The recent ‘train roko’ agitation by daily commuters of the iconic Deccan Queen at Pune railway station, who were vehemently protesting the shifting of the train’s platform from no. 1 to no. 5, not only snowballed into a controversy over “nationalism”, but it also showed us how we have rarely given much thought to a very crucial aspect of life in Pune: the close connection the city shares with Mumbai.
The number of commuters between the two cities has grown by leaps and bounds over the years and it is necessary to examine whether the facilities have managed to keep pace.
Two decades ago, travelling to Mumbai from Pune meant either a four to five-hour-long arduous journey by road via the old Pune-Mumbai Highway, or a train journey by one of the three morning trains on this route, for which one needed to book tickets at least a week in advance.
Bus passengers had to travel either via state transport buses (Asiad buses were the luxury option) or yellow-and-black share cabs. The journey was fraught with uncertainty, given the congestion on the Old Highway, especially during monsoons, when traffic jams in the Lonavala-Khandala sector were as common as potholes on city roads.
The other option — trains — was more popular, and the Deccan Queen was in high demand. Along with the double-decker Sinhagad Express and the slightly slower Pragati Express, most of Pune-Mumbai daily commuters travelled in these morning trains, with Indrayani plying in the evening.
While talking about Pune-Mumbai travel, let’s go back a few more decades, when, on certain occasions, special trains would ply between the two cities. This was during the British rule, when the Indian railway company, called the Great Indian Peninsula at the time, had a special train plying from Mumbai to Pune, for those who wanted to visit the race course during the racing season in Pune, in the monsoon.
Dressed in all their finery, the Mumbai elite would travel to the city for race day, and return in the evening by the same train. While the practise was discontinued after independence, the National Association for the Blind revived it between 1960-80, when they ran a special charity train to and from Mumbai on August 15 for the Independence Day race.
As for Pune-Mumbai air connectivity, there were no direct flights, and only flights with a stopover were available 20 years ago. Understandably, these were not very popular.
Harsha Shah, president of Railway Pravasi group, says, “If we talk about how much train travel has evolved over the last 20 years, the answer is, not at all. Twenty years ago, there were three dedicated morning trains between Pune and Mumbai and that’s the case till today. For many years, we have been demanding a few more trains that will take two-and-a-half hours for the journey, like the Deccan Queen, for the 5,000-odd daily commuters. But the authorities say they are unable to introduce new trains because they can’t get mainline tracks for them. They need to take off other trains from the mainline and make place for these.” She rues about how a wrongly positioned Shatabdi had to be transformed into Intercity, as it had few takers because of its high fare
According to Sujit Patwardhan of Parisar, the fund crunch and neglect that has plagued Railways for many years is aptly reflected in the Mumbai-Pune segment. “The result is that the travel preference has shifted from rail to road-based options,” says Patwardhan.
The travel mode that has probably witnessed the most change is the road segment. With about 240 state transport buses, including Asiad and 80 Shivneri Volvo buses, and about 500 private buses plying daily, in addition to nearly 2,000 cabs that include 150 cool cabs and probably 500-odd unauthorised vehicles, the road traffic between Pune and Mumbai has never been busier.
Undoubtedly, the biggest reason for this is the fillip to road travel after the commissioning of the Mumbai-Pune Expressway in 2002. As India’s first six-lane, concrete, high-speed, access-controlled and tolled road — it spans a distance of 94.5 kilometres — the expressway has reduced the travel time between the two cities to two hours.While it handles about 43,000 passenger vehicles per day, the growing number of accidents has marred the expressway’s image over the years. In its first 10 years, the expressway saw 1,758 accidents, and more than 400 fatalities. In 2015, 118 people were killed in 93 fatal accidents while the figure went up to 151 deaths in 2016. Despite the accidents and even reports of robberies, the expressway remains the biggest boon for commuters who travel between the two cities.
The pace of progress in the air travel segment has been as slow as it is in the rail segment. With just one non-stop flight in a day between Pune and Mumbai, it’s usually the last option even now.
“I know there is a demand and a need for more flights between the two cities. The flight time is 25-30 minutes and despite being highly-priced, it is almost always full, since it continues further to Kolkata. Oddly enough, no airlines has introduced more flights on this route. From the authorities, I gather that the problem is of proper time slots. The time slots needed for the flight are just not available,” says Ajay Kumar, Pune airport director.
While more trains like the Deccan Queen or non-stop flights seem to be a distant dream, efforts are on to further improve road travel. The MSRDC has been talking of extending the Pune-Mumbai Expressway, from the current end point of Kalamboli near Panvel till Sion in Mumbai. The extended stretch will reduce commuting time between Mumbai and Pune by 30 minutes but work on it is yet to start. But perhaps the most ambitious proposal of all is the one about Hyperloop.
The US-based Hyperloop Transportation Technologies has proposed to link Mumbai and Pune with its ultra high-speed transport system. Last year, company chairman Bibop Gresta had said that they had submitted a proposal to Union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari. If approved, it could slash the travel time to 25 minutes, and be the most radical and game-changing factor in Pune-Mumbai travel.