Trains to nowhere

Debi Goenka, The Hindu, May 28 2017

Link to the article

Our commuters need a better deal. And though there are a number of projects in various stages of planning and execution, many of them are a plain waste of money

If Indian Railways carries more than 34 adult cows or buffaloes in a wagon, they can be prosecuted for cruelty to animals under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. But if they transport four times the maximum number of people in a compartment, which they regularly do in Mumbai, there are no penalties.

The Mumbai suburban train network, which carries the bulk of the citizenry to and from their workplaces in the city and the region, is unbeatable in terms of the number of people it transports and the cost at which this is done. (For example, the minimum railway fare in London is £1; in Mumbai it is ₹5.)

This is not something that is creditable. An average train carries 4,000 commuters jammed into it at rush hour. They’re designed for a quarter that number to travel comfortably.

Our commuters do need a better deal. And there are a number of projects in various stages of planning and execution that are supposed to give us just that.

But many of them seem entirely wasteful, in that they serve only a small section of the population. And all of them have a huge environmental cost, as we have been seeing.

When Vashi was first connected to the city, it was only by road. It took a long time to rectify that and extend the train network across the creek. But that mistake was repeated with the Airoli bridge. And it is now going to be done yet again with the trans-harbour link. The Navi Mumbai airport, which the trans-harbour link will bring closer to the city, is another disaster. Its creation involves the destruction of 400 acres of mangroves, 1,000 acres of mud flats, 250 acres of forest land, two hills and the diversion of two rivers. That’s not all. The site is surrounded by bird-rich habitats and eco-sensitive areas such as the Karnala bird sanctuary, the Matheran ESZ, the Elephanta caves, and the mangroves of Thane Creek. So it is a huge safety risk for the birds, and yes, aircraft and passengers.

More trains on the same tracks

Let us look at one way the existing backbone of the city can be enhanced.

How do our trains improve? Better headway (frequency between trains on the same track), and the creation of east–west corridors.

On headway, decreasing it is not a novel or even new idea. A White Paper brought out in 1990 by the then Railway Minister, George Fernandes, talks about reducing the headway to three minutes.

Today, more than 25 years later, it remains at four minutes, except for short periods at rush hour when it goes to three minutes.

A reduction to two minutes would mean that the 4,000 commuters jammed into one rake at rush hour would halve to 2,000. One every minute, and capacity would be quadrupled, and our trains would be carrying the capacity they were actually designed for.

An investment of around ₹15,000 crore aimed at reducing the headway from four minutes to two would double the capacity of the suburban train network. What would this take? Better maintained rail tracks, a modern signalling system, better communication between the control room and the motorman, and modern coaches. Transport expert Ketan Goradia has estimated that the cost of upgrading the WR and CR corridors would be ₹2,620 crore and that of upgrading the signalling system ₹7,326 crore. The 100 new rakes that would be needed would cost ₹5,400 crore. (This is for the entire 300-km suburban network, extending outside the city.)

Part of this cost would be to connect the southern ends of the Central and Western lines at one end via a tunnel, and to also connect Virar and Kalyan. In effect, this will create a circular railway, and somewhat ease the plight of commuters who have to change lines every day. There would be no additional stations required and the work would not cause the kind of disruption that the Metros are causing to the road infrastructure and to the environment.

But neither the Railways, nor the State Government, the MMRDA, or the MCGM seem interested in investing so that millions of commuters would reap immediate benefits without causing any environmental damage or displacement. Indeed the suburban network is being starved of funds to such an extent that, as a senior officer in Indian Railways (who asked not be named) told me, they are being forced to cannibalise their rakes for spares.

No funds?

Instead, what is our money being spent on?

As per the MMRDA website, ₹648 crore was spent on the Jogeshwari–Vikhroli Link Road, and the Santa Cruz–Chembur Link Road in MUTP I. In 2010, MUTP II was sanctioned. The numbers: Kurla–CST fifth and sixth rail lines, ₹659 crore; Thane–Diva two more lines, ₹133 crore; Borivali–Mumbai Central sixth line, ₹522 crore; extension of Harbour Line to Goregaon, ₹103 crore; DC to AC Conversion ₹293 crore; EMU procurement and manufacture, ₹2930 crore; maintenance facilities for EMUs ₹205 crore; stabling lines for EMUs, ₹141 crore; technical assistance and institutional strengthening ₹62 crore; relief and rehabilitation ₹124 crore. Most of these projects remain incomplete even today and no details are available of how much work has been completed or how much money has been spent.

And, amazingly, the MMRDA and the State government have about ₹100,000 crore available for the Metros, and the MCGM and the state have ₹13,000 crore for a coastal road that will be used by perhaps 1% of Mumbaikars. And yes, the MMRDA is happy to incur a loss of ₹10 lakh a day on the Monorail (which has cost more than ₹2,700 crore so far and has extremely poor ridership).

At the very least, train fares could be increased to pay for improving services. If commuters are assured of better, more comfortable travel, we would not mind paying a bit more. For all Mumbaikars, after all, time is money. But this is a political hot potato that most railway ministers have preferred to pass on to their successors.

Even a simple suggestion, made more than a decade ago, to introduce an air-conditioned coach in each rake, has not been implemented. Instead, we are now going to get a complete AC train that will operate every two to three hours. Since the idea was mooted to encourage car-commuting professionals to switch over to trains, a train that runs with that kind of frequency is self-defeating.

Why this neglect? Perhaps it is because decision-makers — not just the babus in Delhi; this includes senior Railways officers in the city — do not travel regularly by suburban trains.

East-west connectivity

I had attended the public hearing convened by the MMRDA many years ago when the Metro project was mooted. We were promised a dream project that would be implemented within a couple of years, would entail disruption for just a few months and, eventually, fares would be competitive with BEST rates. As we have experienced, none of this has happened.

But despite the huge delays and years of disruption, and the fares are higher than expected, the only operating line so far, the Metro 1 between Ghatkopar and Versova, is seen as a blessing. This is because our east-west connectivity is so bad, that almost anything would be an improvement.

The way the Metro projects have been conceived makes one wonder: are they supposed to complement the suburban train network or to compete with them? Or are they being built at huge public cost only for the elite who will be able to afford their fares?

If one were planning an integrated transportation network, it would obviously have to be interconnected, and ideally, seamless. Our locals run on broad gauge. But, inexplicably, our wise babus chose the metre gauge for the Metro. Since the Metro lines run underground or on elevated paths, the existing space for the extra width isn’t an issue. But plans proceed, and the new Metro lines will be metre gauge. So much for an integrated network.

There has been a huge public outcry, and quite rightly so, about the 5,000 trees that will be cut for Metro 3, and the effect that this will have on the air in the city, already highly polluted, and temperatures. This follows the furore about using green spaces such as the Aarey Milk Colony lands for a car shed (and, activists suspect, to also surreptitiously divert part of this land to builders). The tree-cutting carries on. There is still no other option for the car shed.

This needs to be investigated, and one hopes that our courts will go into this in some detail, particularly since the MMRDA itself has a pathetic track record when it comes to transplantation of trees. To make way for the Jogeshwari Vikhroli Link Road Project, the MMRDA uprooted several hundred trees. Strangely, huge indigenous trees were cut, but the smaller exotic species were transplanted, at huge cost, in Aarey Milk Colony. Only a handful survived.

One kind of pollution that often goes unremarked is noise. A recent study said that noise levels in railway stations and railway compartments in Mumbai are sometimes higher than the noise at the airport runways. This adds considerably to the stress and damage we sustain every day from vehicle pollution and construction dust (which of course are made worse by trees being cut). But commuters’ ordeals do not end when they exit the station.

Overcrowded (and often encroached or in bad repair) pavements, hawkers, and dense traffic are what greets them outside. autorickshaws, two-wheelers, private cars and buses add to the chaos around each and every railway station.

A World Bank-funded Station Area Traffic Improvement Scheme (SATIS) selected six train stations some years ago. SATIS was to be implemented by MMRDA as part of MUTP II, but that has not happened.

It’s amazing that the Railways does not see this as their problem, but leaves it to the municipal corporation and the traffic police to deal with. As for commuters, we are stuck between the inaction of the Railways and the rivalry between the MMRDA and the MCGM.

Lack of coordination

In fact, when it comes to solving any of the problems that plague the city, this lack of coordination, or ineptitude, or callousness — you pick your favourite reason — gets in the way most.

It seems the unwritten rule that all government departments will not work together. The simple thing to do is constitute a coordination committee with representatives of all the relevant departments, as well as representatives of the commuters, the hawkers, the rickshaw drivers, in short all the stakeholders.

This still can be done, and must be done, on top priority.

Will it?

We are the largest democracy in the world. Isn’t it ironic, then, that so many of these big infrastructure projects benefit only a sliver of the population? And isn’t it time that the people make their voices heard?

There is one more irony to take away. All infrastructure investment in Mumbai must factor in the impact of climate change and sea level rise on the city. There seems little point in investing huge sums on infrastructure that will take decades to build, and will probably not be required when most of south Mumbai is impacted by flooding caused by sea level rise. But that is what we’re doing, while we also seem to be doing our best to hasten the process by cutting down our trees.

Debi Goenka heads the Conservation Action Trust, a non-profit formed to protect the environment, particularly forests and wildlife. Mr. Goenka has been connected with nature since his college days. He has been working for conservation and protection of the environment for over 35 years.


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