Welcome the AC local train in Mumbai but no cause for celebration yet
The air-conditioned trains will, undoubtedly, offer a pleasant commute but that should have been the state of affairs anywaymumbai Updated: Dec 28, 2017 00:02 IST
More than 15 years after the idea was mooted, Mumbai’s suburban railway system got its first air-conditioned local train in service. The inaugural services between Borivli and Churchgate on Christmas Day generated much excitement. The Western Railway is scheduled to run six services a day between these stations this week and double them from January 1. Eventually, as more rakes are introduced, the number of services will increase. In the happy din of the new experience, it is easy to lose perspective and ignore bothersome questions.
The air-conditioned commute, by all accounts, improves the otherwise claustrophobic and stench-filled commute that millions of Mumbaiites are forced to undertake every day.
The coaches are gleaming new, the air conditioning works at least for now, closed doors improve safety during travel, commuters can talk to the motorman or guard from the coaches, and railway personnel are on hand to assist commuters. We, harassed, pushed and shoved commuters, have reason to be elated. Or do we?
The air-conditioned trains will, undoubtedly, offer a pleasant commute but that should have been the state of affairs anyway. Think about it. It’s because the existing services are so poor in quality and offer next to nothing by way of convenience that we are over the moon with the air-conditioned trains. Secondly, the air-conditioned train services were long overdue. It should not have taken 10-15 years — a generation and more — from idea to reality. That it did, says a lot about the priorities of the railway administration as well as the Maharashtra government which has pushed for mega infrastructure road projects but paid little attention to Mumbai’s lifeline which carries 7.5 million commuters a day.
Thirdly, there’s the issue of affordability. The fares of the air-conditioned services will be 1.3 times that of the existing first class fare which is roughly seven to 10 times the second class fare. This, by standards of public transport affordability, is steep. There is, indeed, a class of commuters who can afford it, some regular users of aggregator cabs have said that the air-conditioned train is cheaper for them, but that does not make it a mass transport. When 12 services run to capacity, the air-conditioned trains will carry only two percent of Western Railway’s regular passenger load.
There are complaints already about scheduling. The air-conditioned services have, so far, replaced the existing ordinary train services. Not everyone is happy about that, understandably so.
How the Western Railway handles the scheduling will make a big difference to how acceptable the air-conditioned services eventually become. Merely replacing existing trains with the air-conditioned ones could mean that trains before and after the air-conditioned service will see a super-dense-crush load of commuters.
Moreover, air-conditioned services on the Dahisar-Virar section – and by extension on the Virar-Churchgate line – have yet to be started. That will be the real test for the railways. In the new trains, simple amenities such as phone charging points, wifi connectivity, and trash cans have not been provided, barricades between general and women’s compartments do not exist but are necessary, and the doors opening-closing will take a while to get used to.
Here’s the big challenge: All services or almost all services should be converted to air-conditioned with affordable fares in the next few years along with a matching upgrade in the platform facilities for the railways – and its go-getter minister Piyush Goyal – to claim to have revolutionised Mumbai’s suburban train travel. This is not even at the planning stage right now. The new, cool train is a tiny, really tiny, step.