Hear the whistle blow!


These are exciting times for Indian rail commuters with a lot of talk of high speed trains, though there are those who scoff at such talk. Sudhir Badami explains how an effective network comprising high speed trains, bus and suburban rail will work well for both the commuters and the ecology.

There is much talk today of new railway projects than the actual delivery of services to the 75 lakh commuters of Mumbai Suburban Rail System (MSRS). These new projects and the state of MSRS will be examined and analysed in this article.

Mumbai – a major hub

Mumbai is the commercial hub of the country and welcomes people for employment, livelihood, entrepreneurship and businesses, besides tourism. Those visiting Mumbai on business, travel by air from far, and not so far. Distances that get covered by an overnight train journey go as far as say, Ahmedabad, Nagpur, Solapur or Goa. People travel from these places by flight as well, enabling them to complete the business trip away from home base within 16 to 18 hours. Cities provide commercial activities, manufacturing activities and cultural activities among many other things. Inter city travel becomes necessary to fulfill these needs. As some cities get well connected by transport, people prefer to be living in their ‘home’ cities and commute to megacities or metro cities and return. With a growing economy, the number of trips collectively made by these people increases. It is also a possibility that if commuting is convenient, some people may commute on a daily basis.

The need for fast commute

Let us look at the travel pattern of people living in Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR). The 2011 Census revealed that about 125 lakh people live within the nearly 470 sq km Mumbai Municipal Corporation Area, and an overall 196 lakh live in the nearly 4500 sq km Mumbai Metropolitan Areas. What the 2008 Comprehensive Transport Study by MMRDA (Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority) revealed is that there are 57% who live within 3 km of their place of work, 69% within 5 km, 82% within 10 km and 89% who live within 15 km of their place of work. Only 11% travel longer than 15 km. But this number is as high as 22 lakhs for MMR or 14 lakhs for MCGM (Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai) areas. Many travel daily to Mumbai from Virar (60km), Dahanu (120 km), and quite a few from even Surat (230 km) and Pune (200km).

The MMR itself has had a lopsided development taking place towards Gujarat on the Western Railway (WR) (formerly Bombay Baroda Central India Railway) route in cities of Mira-Bhayandar and Vasai-Virar as a natural corollary to the transit corridor. There are cities such as Thane, Kalyan-Dombivili, Ulhasnagar, Bhiwandi on the Central Railway (CR) (Grand Indian Peninsular Railway) Corridor which perhaps did not develop as much as on the Western Railway corridor due to the proximity of the entrepreneurial state of Gujarat, and in particular, Surat, while the Central Railway corridor led to the city of Pune, centre of education and culture. Things are changing now and there is greater demand on development of the entire MMR, clubbing with the Golden Triangle formed by Mumbai-Nashik-Pune. Thus the need to commute a distance of 60 to 100 km within one hour is becoming a reality.

Let us look at the existing MSRS. It comprises several stations on the WR main line, and several stations on the CR main line, as well as the Harbour line. The main lines of WR and CR, have each a pair of local lines on which slow trains run and fast lines on which trains with limited number of halts ply. The local lines and the Harbour line trains halt at every station, while the trains on fast lines do get converted to local by halting at every station in certain stretches, depending on the time of the day.

This enables the commuter to wisely select the train that reduces travel time on the whole. However, the tracks and the station platforms in the city are designed to a maximum train speed of 80 kmph. The reality is that to have higher speeds on these tracks does not make much sense, as the stations are not sufficiently far apart to run at a cruising speed of even 80 kmph over reasonable duration, except to far suburbs. At far suburbs, trials are on for speeds up to 120 kmph.

With this background, where do trains with speeds of 160-200 kmph called High Speed Rail (HSR), and those with 350 kmph speed (Bullet Trains) stand vis a vis Mumbai and the MMR? Let us consider a commute of Churchgate to Virar, a distance of 60 km. If there is an HSR with say three halts, the average speed of the 200 kmph peak speed train could be as much as 150 kmph. The travel time could be as little as 24 minutes. If there are ‘local’ trains or public transport to other locations in that neighbourhood, door to door travel could be at most 60 minutes. There is scope for developing a high frequency low train capacity commute possibilities. An appropriate network of HSR will enable centres of urban growth outside the MCGM areas.

Making the case for the Bullet Train and BRTS

Similarly, developing Bullet Trains of peak speed of 350 kmph with halts at say Churchgate, Seepz, Borivli, Surat and Ahmedabad, rendering it an average speed of 300 kmph, will make the 550 km Mumbai-Ahmedabad journey just of two hours duration! Consider the overall air travel time. Journey to the airport begins by taking into account time taken by road congestion, check in, security checks, boarding, flight congestion, flight duration, landing time congestions, and baggage pick up and travel by road to the final destination. While Ahmedabad flight time may take an hour, the additional time will add up to three hours. The fact that one can board or alight at three additional locations enroute, makes this intercity rail commuting a huge attraction. What one must remember is that the carbon footprint of a flight is about 20 times that of the rail. As the intercity travel demands increase, we have to make sure that the carbon footprint does not significantly add to global warming and consequent climate change possibilities.

At Rs. 110 cr/km, the Bullet Train and the HSR could be a reasonably worthwhile investment. Combine it with BRTS (Bus Rapid Transit System) network at say Rs. 30 cr/km, the commute, be it intercity or intracity and reducing flying commutes, would be the best thing to address commuting as well as environmental and global warming issues.

While one may agree that the existing MSRS needs to be upgraded to bring about safer commuting, comfortable commuting, inclusive commuting, level boarding etc, it surely is not in shambles. It has reached its saturation level and not adequate significant capacity for existing commuter volumes can be generated by the Suburban Railway System. The proposed Metro system will cost Rs. 850 cr/km if as planned (proportion of elevated and underground) or Rs. 1400 cr/km if wholly underground. Its capacity when completed, will be 72,000 persons per hour, while railway is carrying 1,80,000 pph in addition to its capacity of 1,80,000 pph. Metro will also take about 70 years to complete. This leaves the only option for Mumbai to go for, a well designed network of BRTS. Keeping intercity and intracity commuting, as mentioned earlier, improve the existing suburban railway system, airconditioning the trains to ventilate it well, ensure it is inclusive to persons with disability, the elderly, children and pregnant women, provide significant addition to road public transport capacity in MCGM and Thane and Mira-Bhayandar, and keeping the future needs of intercity commuting volumes and global warming in view, proceed with HSR and Bullet Trains projects.


Sudhir Badami

The writer is an IIT Bombay graduate in Civil & Structural Engineering. He is on Government of Maharashtra’s Steering Committee on BRTS for Mumbai and Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority’s Technical Advisory Committee on BRTS for Mumbai. He is also member of Research & MIS Committee of Unified Mumbai Metropolitan Transport Authority.