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Mumbai monorail: Rakes on rail, routes off track

With Chembur to Wadala services suspended after fire mishap and no clarity on Phase 2 operations, future of monorail is uncertain.

mumbai Updated: Apr 24, 2018 15:12 IST
Tanushree Venkatraman
Tanushree Venkatraman
Hindustan Times
Mumbai,Mumbai news,Mumbai monorail
The country’s first monorail was originally intended to be a 135-km project when it was first conceptualised. (FILE PHOTO)

The country’s first monorail was originally intended to be a 135-km project when it was first conceptualised. Other than the 19.5-km stretch between Chembur and Jacob Circle, the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) had planned a line from Thane to Kalyan and another one from Thane to Bhiwandi as feeders for the Metro corridors planned in the neighbouring city.

However, today, a decade after the construction of the monorail began in Mumbai in 2008, the state government has shelved plans to build another corridor in the metropolitan region.

Mumbai’s debacle in implementing the project, which was supposed to be a mass transit system, but turned into a joyride, has made cities such as Chennai and Bengaluru also drop plans to have monorail corridors.

Problems galore

Since the launch of Phase-1 (Chembur-Wadala) in February 2014, the monorail has only been synonymous with delays, dismal ridership, mishaps, maintenance issues and cost escalation.

In a final blow, which has shut operations for the past six months, two coaches of a monorail rake were charred in November 2017. Fortunately, they were empty and so did not lead to any damage other than throwing the services off track.

The Phase-2, which was supposed to be made operational in December 2017, has also been on the backburner and the MMRDA still has not announced when the entire corridor would be thrown open to public.

“Projects like monorail are a result of inefficient decisions taken by a single authority,” said Rishi Aggarwal, a city-based transport expert. Calling the project a “failure in governance”, Aggarwal said, “When discussions on the project started before 2008, there were talks of creating a unified metropolitan authority to oversee all projects across agencies. If this had happened, it would have been clear that even the idea of having a monorail is a flawed one.”

Financial mess

MMRDA is currently engaged in a bitter tussle with the monorail operator over escalation in costs. The contractor, Larsen and Toubro (L&T) in consortium with Scomi Engineering of Malaysia, is fighting a legal battle with the planning authority, claiming Rs1,000 crore in escalation over the project cost of Rs2,460 crore. A senior MMRDA official said the contractor is demanding three times the rate per trip to run the monorail and that has severely affected the maintenance of the corridor.

Owing to the delay in executing Phase-2, MMRDA has also slapped a penalty of Rs7.5 lakh on the contractor, starting January 1, 2018, till the entire line is commissioned.

Add to this mess, MMRDA is also struggling to find a new contractor for operations and maintenance of the corridor. After re-inviting tenders four times in a year, the authority received just two bids in March. While the lowest bidder – ILFS – has quoted 100% above MMRDA’s estimates, the second lowest – Reliance Infrastructure – has quoted a whopping 540% above estimates.

When MMRDA floated the bids for the fourth time in March, it had estimated Rs1,000 crore for operations and maintenance of the entire corridor for a period of 10 years.

“Even if the trains run to their full capacity with the new fares, MMRDA will suffer losses if the new bids are accepted. We are left with no choice but to negotiate and bring down the quote,” said a senior MMRDA official.

Owing to its low-ridership, the monorail has already been losing close to Rs3 lakh a day, a right to information (RTI) query filed in September 2017 revealed. The fire incident in November resulted in a loss of Rs33 crore to MMRDA.

To beat the losses, the authority has even approved a fare hike once Phase-2 is operational, with ticket prices ranging from Rs10-Rs40, instead of Rs5-Rs20.

Safety compromised

Apart from the fire that led to suspension of services, in the past four years, there have been several glitches on Phase-1. The trains have halted mid-way owing to power failure or technical issues. On a few occasions, passengers have also been stranded on the elevated corridor. Since there are no pathways on the elevated corridor, rescue is largely dependent on the fire brigade reaching the incident site with ladders.

After the fire broke out in the Mysore colony station on November 9, MMRDA had appointed an independent expert committee to investigate the incident and provide suggestions to mitigate the occurrence of such disasters. The committee termed the incident an act of negligence on part of maintenance and operations staff. It further stated the safety manual followed by the management is grossly inadequate in case of a fire.

“The monorail travels at an elevated guideway. The fire propagates very quickly. In such a situation, it will not be possible to evacuate the passengers traveling on the train as there are no pathways provided for the passengers to come out of the burning train,” said the report.

While the commissioner of railway safety gave a safety clearance to the monorail, it has come with riders. The commissioner has made recommendations such as installing temperature gauges and smoke detectors in coaches. MMRDA is also considering installing CCTV cameras, evacuation chutes of mid-section guideways.

“The second phase will be made operational after complying with suggestions made by the commissioner of railway safety. We will then ask the state government to issue a notification to start operations,” said UPS Madan, metropolitan commissioner, MMRDA.

Future bright?

MMRDA officials are pinning their hopes on operations of Phase-2 to boost ridership and make the project financially viable. Officials are estimating the ridership to cross the 1-lakh mark with the entire line operational from Chembur to Jacob Circle. The alignment of the second phase, which has missed more than 15 deadlines, passes through Mumbai’s congested areas of Dadar and Parel, which house residential and commercial complexes.

“The area could not have had a Metro and the route selection is good for people traveling from Chembur to Mahalakshmi,” SP Khade, former technical director, MMRDA. “The ridership will definitely improve.”

First Published: Apr 24, 2018 11:43 IST