Ahmedabad/Anand/Surat: In September 2017, just two months before the Gujarat assembly polls, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his then Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe laid the foundation stone of the ambitious 508-km Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project in Ahmedabad. Modi called it a “symbol of new India”, while the opposition dismissed it as an “election bullet train”.
More than five years later, as the western state gears up for another assembly election, the 348-km Gujarat stretch of the project has gathered speed, with teams of engineers and workers working 24×7 in shifts to make up for time lost due to land acquisition issues and the pandemic, among other things.
When ThePrint visited five of the state’s project sites a fortnight ago, several thousand workers and engineers, aided by some of the most sophisticated machinery, were putting the high-speed corridor into shape — pier by pier, girder by girder.
At casting yards in central Gujarat’s Anand and Navsari further south, huge girders, each weighing about 975 metric tonnes, were being cast. These prestressed concrete and steel structures are being erected over piers on which tracks will be laid for the bullet train.
In Surat, engineers were busy overseeing the intricate process of building a rail bridge over the River Tapi, while in the city, a diamond-shaped bullet train station was in the advanced stages of construction.
In Ahmedabad, project workers said most of the work was complete on a multimodal transport hub to connect the bullet train station with the metro, bus rapid transit system (BRTS), and the Sabarmati railway station.
The “prestige” associated with the project has drawn engineering experts from across the country, as well as a diverse labour force.
“People at different levels — from supervisors to electricians and welders — have left their work in construction projects in Dubai and other Gulf countries and are coming back to work on the bullet train project,” said an engineer at a project site in Surat.
There’s an international flavour too, with Japanese officials and engineers frequently visiting project sites. “They (Japanese) are scouting for an office in Ahmedabad now,” said a senior official of the National High Speed Rail Corporation Limited (NHSRCL) in Sabarmati.
Overcoming a slow start
Based on the same technology as the Shinkansen — the Japanese bullet train — but modified to suit Indian conditions, the Mumbai-Ahmedabad train will run at 320 km per hour and cover a distance of 508 km in under three hours.
The largest stretch of the corridor — 348 km — is in Gujarat, while 156 km falls in Maharashtra and 4 km in Dadra and Nagar Haveli.
The project is being implemented by the NHSRCL, a special purpose vehicle set up to finance, construct, maintain, and manage the high-speed rail corridor.
Eighty per cent of the funding for the project is through a soft loan from the Japanese government’s Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), with the remaining cost. being shared by the Union government and the Gujarat and Maharashtra governments in a 50:25:25 ratio.
While the original December 2023 deadline for the bullet train project will be overshot and the project cost is likely to exceed the Rs 1.08 lakh crore estimated in the feasibility study, the path ahead looks promising.
One of the biggest issues besetting the project — both in Gujarat and Maharashtra — was land acquisition. But now, over 98 per cent of the land needed in Gujarat has been acquired, and 95.4 per cent in Maharashtra. All the required land has been acquired in Dadra and Nagar Haveli.
The government is yet to determine a final deadline for the entire 508-km project, but the completion time for a 50-km stretch between Surat and Bilimora in Gujarat has been set for August 2026.
While work on the Maharashtra stretch has just taken off after years of delay, civil work is progressing at a good clip in Gujarat. All contracts in the state have been awarded and construction work on viaducts (a type of bridge), bridges, stations, and tracks seems to be going at full throttle.
The men & the machines
What is most striking about the project’s foundational civil works is the scale and intricacy of the enterprise, whether its the girders being built in the casting yards, the piers under construction on the alignment sites, or the massive machinery, most of it indigenously manufactured.
In Anand, close to 6,000 workers work around the clock in shifts at the casting yard to meet their target of making 734 girders under the watchful eye of chief project manager Pradeep Ahirkar, in-charge of the civil and building works for 88-km of viaducts and one station at Anand.
He told ThePrint that the most important part in the whole process is the casting and launching of the girders.
“The span (length) of a girder is 40 metres and it weighs about 975 metric tonnes. The casting of girders has to be of top quality and their launching has to be accurate. This is the foundation on which the bullet train will run and the most critical phase,” he explained.
“So far, 60 girders have been constructed, out of which 38 have been launched on the piers,” he added.
Transporting and placing the girders on the piers is a task delegated to a set of mighty machines.
Take the straddle carriers, for instance. Manufactured at project contractor Larsen & Toubro’s plant in Kancheepuram, Tamil Nadu, they come with 80 huge tyres, 20 axles and can lift a load of approximately 1,100 metric tonnes. They are being used to shift the girders from one location to another.
Then there is the bridge gantry, which lifts the girder from the ground and places it on top of the girder transporter. The latter, another gigantic machine, performs the important task of shifting the girder from the bridge gantry locations to the launching gantry.
The launching gantry then lifts the girder from girder transporter and launches it over the piers. It’s only after all the girders are placed on the piers and tested that work on laying the tracks can start.
The Anand section of the project covers a stretch of 88 km. “So far, we have completed around 73 km of foundation and 45 km of pile cap for pillar construction. Besides, 35 km of piers have already been constructed on this section,” Ahirkar said.
Overall, piers have been constructed in 100 km out of the 348-km stretch in Gujarat. Besides this, 9.2 km of viaducts have been completed.
There is a learning curve and a lot remains to be done, but Ahirkar is optimistic, he said. “We will complete it on time,” he told ThePrint.
A railway engineer, Ahirkar left his job as an officer of the Indian Railway Service of Engineers (IRSE) cadre in the Western Railways and was absorbed into NHSRCL in 2017.
Indeed, the majority of the senior officials at NHSRCL have either come on deputation or have left their jobs in the Indian Railways and other affiliated organisations like IRCON (earlier known as Indian Railway Construction Company) and Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC).
“There is a huge prestige factor involved in working for India’s first bullet train project,” said a deputy project manager posted at the Navsari casting yard, where a 2.5-km stretch of continuous viaduct has been completed.
An MTech graduate from IIT Kanpur, this deputy project manager worked for over a decade in the Delhi, Pune and Nagpur metro rail projects before joining NHSRCL.
His sentiments about the “prestige” of the project was echoed at other sites, too.
For instance, an L&T civil engineer, who comes from Andhra Pradesh and is working in Surat, said that working on the project was guaranteed to “amp up the career graph” of all those involved.
“It’s challenging in terms of scale, and there is a lot of learning involved as we are using this technology for the first time in India. It’s currently the most advanced railway infra project in the world,” he added.
Complex technology, extensive training in Japan
The bullet train project involves a close collaboration between India and Japan.
The E5 Shinkansen series bullet trains that will be pressed into service will be manufactured by Japan’s Kawasaki Heavy Industries and Hitachi, but the civil work in the Gujarat stretch is being carried out by Indian contractors.
While the slabs required for laying tracks are being made in India, the track components will come from Japan.
The engineers who will be responsible for operation and maintenance of the bullet train have already started training in Japan in batches. For civil work training, too, engineers have been sent to Japan.
“The civil work including track laying and building bridges is complex. We have not used this technology before. Our men, both engineers and workers, are undergoing extensive training in Japan,” said a senior NHSRCL official involved in building a bridge over Tapi river in Surat.
A training centre for engineers has also been set up in Vadodara. “A simulator of a bullet train engine has been brought from Japan for training purposes,” the official added.
Among the most complex of the substructures being constructed on the Gujarat stretch currently are the bridge structures over four rivers — Tapi, Narmada, Mahi, and Sabarmati.
“Laying piers on a river is complex. It involves complex geotechnical investigation. First, the well foundation has to be laid. Then piers will be put, over which the girders will be launched. Finally, the track will come on the girder,” said a senior NHSRCL official overseeing the construction of the bridge on the Tapi River.
Closest to completion
A tall, swanky building with a large stainless steel mural depicting Mahatma Gandhi’s Dandi march on its southern facade immediately grabs attention as one passes by the Sabarmati area in Ahmedabad. It’s in sharp contrast to the rundown Indian Railways Sabarmati railway station adjoining it.
The new building is the Sabarmati multimodal transport hub. Since the Mumbai-Ahmedabad high-speed rail corridor will terminate here, it will be connected to the existing Sabarmati railway station, the metro station, and the Bus Rapid Transit System.
While the completion of the terminal station will take time, work on the hub is nearing finalisation.
“About 90 per cent of the work is done,” said Arun Kumar Singh, chief project manager at the Sabarmati Multimodal Hub, adding that he expects it to be completed by February 2023.
“The multimodal hub has been designed to cater to 1.5 lakh footfalls. Work is underway on three foot overbridges, which will connect the hub to the metro, BRTS and railway station,” he said.
Currently, approximately 850 workers, mostly from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, and Odisha, are working at the site. “Work started in May 2019. But then Covid struck. The number of workers had come down to 250 during that time. There were delays on account of that,” Singh said.
There will be eight stations on the Gujarat stretch — Vapi, Bilimora, Bharuch, Vadodara, Anand, Ahmedabad, Sabarmati and Surat. All are in various stages of construction, with Surat’s bullet station not far from completion.
As a nod to Surat’s monicker as India’s diamond city, the station, which is expected to be ready by April 2024, has been designed in the shape of the precious gem.
(Edited by Asavari Singh)