Mumbai has a history of many firsts. It’s the only city in the world where 7 million people use the local trains on just two parallel corridors every day. A train rolls into a station every three minutes.
Also, it’s the only city in India with five different transport authorities — from the railways to the Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport (BEST) — calling the shots over the city’s 468 sq km.
Despite such a dense capacity and network, the city has no autonomous railway authority to ensure smooth functioning of its train services.
Over the last two days, as 800 motormen virtually paralysed the city, the big question being asked in the corridors of power was who would address the issue.
Till the state government stepped in on Tuesday afternoon, and political biggies like Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar promised to negotiate with Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee, there was no reaction from the Railway Board in Delhi.
Transport experts told Hindustan Times that the only solution to the city’s transport woes was a separate transport authority that would supervise all road and rail transport, along the lines of Transport for London. They also said the suburban railways need an independent authority.
“The character of the Mumbai system, so undervalued, is completely different from anywhere else in india. It needs an autonomous authority to address local issues,” said Ashok Datar, a transport expert.
Datar said the city required a unified transport authority to supervise and bring together various transport modes, from buses to the monorail.
The state government had set up the United Metropolitan Transport Authority (UMTA) to oversee all transport authorities and make policy decisions but this authority has remained largely on paper and without much power.
The UMTA, headed by the chief secretary [he also heads 100 other committees], has not met for over a year. It has little powers and none of the 14 agencies that it aims to bring together adhere to any of its proposals, admit officials.
Datar emphasised that the city’s commercial capital tag and its prestige relied heavily on the two rail lines. Yet, they are undervalued and ignored by the authorities.
“Mumbai’s railways have to be made independent of the national railways for better efficiency. The railway in the city is handicapped as it has to depend on the ministry for every decision or sanction. The strike would not have happened if there was someone who could take decisions here,” said Subhash Gupta, member of the Zonal Railway Users’ Consultative Committee of Central Railway, the official body of passenger representatives.
Officials agreed that many city rail projects are going slow because of the dependence on the Railway Board, which reports to the ministry. “Mumbai’s railways need financial independence so that projects are executed fast. If I have to make a plan for just a pedestrian bridge, it takes six months to a year to get clearance from Delhi,” explained a senior railway official, on condition of anonymity.