Commuters use one of the trains on Mumbai’s suburban rail network. (Photograph: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)

India Plans To Ease Life On Its Deadliest Suburban Rail Network

A heap of people on a narrow, barricaded stairway, waving and crying for help: millions watched video clips of that 30-minute Mumbai horror. Twenty-two—men, women and an 11-year-old boy—were trampled to death that September morning.

The stampede at Elphinstone station in the central business district last year only reinforced what's already known about the world's biggest suburban rail network that ferries 75 lakh people daily: it's also one of the deadliest. Passengers hanging out of doorways of packed moving trains is a common sight. About ten commuters fall to death or are run over while crossing the tracks every day, data website IndiaSpend reported citing numbers released by the railway police.

Passengers stand in the doorway, left, and on the side of train carriages as they travel by rail in Mumbai. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)
Passengers stand in the doorway, left, and on the side of train carriages as they travel by rail in Mumbai. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)

India now plans to spend about Rs 55,000 crore in five years to build an elevated rail corridor and foot overbridges, add trains, lay more tracks, and buy 210 air-conditioned rakes to ease life for travellers on Mumbai locals, Sanjay Singh, executive director (planning) at the Mumbai Rail Vikas Corporation, the implementing agency, told BloombergQuint. That’s part of the Mumbai Urban Transport Project-3A approved in December, the third leg of an ongoing plan that Finance Minister Arun Jaitley referred to in his budget speech.

Also Read: The Challenges Piyush Goyal Faces At Indian Railways

Typically, more than half the funds are contributed by the World Bank with the state and central governments sharing the rest. Singh said while no decision has been taken on how to raise capital, it’s likely to follow the earlier model.

“The way I see it is that these investments would be drawn over the years. A lot of emphasis is towards capacity enhancement and some towards improving the quality of ridership," said G Raghuram, director at the Centre for Public Policy, Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore. “The focus should be on making more overpasses.”

The plan to increase passenger capacity, upgrade platforms and bridges complements ongoing and soon-to-start infrastructure projects under the second phase of MUTP. These were planned to improve life for 2 crore people living in Mumbai and its satellite cities of Thane and Navi Mumbai.

Work is on to build a metro rail network, construction will soon start on a south-north coastal road, and the contract was recently awarded for a 21-km sea bridge—Mumbai Trans Harbour Link—from the island city to the mainland in the east.

Yet, at least two of these projects took more than two decades to move from planning to implementation. That’s why Raghuram suggests a lot more focus on execution.

Singh is optimistic that the latest plan will ease the commute on Mumbai's lifeline. “MUTP-3 would transform the commuter experience in terms of comfort, safety and accessibility.”

A worker carries a sledgehammer as he walks along rail tracks in Mumbai. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)
A worker carries a sledgehammer as he walks along rail tracks in Mumbai. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)

CST-Panvel Elevated Corridor

The corporation will add 150-route-kilometres of track to the existing 319 route-km. A key part of this will be an elevated rail corridor between the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in the south and the proposed airport in Panvel, Navi Mumbai in the north—along the Harbour line. Of the funds promised in the budget, about Rs 12,300 crore will be spent on the project. Another Rs 7,089 crore will go into laying a suburban line connecting two northern suburbs—Panvel and Virar.

The corporation will also lay the fifth and sixth lines at a cost of Rs 2,184 crore between Borivali and Virar, which contributes half the suburban passenger traffic in the city. That will help ease the bottleneck that causes frequent delays.

More Bridges, Skywalks

Of the 119 suburban stations, 16 will be upgraded by building foot overbridges, elevated decks, skywalks, escalators, improve entry and exit points and install better lights. The finance minister allocated Rs 947 crore for it, said Singh.

New Communication System, AC Rakes

As many as 6,000 people travel in a 12-coach train during peak hours against a capacity of about 2,000. Overcrowding forces people to hang out of open doorways, one of the main reasons for accidents, a study by Tata Institute of Social Sciences found.

The Mumbai rail authority will install a new communication-based train control system. Currently, 17 trains run every hour in one direction. The plan is to increase it to 24, improving the capacity by 40 percent.

The automated train control will help ease overcrowding, said Singh. Besides, new AC rakes will improve safety as that doesn’t let commuters hang outside doorways. The budged has earmarked Rs 17,374 crore to buy 210 air-conditioned rakes to gradually replace all non-AC trains.

But moving people to AC trains will be a challenge as fares will be higher, Singh said. “It will also be a cultural shift. So definitely, it will pose a challenge to migrate people. Some strategy needs to be devised.”

Singh said AC rakes will help railways cut losses as ticket prices will be revised.

Mumbai railway loses Rs 1,400 crore a year.
A cyclist ducks underneath the barrier of a railway crossing as a train travels past near Sewri railway station in Mumbai. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)
A cyclist ducks underneath the barrier of a railway crossing as a train travels past near Sewri railway station in Mumbai. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)

Crossing tracks is another reason for deaths. To prevent commuters from walking on the tracks, the railway plans to install platform screen doors.

Raghuram agreed that the safety aspect requires more attention. “Mumbai reports the highest deaths among the suburban networks in India. Safety should be given priority.”

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