An expansion plan for Mumbai’s suburban rail network is stuck with the railway ministry as it is unsure whether the plan is financial sustainable in the long-term, given the huge losses that both the Central and Western Railway incur every year. The expansion, if carried out, would increase capacity, improve connectivity and reduce travel time for lakhs for commuters.
The plan is part of the Mumbai Urban Transport Project (MUTP) 3 and includes three key projects sanctioned by the railway ministry in 2015-16 – an elevated track from Airoli to Kalwa, doubling the number of lines between Panvel and Karjat, and adding a third and fourth line between Virar and Dahanu.
These projects were sent to NITI Ayog (which has replaced the Planning Commission of India) for approval, which raised questions about its long-term financial sustainability and asked the railways to include a communication-based travel control (CBTC) system in MUTP 3, which would speed up train operations. “NITI Ayog gave in-principal approval to the project in February, subject to the condition that CBTC is included in MUTP 3 and we submit a financial sustainability plan for the new lines. However, to date, the railways has not replied to it,” said senior railway official, who did not wish to be named as he is not authorised to speak to the media.
The railway ministry is still not sure whether the new projects are financial sustainable. The Central and Western Railway (WR) incur a combined loss of about Rs 1,500 crore a year on operating and maintaining the city’s suburban train network as the revenue they earn from ticket sales is far less than the cost of running local train services. Railway officials are concerned that if the networks or services are expanded, their losses will increase further.
The senior railway official added, “The only way of expanding railway services is to increase fares and make the train network financially sustainable. We cannot compare train services in Mumbai to those in other cities; its fare structure should be delinked from others.”
The railways’ most recent attempt to hike suburban train fares came soon after Narendra Modi government assumed power in 2014. In his first railway budget, then railways minister Sadanan Gowda proposed increasing fares but this was cancelled after commuters reacted angrily.
Transport experts said the issue should be treated as one of urban governance as the expansion would ease congestion in Mumbai. They agreed, however, that fares will have to be increased gradually to make the suburban network financially sustainable. It has also been a long-standing demand of activists and experts to make Mumbai’s suburban train network a separate administrative unit that functions differently from the rest of Indian Railways.
“There should be a separate administrative office for Mumbai suburban and fares should be determined scientifically after considering various costs,” said Rishi Agarwal, a transport expert.
Currently, the suburban network includes a central line (CST to Karjat-Khopoli and Kasara), western line (Churchgate to Virar and further Dahanu), harbour line (CST to Panvel-Andheri) and trans-harbour line (Thane-Vashi and Panvel).