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The Mumbai Project: One new train, 6 million dreams a day

The suburban rail system, the city’s lifeline, carries 6 mn passengers every day in rickety coaches. Rajendra Aklekar narrates his experiences in the new train. Talk to us... Check out the special on The Mumbai Project

india Updated: Dec 15, 2007 17:26 IST
Rajendra Aklekar

“The key to solving transport problems is the integration of various modes so that there is no pressure on one system.” - Casey Tan, Deputy manager of Singapore’s Land Transport Authority (Check out the special on The Mumbai Project)

It’s 1 am at the Kandivli railway workshop, and a group of German engineers has just finished their dinner. It’s an odd setting for a meal — a makeshift table in a violet-and-silver train coach strewn with wires, beeping devices and a laptop with flickering graphs. New trains like this — 157 of them — will make for Mumbai’s next-generation suburban services. Bought at Rs 20 crore each, from funds provided by the World Bank, they make up the most critical part of the Rs 4,526-crore Mumbai Urban Transport Project, the mega blueprint for a new transport infrastructure.

Mumbai and its surrounding areas have a growing urban population of 18 million. The suburban rail system, the city’s lifeline, carries six million passengers every day in rickety coaches. The design of these coaches has remained largely unchanged since the first Indian electric train pulled out of Victoria Terminus, now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, on February 3, 1925.

As we board the train to join the engineers, there’s a gust of wind, something that’s unfamiliar to the city’s commuters who have to pack themselves into the stifling coaches like sardines in a can.

The fresh air doesn’t come from air-conditioning, though.

“In Mumbai’s trains, we cannot have a traditional air-conditioner as the doors cannot be closed. So, we’ve engineered high-powered blowers into the design. The ‘forced ventilation’ technique will help decrease carbon dioxide levels inside the packed trains,” said Dr. P.C. Sehgal, managing director of Mumbai Railway Vikas Corporation, which is coordinating the entire transport project.

The blowers pump in 14,535 cubic metres of fresh air into each coach every hour to match stringent standards of air quality set in the US. According to the globally-accepted train standards of the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers, carbon dioxide levels should be less than 700 parts per million (ppm) above the level outside. At present, CO2 levels inside our trains are 2,400 ppm above that outside.
The new trains also have huge windows. You can look outside even if you are standing. And there are sparkling steel seats.

The ride is jerk-free. The new train starts and stops smoothly, unlike the present ‘locals’ , which often hurl commuters around when they come to a screeching halt.

The new trains will completely replace the old ones within three years.

At present, Mumbai’s two railway networks — the Central and Western — operate 2,280 trips each day. There are 1,296 trips on the Central 316-km CST-Karjat-Kasara-Panvel lines and 1,088 on the 60-km Churchgate-Virar Western lines. The two lines carry three million passengers each. While the Central Railway has 99 trains, Western Railway has only 67.

On the Western line, the annual passenger density is 145 million passengers per km.

Because the suburban lines are the only quick transit system to Mumbai’s suburbs and its surrounding metropolitan regions, overcrowding is now a perennial problem — during peak hours, 4,700 passengers pack into a nine-car rake built to carry 1,800 people. In railway parlance, that’s called a ‘super-dense crush load’. That’s 14 to 16 passengers standing on a sq m.

The new trains will, hopefully, provide relief.

Mumbai vs Delhi

Compare Mumbai’s experience with that of Japan’s.

The world’s second-largest economy has some of the busiest rail networks in the world. Shinjuku, on the Tokyo commuter line, is a connecting hub for rail traffic between central Tokyo and its western suburbs and is the busiest station in the world. It comprises seven ground-level island platforms (14 tracks) on a north-south axis, connected by two overhead and two underground concourses. The station has over 200 exits, is linked to 12 railway lines and connected by underground passageways and shopping malls to five different underground lines and a public bus terminus.

Shinjuku sees an average of 3 million people per day, making it the busiest station in the world in terms of number of passengers.
This one station alone handles the equivalent of half of Mumbai’s suburban daily traffic.

The world over, suburban rail systems are supported by mass rapid-transit systems, like metros, trams and buses, which synergise with the rail lines to disperse passengers quickly. Mumbai never got itself such a system.

“The key to solving transport problems is the integration of various modes so that there is no pressure on one system. It’s important to merge different modes with land use and to develop transport nodes into major inter-change points,” said Casey Tan, deputy manager of Singapore’s Land Transport Authority.

“In Singapore, we give priority to public transport and it is important to improve access by extending commuter facilities like pedestrian bridges, covered linkways and barrier-free access. Another key element is use of technology. The various solutions we use include software for information dissemination, traffic management, electronic road pricing. All this can easily be replicated in Mumbai,” said Tan.

Because of the high-density nature of our rapid transit, short-haul trips are often easier on trams or buses.
Many cities operate trams in the city core with the metro radiating out from it. An example of this is Oslo. The metro stretches out of the core to the city limits, while trains serve neighbouring suburbs.

Mumbai’s railway is a far cry from the sophistication of Japan’s or the simple efficiency of Oslo.

Now, even Delhi is outpacing Mumbai.

A city that launched electric trains in 1925, now forces trains coming in from the rest of India to switch to older locomotives. “Mumbai struggled so hard with its rush-hour problems, that it never got around to upgrading its technology,” said G.K. Rai, a retired rail engineer. “Our old technology also doesn’t allow us to introduce new services, thus limiting carrying capacity.”

To keep operations running, the railways have procured trains and locomotives that can run on two voltages. The new trains run at speeds of 100 to 110 kmph as compared to the 80 kmph of existing trains, and they use 35 per cent less power than the old trains.

Simply put, when a train brakes, the energy produced in the process goes back to the overhead wires, recycling power and cutting the suburban railway’s annual power bill of Rs 200 crore.

Commuters will save time too. For instance, the 120-km Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus-Kasara trip takes two hours and 45 minutes. That will be 30 to 45 minutes faster on the new trains.

Back on the trial run, the train passes Borivli station, successfully switching voltage. There are cheers in the motorman’s cabin. Motorman R. Ramesh smiles as the train zips past Mira Road.

“Driving this train is easier too,” he said. “We don’t have to stand up and drive; we can sit down. All the important parameters are on a huge monitor.”
The plan is to use this new technology to expand the suburban network by 60 km to Dahanu. That will create a new terminus on the western line, 60 km further than the present last stop, Virar.

The buck stops here

AK Jhingron, General manager, Central and Western Railway

‘The new trains were supposed to come earlier’

This is the first time that such high-end trains have been made in India. The railways been coordinating with over 20 governmental and other organisations, including many outside the country, to get the trains. The coordination is important to work things faster.

When will all 157 trains be operational?
In three years. Once mass production of the trains begins, there will be no looking back.

There are a number of projects to upgrade rail infrastructure. There are many projects to upgrade rail infrastructure. Any deadlines?
Arrival of trains is important. Once they start coming, everything else will fall in place. This not only includes two new lines between Borivli and Virar, which are complete, but also two lines between Kurla and Thane. Both these projects will enhance our passenger capacity. Other projects include more lines between Mahim and Santacruz and extending the suburban section till Dahanu. If everything goes well, all rail projects should be complete by 2009.

Cool trains

Mumbai will get its promised air-conditioned train by 2009. The Railway Board cleared the proposal in July and it will first run between Churchgate and Borivli.
Former Railway Board chairman J.P. Batra, who had announced the proposal in July while he was still serving, said the railways will appoint a consultant for a survey of the line, which may take six months, and send a report to Delhi.

“It’s an expensive proposal. We need to see whether the entire train should be air-conditioned or just one coach. Also, factors like timetables need to be figured out,” he said.

Is this enough?

Problem 1:Not enough lines for Navi Mumbai
The focus should be on Navi Mumbai now. There’s an airport coming up there, and more passenger lines are urgently needed. Right now, there are only two lines to Panvel. This will not be enough once the airport starts operations.

Problem 2: Passenger capacity needs to be hiked
Today, suburban trains are using the same lines used by outstation trains. Hence, suburban timetables have to be worked around those of long-distance trains. The railways have now proposed dedicated lines for outstation and
freight trains. Work has already begun.

Problem 3: Stations, cargo lines need to be upgraded
The Harbour line to Navi Mumbai ferries over 30 per cent of the Central line’s passenger traffic, making 500 trips a day using 28 trains. Cargo lines to the 10-sq-km Jawaharlal Nehru Port, which handles 65 per cent of India’s container traffic, need to be upgraded too.

What needs to be done...

Deal with Encroachers

None of the administration’s plans will be effective unless encroachments, the bane of railway upgradation efforts, aretackled. And existing infrastructure, like colonial-era passenger overbridges, must be upgraded to deal with rising traffic. An example: A 12-metre-wide pedestrian bridge was built at Dadar station to give more elbow room to the 5 lakh passengers who pass through it every day. The bridge has been taken over by hawkers, leaving commuters no space to walk. “The solution is to make space for the hawkers,” said K.K. Khanna, the Western Railway’s former Mumbai chief. “If they have been there for ages, you can’t just throw them out,”

Evolve feeder systems

Creating feeder bus systems to transport people to transit stops and then to the city centre would help make train travel easier for Mumbai’s 6 million daily commuter. Bus routes can also be used for mass entry and exits from station areas. Vancouver uses this strategy efficiently and, Mumbai’s bus service has worked out a similar proposal. There is also a Station Area Traffic Improvement Scheme on the cards to help address to booming passenger traffic. The state has proposed a Metro and a monorail to cover feeder routes. Metro construction will start soon.

For more details: Check out the special on The Mumbai Project