Businessman Madhu Kotian (52), who takes the train from Mulund to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus every morning, covers the 30-km distance in 45 minutes. This is the quickest commute possible between the two spots in Mumbai, where nearly half of the 14 million residents travel by the suburban rail network.
The other modes of transport — buses, private cars and taxis — would take over an hour because of the congestion and bad roads.
Mumbai’s rail network is among the densest and busiest in the world. As it struggles to keep pace with the increasing passenger load, it is in the middle of a mega upgrade, the first since Independence. It is being implemented with the help of the World Bank, and in the pipeline are 174 gleaming, new trains — some of which are already running — and more rail corridors to ease the pressure.
“The railways are improving, but the pace is slow and there’s simply no space on the trains. The skewed planning and slow work is taking a toll on passengers — many of them fall to their deaths on the way to work or home,” said Kotian.
According to railway data, over 4,000 people die every year on Mumbai’s trains.
The numbers are hardly surprising. Every day, 6.5 million commuters travel on a mere 183 trains that rattle up and down the two parallel lines of the 437 sq km city. There’s a train leaving a terminus every three minutes. While the official capacity of a nine-car train is 1,800 commuters, it actually ferries 3,000. The capacity of a 12-car train is 2,340 commuters, but it ferries 5,000.
While 108 trains run on Central Railway (CR) making 1,414 trips every day, the Western Railway has 75 trains making 1,210 trips.
“Four new trains arrive every month, but the railways are unprepared. There simply aren’t enough motormen to drive them and the power upgrade that would have allowed these trains to run faster is stranded in technicalities,” Shailendra Kamble, a commuter activist, said.
Railway officials said they were working hard to keep pace, but the “system” ensures that all efforts fall short. “We are working day and night. The only solution is financial independence for Mumbai railways so that projects can be executed immediately and where they are required,” a senior official said on condition of anonymity.
“I have been working here for many years and I know a footover bridge is needed at a particular station. But I can’t build it immediately. I have to make a plan, get approval from headquarters and send the proposal to the Railway Board in New Delhi, which will sanction it and allocate money for it in the next year’s budget. By the time all this happens — at least six months — the purpose is defeated,” he added.
P.C. Sehgal, managing director of Mumbai Railway Vikas Corporation, which is implementing the upgrade, was more positive. “Mumbai Urban Transport Project (MUTP) is divided into three phases. While the first started in 2004 and will end next year, it will add 174 new trains and two rail corridors to the network. The second phase will add more trains and extend corridors. The third phase will solve all commuter problems,” he said. “While Phase 1 will end next year, implementation for Phase 2 and planning for Phase 3 has begun.”
MUTP is a multi-crore three-phase project to upgrade Mumbai’s rail and road infrastructure. While the Rs 4,500-crore Phase 1 is 70 per cent complete and will end in December 2010, work on the Rs 5,300-crore Phase 2 started in 2008 and will end by 2015. Phase 3 will begin after that.
“We are working out how to improve train capacity. In the last 25 years, Mumbai has changed a lot geographically — mills have turned into malls, the population has shifted to the suburbs and new areas like Bandra-Kurla Complex (BKC) have come up. Passenger traffic in areas between Bandra and Virar has risen considerably. A crowd of 800 to 900 from areas like BKC gathers between the departure of two trains at stations like Bandra. We need to identify such areas and find solutions,” another official said.
But commuters remain cynical. “By the time they find a solution, the crowds will have increased manifold and the projects they have begun will start showing results only when my grandchildren start commuting,” huffed Kotian, alighting from a crowded train.