Ministry of Railways stated that at the end of last year, 30.68% of work was completed in Gujarat, and 13.37% of work had been completed in Maharashtra.

Vaishnaw underlined that India and Japan are on the same page in a statement made to Nikkei Asia. While some detractors have questioned the project’s benefits for India, he insisted it assists the industry.

Speaking to the publication, Vaishnav emphasized, “We created very good communication between the Japanese and Indian sides with the spirit of ‘one project, one team.’ Second, it was a clear vision of Prime Minister Modi, which ensured that many machines were indigenized — manufactured in India and designed in India. Third, we got good companies to do the construction.”