Four hundred passengers were on board when, on April 16, 1853, India’s first passenger train chugged out of Bori Bunder railway station, near the southern tip of Bombay, towards Tannah (today’s Thane), with 14 coaches and three steam locomotives. It was the result of efforts by the Great Indian Peninsula Railways (GIPR), the predecessor of the current Central Railway. A few years later, on November 1,1865, a train ran from the city’s Grant Road Station to Bassein Road (Vasai), marking the start of what is today the Western Railway suburban line.
Over 150 years on, Mumbai’s suburban rail network now spans 427.5 km and caters to nearly 75 lakh passengers every day. But the rail lines through which the two major railway zones — Central and Western Railways — connect the southern tip of the island city to its eastern and western suburbs are still almost entirely modeled on British engineers’ original route plans.
Rail infrastructure too has followed a similar path, with authorities just adding stations and extending platforms to accommodate longer trains as the city’s population grew. From 12 stations in the early 1900s, the suburban network now has 126 railway stations; it also contains at least 309-foot overbridges, 50 escalators, and 15 lifts, many of them aged and creaking.
The overbridge at the Elphinstone Road Station, for instance, was built in 1972. So when the stampede on September 29 killed 23 people here, no one was really surprised; dozens had earlier tweeted about the poor condition of the overbridge.
The bigger problem, however, is that all major projects on the Mumbai suburban railway have missed deadlines, have experienced grave cost over-runs and, sometimes, have been completed when demand has further outpaced supply.
Take the most critical of the ongoing projects, Phase Two of the Mumbai Urban Transport Project (MUTP). Funded by the state and Union governments on a 50:50 basis, it envisages additional lines between the most congested stations to reduce overcrowding. When plans were drawn up in 2010, the cost was pegged at Rs 4,281 crore; now, it has risen by nearly 100 per cent to Rs 8,087 crore. Only the CSMT-Goregaon extension, to be completed by December this year, appears to be on track, other projects are stuck, facing land acquisition issues.
Even the Railway plans to introduce air-conditioned suburban trains is in limbo. A prototype AC train, manufactured by the Integral Coach Factory in Chennai at a cost of Rs 54 crore, arrived in Mumbai in April 2016, and is still “undergoing trials”. The train may finally start running by December.
Another 565 new air-conditioned coaches are to be procured, at a cost of Rs 3,491 crore, under MUTP-III. But the first of those will only roll out by 2020.
Other key plans to transform Mumbai’s railway network into a modern mass transit system are at the technical study stage. These include a grand plan for station development on a public-private partnership (PPP) basis and a Virar-Vasai-Panvel suburban corridor, stretching from the far east to the far west of the northern suburbs.
The proposed elevated rail corridor between Bandra and Virar, estimated to cost Rs 16,368 crore, has been awaiting state government support since 2016. The project will double capacity on this congested line but officials say expediting it is impossible in the face of disagreements between the state government and the Railway Ministry.
Subhash Gupta, member of the Divisional Railway User Consultative Committee (DRUCC), a passenger welfare association, says the Railways had failed to meet the people’s growing expectations. “Railway authorities have also failed to judge the ground reality and provide the required facilities. Delay in the implementation of significant projects has further aggravated problems.”
Vandana Sonawane, a member of the Maharashtra Railway Mahila Pravasi Sanghatana, another such passenger body, says Railway authorities don’t address even everyday issues. “Whether it’s stone-pelting on women’s coaches, sexual harassment at the stations, or improper passenger announcements in times of distress… Each time we seek an update on our complaints, authorities say they are working to resolve them,” she says.
A train every 3 minutes
The Mumbai suburban railways has witnessed explosive growth right from the post-Independence years, when the annual footfall of 5 crores in 1951 rose to 23 crores in 1961. In the 2016-17 financial year, an incredible 2.64 billion riders made use of the network.
In the early years, says A K Srivastava, former additional general manager of Central Railway, authorities resorted to “basic measures” to address the increased numbers. “We quadrupled lines, added coaches, and had to shift rail terminus stations keeping in mind the population spurt in the north of the city,” he says.
By the ’80s, Mumbai’s rail network was crowded and poorly equipped. By the time the ’90s rolled around, the creaking infrastructure could barely hold up. To keep up, railway authorities increased the number of coaches in trains from the previous nine and seven to 12, quadrupled lines and improved signaling, all of which proved insufficient.
“If we look at reports on development projects in the 1980s, they had already foreseen population growth and the resultant transport needs,” says Dr Shekhar Krishnan, a Mumbai-based scholar researching the city’s development over the decades. “The system is complicated here because it is the Centre that dictates planning local transport in the city,” he adds, referring to a point many have made since the stampede — that a local transport system operated by a Union ministry can hardly be sensitive to local needs.
Experts say the lack of “holistic planning” has also plagued the network through the years. Take, for example, measures to meet an increase in passenger demand. Over the past 10 years, authorities reduced the time interval between two trains to three minutes, from seven minutes and five minutes in the ’90s. Senior Railway officials complain that the pressure to meet punctuality has led to reduced attention to track maintenance, the central cause of rail fractures and derailments. This year alone, the Central Railway suburban section has witnessed over 200 rail fractures, signal failures, and other technical glitches; Western Railway has witnessed 100 such glitches.
“The practice of implementing measures on an ad hoc basis in Railways has continued to weaken the system over the years,” says Subodh Jain, former general manager of Central Railway and former chairman of the Railway Board. “Tracks were lowered in 2011 and following years across sections of Mumbai for conversion from Direct Current to Alternating Current, but this led to waterlogging during heavy rains in Mumbai. The absence of absolute accountability on maintaining tracks also weakens the system,” he adds.
3,500 capacity vs 8,000 people
The first serious attempt by the Railways to address overcrowding on the Mumbai suburban network was through Phase One of the MUTP. It began in 2002 and took almost 12 years to complete. Though it failed to meet all of its objectives, MUTP-I, co-funded by the World Bank, ensured some substantial gains.
As per official World Bank records, overcrowding on every 12-car train on the Western Railway network, reduced from 5,400 passengers in 2009, to 4,000 passengers in 2014. On Central Railway network, crowding was trimmed from 9,000 passengers in a 12-car train in 2009 to 8,000 passengers in 2014. This is, however, still way higher than the actual carrying capacity of 3,500 passengers per 12-car train.
Under MUTP-I, authorities converted 9-car rakes to 12-car rakes on the harbour line in April 2016, thus increasing the carrying capacity of the entire line by 33 per cent; introduced 15-car services on the Western Railway and lay additional corridors between Kurla-Thane and Borivali-Virar. A positive aspect of MUTP-I is the Mumbai Rail Vikas Corporation (MRVC), formed at the insistence of the World Bank, which continues to carry out several major infrastructure augmentation projects on the suburban network.
Officials concede that MUTP-I’s failure was lack of imagination — it didn’t look at a holistic transport network, limiting itself to further developing the colonial era north-south rail alignment.
“Railway lines were built to supplement habitation and industrial growth. We failed to connect rail lines with a futuristic approach that could have distributed the population of the city equally everywhere. While we added lines, we also forgot to develop the infrastructure of railway stations to capacitate the increase,” says B S Khatua, director of the Mumbai Transformation Support Unit, a state government-backed think-tank on housing and transportation.
That, says Sulakshana Mahajan, an urban planner of the same think-tank, is reflective of the mindset hampering many major railway projects in the city — that of “10 per cent planning and 90 per cent execution.”
“During MUTP-I, there were times when a bridge was constructed but the design misjudged the construction of the connecting staircase. This would then be followed by lengthy talks with the owners of the land concerned, official meetings and frustration on the part of contractors,” Mahajan says.
The other lacunae in planning throughout the MUTP-I era was station infrastructure. Authorities failed to ensure smoother movement of commuters through the entry and exit points, build modern toilets and broad foot overbridges and introduced escalators at just a handful of stations.
Delays added to the cumulative costs of MUTP-I, a trajectory that appears set to be repeated in MUTP-II, with the project finally costing Rs 4,450.40 crore in 2012, up from the 2001 projection of Rs 3,125.19 crore. “The delays were on account of increased market rates of land, long-drawn litigation involving project-affected people and the laborious coordination with different government bodies,” says one senior MRVC official.
MRVC Chairman and Managing Director Prabhat Sahai, however, says their overall targets were achieved. “Delays are caused by many factors. The corporation has been able to live up to the reasons why it was formed,” Sahai told The Sunday Express.
Among new targets, hawkers
Following the stampede on September 29, Union Railway Minister Piyush Goyal and top Railway officials announced a slew of measures. They include escalators at 93 stations, at least 30 new foot overbridges and 13 bridges to be widened in the most crowded stations, CCTV cameras on board trains and fast-tracking the Kalyan yard re-modelling plan to decongest suburban traffic. Hawkers are being evicted from rail overbridges and entrances, a measure decried as being ‘knee-jerk’.
“Authorities have failed to adhere to guidelines in a 2005 High Court directive that called for boundary walls to prevent trespassing and keeping railway premises free of hawkers,” says Bhawesh Patel, who filed a PIL in the Bombay High Court in 2002 to check accidents on rail premises.
“Ensuring foot overbridges and skywalks are free of hawkers is something we are trying to encourage. Our endeavours and efforts are also aimed at increasing the length of trains and adding carrying capacity. Extending the length of platforms to add foot overbridges remains a challenging job, but we are at it,” says A K Gupta, General Manager of Western Railway. “It is not that we have not done anything. We are going to construct 16 new toilets at stations. Commuters, who would wait for hours at ticket counters, are able to book a ticket in less than five minutes. We made decks so that foot overbridges at stations get connected and help commuters. We have introduced significant changes” says Mukul Jain, Divisional Railway Manager, Western Railway.
But systemic issues of poor planning will persist, say experts. The suburban railways need a measure of independence, says Subodh Jain, the former railway board chairman. The Mumbai rail network also runs with the most subsidised rail fares making ambitious railway projects a major challenge.
Khatua, of the MTSU think-tank, believes passengers will not hesitate to pay if authorities promise a more modern mass transit experience. “Journeys on the locals should not remain cattle-travel anymore,” he says.