Commuting in local trains is often compared to a battle that over 74 lakh commuters fight everyday. With both Central Railway and Western Railway having no room left to increase suburban services, KALPANA VERMA and PRIYAL DAVE take a look at the problems that ail Mumbai’s lifeline and some solutions to de-congest the crowded system
Government Railway Police’s data on accidental death and people injured under the category “fall from the train” indicates that 294 men and 21 women died while 620 men and 103 women were injured on Western Railway (WR) in 2013. In the same year, on Central Railway(CR), 536 men and 55 women died while 929 men and 153 women were injured after falling from train.
The arrival of the Metro and Monorail systems, which were conceived to supplement the railways, have not changed things much. The shiny, new-age rail systems that glide and zip along sky bridges have proved a blessing for east-west commuters but suburban rail commuters, aptly nicknamed “railway war veterans”, are still fighting a daily battle on century-old tracks.
“The east-west connectivity is no doubt crucial to bringing down the load in suburban trains and also improve connectivity between the two suburban railways lines that cut through the city. However, that is not enough,” says a senior railway official.
According to railway officers, a lack of clarity on the future of proposed suburban railways-specific projects – the Oval Maidan-Virar Elevated Corridor and the CST-Panvel fast corridor – has made matters worse for the railways, which has no option but to continue carrying over 74 lakh passengers single-handedly for the next few years. Though there is a drop in the number of total passengers on the suburban railways, it is miniscule in percentage terms.
More services hit punctuality
In a knee-jerk reaction to the continuous protests against high casualties, the railways added more services in the last two-three years, only to find that the most crucial feature of Mumbai locals, their punctuality, has taken a severe beating.
“We have no room for more services. Even a software-based simulation exercise conducted by the Mumbai Rail Vikas Corporation showed we are running 100 extra services everyday,” said a senior WR officer, adding that close to 100 services are delayed almost everyday for various reasons.
While highlighting the annual guidelines for WR earlier this month, Hemant Kumar, General Manager, WR, said, “The extension of Harbour line to Goregaon will bring a much-needed relief to commuters. As far as the mainline is concerned, there is no room for any more services.”
“With 2,923 services daily on CR and WR, even a five-minute trouble snowballs into a major disruption,” a railway officer said, while describing the pressure levels in office on the day of a breakdown.
“In the last one month, there have been five occasions when I was in a state of total panic as the disruptions occurred during peak hours,” recalled the officer.
“A unit failure during peak hours is the worst-case scenario as all the services of the rake for the day have to be cancelled. All I am left to offer to my passengers is a kind request to ‘please bear with us,” said the officer.
Unable to maintain punctuality consistently, railway officers managed to convince the political class that the over-saturated system cannot take any more new services. As a result, for the first time in many years, no new additional services were announced for Mumbai suburban railway commuters in the annual railway budget this year.
Interestingly, the growth in passengers has been much less than the growth in the number of services on CR and WR.
In 2001, WR carried 31 lakh commuters daily in 998 services, with a large part of the rakes being 9-car ones. Ten years later, in 2011, while the daily ridership grew by 13 per cent, services grew by nearly 22 per cent. Of the total 1,214 services, 1,006 were 12-car rakes and 12 of them were 15-car rakes, which brought relief to passengers as the carrying capacity of trains increased substantially. Since 2011, daily ridership has stood at 35 lakh, though recent figures indicate there is a drop by 1.25 per cent. However, since 2011, services have continued to grow with a total 1,305 services running as on date.
On CR, in 2001, 31 lakh passengers were carried in 1,086 services, of which a majority were 9-car services. A decade later, daily ridership grew by nearly 23 per cent while number of services increased by 49 per cent. Between 2013 and 2014, the daily ridership on CR has gone up from 39.3 lakh to 40.2 lakh, while services have gone up from 1,596 to 1,618 .
While theoretically, the railways are running more services and have also increased carrying capacity of trains by extending 9-car trains to 12-car and now also 15-car, the truth is that during peak hours, commuters are seen forcing themselves inside trains, perhaps risking their lives.
“No term has been able to clearly define the crowding in Mumbai locals. The Railways has tried classifying the crowding into load, dense load, dense crush load and super dense crush load. However, in peak hours, there are 400-450 commuters per coach in a 12-car rake. In railway parlance, we continue to be in the super dense crush load category,” says R N Verma, retired General Manager, WR, who is no on Board of Directors of Konkan Railway Corporation Limited.
The super dense crush load of peak hours in Mumbai local trains has often been discussed in the past. During the many power point presentations made to the World Bank as well as the media, the Mumbai Rail Vikas Corporation would invariably begin with the slide defining the various levels of “load” experienced by passengers to drive home the point that the then new Siemens rakes would benefit commuters drastically. While different loads definitions were provided, in reality, commuters still experience the maximum crush load in peak hours, says Verma.
While reduction in load needs running of more trains or longer trains, with railway line capacity already exhausted, railways is now starved of options.
One of the reasons the line capacity is saturated is that in Mumbai suburban, the freight, long-distance passenger trains and suburban trains run on the same tracks.
“A 44 or 52 coach wagon takes a lot of time to clear, thereby blocking signals. Unless the suburban lines are not segregated from freight and long-distance trains, there is no scope to increase services,” said an officer.
While the 6th line between Mumbai Central and Borivali is yet to be sanctioned, the 5th and 6th line between Kurla and CST is delayed due to resettlement and rehabilitation issues. Close to 200 families living near Masjid and Sandhurst Road have been a huge bottleneck for railway authorities for the 5th and 6th line project on CR.
“There is a need for political will. The state government has to assist the railways in removing these encroachments for the expansion of railway lines,” said a senior CR officer.
The 15-car option
While the extension from 9-car rakes to 12-car ones may have brought relief to commuters, further extension to 15-car rakes is still being debated. WR, which runs 1,305 daily services, has 30 15-car services while CR, with 1,618 services, runs 16 15-car services.
“The only way is to run more 15-car services on the fast track to clear the sea of commuters during peak hours, most of whom are bound to the north side of the city,” says R N Verma, adding that WR has already created required infrastructure to run 15-car rakes on its fast corridor.
However, many railway officers contend that increasing from 12-car rakes to 15-car ones is only going to make matters worse for commuters.
The 12-car rake is 270 metres long and has to clear a 400-metre section for the signal to change to green for another train. A 15-car rake is 336 metres long and takes much longer to clear the signal, say officers, adding that this would bring down the frequency of services.
“We don’t have the infrastructure for 15-car rakes. Not just signal re-spacing, but platform extension to accommodate three extra coaches, additional Foot Over Bridges, cover over sheds and more security personnel will be required at all stations, all of which will cost a lot,” explained another officer.
Offering another view, a senior officer said, “It took nearly 20 years to convert all 9-car trains to 12-car ones. The best that can be done is run a few 15-car rakes during peak periods and not beyond Thane and Kalyan, with a few halts. There is no point halting 15-car trains at all stations and taking them beyond Kalyan. The turnaround time for 15-car train is more than 12-car and therefore its trips reduce if the train is taken beyond Kalyan.”
Yet another solution to ease commuting in Mumbai is to have staggered timings for offices. The most peculiar problem of the suburban railways is its unidirectional travel. To solve this, railway officials have been suggesting for many years now that there should be staggered timings for government as well as private sector offices that are located in south Mumbai.
With walk-to-work concepts already being discussed globally, railway officials also suggest that the offices should also factor into their selection criteria of employees his or her place of residence.
“Why should an employee waste four hours commuting? It is a huge loss on the professional and personal front,” says an officer, adding that the other option is that companies start providing accommodation near the office to reduce travel time.
“Staggering office timings will give immediate relief to commuters. This will also bring down the pressure on railways as the crowd per coach will be lesser resulting in less wear and tear. Also, the problem of falling from crowded local trains will end. This is the best short-term solution we have, which requires zero investment,” says Z A Siddiqui, retired Chief Operations Manager, CR.
“In the age of technology, travel for meetings can also be reduced through video-conferencing,” suggests another officer.
Using shuttle services for stations far north of the city is another option for better management of services, say officers.
“Short-distance shuttle services would make a big difference on routes where train frequency is less, such as those originating from Kasara and Karjat. Shuttle service from Kasara to Asangaon or Titwala and from Karjat to Badlapur or Ambarnath would provide lot of relief. The Thane yard remodelling was done with the purpose of running shuttle trains. Sending trains from CST to areas as far as Khopoli, Kasara and Karjat reduces the number of trips made by the train and therefore results in poor management of services,” said a senior railway officer.
Decongesting Mumbai by providing high-speed travel is the way forward, officials say. Plans for running trains with a speed of over 160 kmph and 320 kmph between Mumbai and Ahmedabad are now being actively studied by the Railways to enable working class to move further away from the financial capital for residential purposes.
The Indian Railways is also now pushing the state government to take more ownership of local commuters through other mass transport projects.
“The east-west connectivity facilitated by the Versova-Andheri-Ghatkopar Metro does help reduce crowd at stations like Dadar, but the suburban commuters require a parallel corridor. To begin with, Mumbai needs a Metro or an elevated corridor to take some load of the existing suburban railway corridor,” says Shailendra Kumar, Divisional Railway Manager.
The coastal water transport project that aims to connect Borivali to Nariman Point on the west coast and Mandwa to Ferry Wharf on the east coast, which is still on the drawing board, also needs to be decided upon quickly, say officials.
Not just projects, but fares too play an important role in determining the success of projects as mass transport is traditionally known to be a loss-making venture.
“The local train fare is the cheapest in the world. Even if water transport is developed in future to supplement railways, the fares will be very high. Mumbaikars not only need more public mass transport systems, but they should also learn to start paying for transport,” says Siddiqui.