It is business as usual down at Nizamuddin railway station in Delhi. Crowds press across the footbridge, fighting the ragged porters bearing baggage on their heads going the other way. A family makes a wall of luggage and sits down to lunch behind it. A horde of children in festive hats crowd on to platform seven. Supporters from two rival amateur cricket teams eye each other warily on platform five.
Rohit Saxena, a recently retired bureaucrat, is waiting for the Gondwana Express, which will take him 1,000 km (600 miles) across plains, forests and hills to the city of Jabalpur. It is a comfortable journey, the 61-year-old said, but, at 18 hours, “a little long”.
“If you take the train in India you have to have time,” Saxena said.
Yet, as with so much in this fast developing country, transformative change is on the way. Even if, like the Gondwana Express, it might take substantially longer to arrive than some may hope.
That change was signalled last week when minister Suresh Prabhu told parliamentarians that a feasibility study for trains capable of scything through the Indian countryside at up to 400 km/h would report in a matter of months.
Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, has raised the prospect of India developing a network of bullet trains, such as those pioneered by Japan and France.
Modi won a landslide electoral victory last year with a pledge to boost flagging growth in the emerging power and invest in its crumbling infrastructure. The trains were featured in campaign speeches as a symbol of the technologically potent nation he envisaged, and even made their way into the manifesto of his Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), alongside the construction of 100 smart cities and a cleanup of the heavily polluted river Ganges.
But building the half-dozen proposed bullet train lines proposed would, it turns out, be hugely expensive. Prabhu, the minister of railways, warned parliament that the cost of each kilometre would be well in excess of £10m, in what observers said was a subtle bid to lower expectations.
Analysts say the funds needed may rule out any such network for many decades.
“For India to try to build a fully state-owned [bullet train] network would be disastrous,” said Samir Saran, of the Observer Research Foundation thinktank.
Few doubt the need for massive investment in India’s overcrowded and underfunded railways, particularly given regional rival China’s massive splurge in a new network of trains running at 400km/h or more. One newspaper recently termed the rivalry the “Dragon v the Sloth Bear”.
“I am a firm believer that if this country is going to progress, [the] railways are the only mode of transport whereby we can meet the threat posed to the world by China,” said Vivek Khare, an author of a book on the Indian railway.
Indian trains today average under 60 km/h which, though an improvement on 50km/h several decades ago, still puts them among the slowest in the world.
Though car ownership has surged and low-cost airlines have boomed through three decades of rapid economic growth, railways have been neglected by successive governments, even though they remain the main means of long-distance transport for hundreds of millions of people.
One alternative to the bullet trains is what has been described as a “semi-bullet train”.
An adapted local locomotive set a new speed record during a test between Delhi, the capital, and the city of Agra, home to the famous Taj Mahal late last year.
The train managed to run at 160km/h for a short distance, completing the 190 km trip in around 90 minutes. Foreign-made locomotives might also be used, officials have said.
“High-speed trains should be the dream of a developed India but each country has its characteristics. We have to make up our slowness and delay and this is a very uphill task,” said Khare.
The most ambitious line currently planned for “semi-bullet” trains, would eventually connect the eastern port city of Kolkata with Delhi. Currently the journey can take 36 hours.
Eventually, it is hoped, a new national network of upgraded and additional high-speed track – dubbed the diamond quadrilateral – will be in service.
Despite aged rolling stock, buckling tracks, wandering elephants and Maoist guerillas, Indian Railway’s 1.25 million employees run 17,000 trains carrying up to 25 million people every day.
Costs of train tickets have been kept low for decades to help the poor in India, though this has meant wealthier customers turning to the burgeoning air sector.
Christian Wolmar, the UK-based transport writer, said that, as China had successfully built a vast new bullet train network, there was “no reason why India shouldn’t”.
“It would be transformational. It’s not just about speed but about creating a new network and adding fantastic amounts of capacity. Given how full trains are in India and how bad roads are, it’s a great alternative,” Wolmar said.
Major infrastructure projects in India are notoriously difficult to both launch and to complete, facing multiple problems of engineering capacity, bureaucracy, political interference, land acquisition and finance.
One success however has been a series of modern airports built across the country, and mass transit systems such as the £450m Delhi metro.
There are fears about safety too. Accidents are common. A derailment last week killed 30 people in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
Saran, the analyst, said that a less ambitious plan which would use public funds to bring in private finance to build “commercially viable” individual lines would be more sensible.
India has extended its rail network by only around 10,000km to 65,000km since winning its independence from Britain in 1947.
The railways have long played a key cultural role in the country, featuring in many of its greatest films and books, as well as being central to some of its most important historical events.
“It is the nerve system of the nation,” said Khare. “It’s failure will lead to our collapse. It is this important.”