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Passengers boarding a Shinkansen train at Tokyo station. Photo: Shizuo Kambayashi/AP
Passengers boarding a Shinkansen train at Tokyo station. Photo: Shizuo Kambayashi/AP

How will we run bullet trains safely?

Our record on railway safety is poor. What will it need to sanitize a 500km corridor for a train that runs at 300 kmph?

I’ve been obsessing about these bullet trains from Japan. I mean real, losing-sleep-over obsessing.

I love bullet trains, particularly the Japanese ones, which I have used a lot, but also others. The European TGV on which I rode from London under the channel to Paris and then to the south of France, and also the Chinese HSR. Earlier this year, I took the special train to Shanghai airport that runs on magnetic levitation (meaning it doesn’t touch the rail) and hits 400 kilometres per hour (kmph), a thrilling, terrifying ride.

We are getting the Shinkansen types, which run at 300 kmph. That is, to put it in perspective, faster than the landing speed of Indigo’s Airbus jets at the point when they hit the tarmac. Meaning it is very fast.

I am not writing here about the necessity or cost of the project. I am sure there will be a good debate on whether that is the best way of spending 98,000 crore on our railways and whether it shouldn’t be used to refurbish existing systems (not that anyone else is lending us that money). I have been obsessing over something else. Let me take you there.

Our bullet train will run from Mumbai to Ahmedabad. This is a fairly vertical south-north run of about 500km. It goes through major urban centres such as Surat and Vadodara, and over rivers such as the Tapi and Narmada (the official border that marked off “Dakhan" from “Hindustan" till Aurangzeb, without his father’s authority, took Golconda and Bijapur).

To sanitize this corridor our bullet trains operate on, we will have to set off a space that is 500km long and, assuming there will be two adjacent tracks, one north-bound and the other south-bound, having a width of, say, 20m. This area is sanitized so only the bullet trains and approved other entities, for instance maintenance workers, are present between platforms. The question, and this is what I have been obsessing about, is: How?

To either side of this corridor, “India" will happen. You know what I mean. Disorderly and dysfunctional, unpredictable and random. How will we keep it out?

Let us say this corridor is actually created as it is in other places, by elevating it for instance. How will we keep “India" from intruding into it? What will stop cattle and truck and school bus and cyclist from attempting the random crossings that happen in India? Will we build an uncrossable corridor 500km long? How? By fencing it? Walling it?

Do we have any experience or record of sanitizing such a space? I mean really sanitizing. If so, where? The Delhi Metro? Our airports?

On 6 November 2014, a SpiceJet Boeing had an accident at Surat airport. An NDTV report says the jet “hit a buffalo that had strayed on to the runway because of a hole in the airport’s boundary wall. The engine of the Boeing 737 aircraft was severely damaged by the hit and the plane stopped. The buffalo was killed".

The report added that the “civil aviation ministry has ordered two inquiries, by the director general of civil aviation and the Airports Authority of India. A perimeter security review of airports across the country has been ordered" and “minister Ashok Gajapati Raju held a 2-hour meeting this morning and ordered, sources say, that all airports should be secured by a concrete boundary, not fencing or brick walls."

All that is fine, and this is how India has always been. Walls and fences are only recommended boundaries for us desis, not real obstructions. Incidentally, SpiceJet was the only private airline operating to Surat, and I can no longer visit my parents (there being no achche din for this Modi bhakt).

Anyway, we are familiar with our historical record on railway safety. Our bullet train will need to have higher standards: At 300 kmph, the margins are most intolerant. Where will these standards come from? And who will instruct the millions of Indians who live alongside this corridor in them?

Perhaps the high speed of our bullet train might itself be seen as a threat. But death is not a sufficient deterrent for Indians. A newspaper in Mumbai I worked for 15 years ago kept a daily score of the number of people who died each day in the city, mostly from crossing the tracks instead of taking the bridge. It was 10 people killed a day.

We’re not concerned with that here, and even the Japanese throw themselves under their trains and die, but what about people driving across? People doing “Indian" things (there being far too many variations and options and scenarios for me to list)?

The Shinkansen train systems themselves are superb and will be just fine, but is running a train system a matter of just removing it from one location and taking it to another? Or does it have a relationship with its surroundings, its environment? If the latter, how do the people putting this project together imagine they will tackle what we are discussing? I need to know because I cannot sleep (and the thing is interfering with my hangovers).

I am not saying it cannot happen. I hope it does. It’s just that it will be fascinating to see how.

Aakar Patel is executive director of Amnesty International India. The views expressed here are personal. He tweets at @aakar_amnesty.

Also read | Aakar Patel’s previous Lounge columns here

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