Mumbai’s lifeline or deathline?


Mumbai trains have become death traps for commuters taking an annual toll of over 3500 lives. Commuting can be made safer by adopting modern traffic management and cyclic timetable that is followed internationally, writes Dipak Gandhi.

What an irony of fate! The local trains which ferry lakhs of commuters up and down daily and, which were once proudly called Mumbai’s Lifeline have now become its death line, taking an annual toll of over 3500 lives. This is despite the fact that both central and the state governments, the World Bank and commuters (through safety surcharge) having pumped in thousands of crores of rupees in upgrading the suburban railways during the last decade under MUTP (Mumbai Urban Transport Project) Plans I & II and despite our suburban railways having enough rakes and tracks. Can there be a tragedy worse than this?

A scrutiny ofoperations of the suburban railways has revealed that this very rail system has the potential to make travel safe for all commuters in the immediate future, only if our railway authorities move with the times, give up certain obsolete practices and redesign their suburban operations in conformity with today’s traffic needs and the principles of time table construction as laid down by our Railways.

Reasons for hazardous travels

There is a misconception amongst the suburban railway administration that the heavy commuter traffic is only for about three hours each in the morning and evening, where as in reality suburban trains are overcrowded two to three times their optimum rated capacity from 6.00 a.m. to 12.00 midnight. Hence instead of plying maximum number of services only during office peak hours as is being done now, they should be run from early morning till late night, on both slow and fast corridors without withdrawing any rake from service during day time.

Today the situation is such that overcrowding during other than office peak hours is often worse than that of office peak hours in view of withdrawal of large number of rakes from service between 10.00 a.m. and 5.00 p.m. Prior to 1960, afternoon traffic was thin. Hence some rakes were withdrawn from service to conserve power. The situation has changed today, as traffic during afternoon has also grown manifold and there are not enough trains to cater to the rush. There are no technical impediments in reintroducing the rakes since the existing EMU (electric multiple unit) rakes can run continuously for 20 hours a day, whereas their present average utilisation is only about 13 hours a day as per Railway Board statistics.

During the last two to three decades, the demography of our city has undergone such a drastic change that the present time-tables are topsy turvy to today’s traffic needs. Recent traffic survey by Mumbai Rail Vikas Corporation (MRVC) has also confirmed that the present time tables are south-centrist as they were designed basically to serve Churchgate/CST traffic whereas the need of the hour is for more services in the North, where more than 80 percent of city’s population now resides and where large number of offices from the South have shifted. The ill planned time tables are taking a toll on six to eight lives everyday. The root cause of hazardous travels for suburban commuters. The situation is further aggravated with uneven frequency of services, resulting in waste of capacity when too close and accident prone travelling when too afar. e.g.:- During morning peak hours between 8.00 and 9.00 am Virar to Churchgate fast services are sometimes provided at intervals of seven minutes and four minutes and suddenly after gaps of 14, 18 and even 22 minutes. Most accidents occur when there is humanly unbearable overcrowding. If the same number of services were provided at uniform intervals, commuters travel would be much safer.

The fifth multi directional track between Mumbai Central and Borivali was specially laid about a decade back for plying upcountry trains so as to avoid their adverse impact on the punctuality of suburban services. Yet, a large number of such upcountry trains are being scheduled even now to run on suburban fast corridor adversely affecting punctuality of suburban services and often compelling railways to cancel large number of suburban trains making commuting further hazardous.

How commuting can be made safer

The existing high efficiency EMU rakes are certified to run at 100 kmph. Yet time-tables are framed at an average speed of 35 kmph wasting minimum of 30 percent better efficiency of new rakes. e.g.:- In 1937, Western Railway (WR) used to take 70 mts from Virar to Churchgate by a bada fast service. Today similar fast service is provided in 80 to 82 mts when the present EMU rakes can complete the said journey in just 55 minutes as per new rakes running timings worked out by WR itself. This was justified during 1980’s on account of heavy conflict with road traffic at over 37 level crossing gates then existing on WR. Now that most of them have been replaced by flyovers, railways can conveniently ply new rakes at their rated speeds with reduced running timings. This would not only help railways run minimum 25 percent more services with the same number of rakes and tracks, but city’s commuters too would save millions of man hours every day.

Diamond crossings from fast corridor to slow ones and vice versa is another root cause of frequent irregularity of suburban services throughout the day. Each such crossing block trains on three tracks for three to four minutes each upsetting schedules of all trains plying on these three tracks. As a chain effect, most services throughout the day run late on sub. Railways which were once popular for their clock like punctuality.

Further it is simply senseless to clear recently grown heavy intra suburban traffic north of Dadar by Churchgate/ CST services which are jam packed with their own sector traffic from their starting terminals. If this intra suburban traffic were cleared by suburban shuttles available every 10/ 12 minutes from the first train in the morning till the last one late night, in both up and down directions between Mahalaxmi and Virar on WR and between Dadar – Kalyan on CR, suburban rail travel would be safe for all commuters throughout the day.

Adopt cyclic time table

Instead of scheduling suburban trains on an adhoc or historical basis as is being done at present, our railways should adopt modern methods of traffic management. One such method internationally adopted is the Cyclic Time Table. Its basic concepts are limited loading on each service and uniform frequency for all sectors. Instead of running khichdi (jampacked) trains packing unlimited number of commuters of 10 to 20 stations per service, if dedicated services, clearing limited number of commuters of only three to five stations per service are introduced with uniform frequency clearing long distance commuters by super fast trains and short distance commuters by slow trains, commuting by suburban trains would be safer for all rail commuters throughout the day.

If the suburban rail operations are revamped as suggested above, our city could have totally 4000 services on 10 tracks (4 C.R. + 4 W.R. + 2 Harbour) at 3 metres headway i.e. 20 services per track per hour x 10 Tracks x 20 hours of operations during the day as against only 2700 services plied at present.

If the present time-tables were redesigned on a systematic cyclic pattern as per today’s traffic needs, with limited loading on each service and uniform frequency for all sectors, repeating every 12 metres. Mumbai‘s suburban railways could ensure with the same number of rakes, tracks and other existing infrastructure.

The potential of our suburban railways is still substantial. The present three minutes headway in practice since 1964 could still be reduced to two and a half and even two minutes, enabling railways to run as many as 6000 services as against the current total of 2700, with the same infrastructure to serve Mumbai’s commuters satisfactorily for the next two to three decades. The travel woes of Mumbai’s commuters have been totally neglected, with the centre throwing the baby into the lap of state government which has very little wherewithal to feed it. Sadly, despite the enormous potential of our city’s rail network, its commuters have to suffer untold miseries. If suburban rail services were to be sporadically increased as possible under the cyclic system, undoubtedly Mumbai’s local trains can reclaim its title of being Mumbai’s lifeline.


Dipak Gandhi

The writer is the chairman of the Mumbai Suburban Railway Passengers’ Association