Mr Prabhu, Mumbai local train travellers need simple solutions, not fancy SPVs

A cyclical timetable, more frequent trains and fewer halts can bring a big relief for 80 lakh daily commuters in Mumbai


I have been travelling in Mumbai's suburban rail network for more than 15 years and for the first time, I saw what difference it makes to have somebody from the city as Minister for Railways. After the chaos on Central Railway on 2nd January, Suresh Prabhu, the Minister has announced setting up a special purpose vehicle (SPV) to address issues.


We will work with Maharashtra Govt to create a separate SPV to address State issues. Discussed with chief minister (CM). Both Govts will work on it,” the Rail Minister tweeted.


After the violent protests at Diva, Prabhu tweeted, “Suburban rail network is under severe stress. Long neglected. Drawing up plan to revamp it on top priority. Need time to implement. Huge task."


This is exactly what I wrote in April 2012. While commenting on a fire in a signal cabin near Kurla that time, I wrote, "Any small incident like signal failure can bring the suburban rail network across Mumbai to a halt. The midnight fire in a signal cabin near Kurla burnt down signal gears and cables. But then why is there no backup system in place? Why on earth is the Central Railways running its entire system on a single line of resources?"


The once-efficient suburban rail network is the lifeline of Mumbai. However, over the past two decades it is creaking under the weight of passenger influx, corruption and lack of investment in upgrading infrastructure. The extraordinary crowding of trains and poor commuter facilities such as stations makes the Mumbai suburban train system so prone to accidents that more than 10-12 people die in railway mishaps every day – a figure that would have made front-page news anywhere else in the world but meets with apathy in India.


The Times of the UK calls Mumbai’s local railway network as one of the deadliest in the world. According to a report by the High Level Safety Review Committee set up by the government in September 2011, about 6,000 people die on Mumbai's crowded local rail network every year. The committee, headed by Dr Anil Kakodkar, former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, recommended that the grim situation on Mumbai's suburban rail system needed to be tackled on a war-footing.


Three years after the report, nothing much has changed, except now Mumbai has somebody from the neighbourhood who understands the problems, vulnerability and cracking infrastructure of the suburban network, the lifeline.


Although Prabhu’s idea of setting up an SPV would take care of funding issues for Mumbai's suburban rail network, there are several other things that can be done immediately without spending a single penny.


One of them is re-testing the cyclic timetable. Traditional approaches of increasing capacity by increasing the number of coaches in rakes have not resulted in any improvement in the problem of overcrowding. The situation is further aggravated with frequent delays and uneven frequency of trains. So why not to try cyclic timetable?


After doing a lot of research over years, septuagenarian Dipak Gandhi, chairman of Mumbai Suburban Railway Passenger Association (MSRPA), and his colleagues have prepared a cyclic timetable, which can reduce passenger load on each local train by about 30% to 40% and also cut the travel time by 20% to 25% for long-distance commuters. The cyclic timetable also makes it possible to introduce 30% more services with the same number of rakes and tracks through super-fast and sector wise services.


Cyclic timetable as the name suggests is a timetable, which repeats itself after a fixed duration. A key feature of this timetable is that commuters do not have to memorise the whole timetable. All that they need to remember is the cycle time at which a train repeats itself; thus, if the cycle time is 12 minutes then even if someone has missed his train he knows that he will have to wait a maximum of 12 minutes to catch the next train. (Read: Reduce halts to gain speed on Mumbai local trains, say experts.


A simple mathematical analysis done by Rajaram Bojji, former managing director of Konkan Railway and inventor of the anti-collision device (ACD) also shows that the use of cyclic timetable can reduce the turnaround time for a local train by around 30% as well as waiting periods for commuters.

Another issue is mis-management of train traffic. For example, on Friday, an overhead wire was broken near Thakurli, which closed one of the slow tracks. What the Railways did was to divert all trains running on slow tracks to a fast track. Already the fast track carries all fast local trains, mail/express and goods trains. When you add slow trains on this track, it simply crumbles.


Even if the slow trains are diverted, then it should be done only for a particular stretch (between crossings) instead of a bigger route that affects more number of stations and commuters. For example, when there was issue at Thakurli, all slow track trains could have been diverted back on the same slow track after Diva instead of making it run on fast track till Thane. At the same time, one or two special trains could have been arranged to start from Diva so that the crowd could have moved to their destination. However, no slow train (coming from Thane towards Kalyan) was terminated at Diva and sent back towards Mumbai. This made commuters, who were waiting for a local train for more than an hour restless and then angry. Some local elements also added fuel to the fire and it erupted.


Last but not the least is need to have parallel roads, especially for the stretch between Thane to Kalyan. On Friday, I along with lakhs of commuters, was forced to walk down the rail track from Diva to Dombivli as there is no other mode of transport exists. Not to mention the loot of commuters at Dombivli station by auto-rickshaw drivers. They were demanding Rs500-Rs600 from commuters just to reach Kalyan as against the normal fare of Rs20-25 per head. There were some buses plying but were too crowded, in addition to unending queues.


In 2012, Dinesh Trivedi, the then railway minister, while speaking at an event organised by Moneylife Foundation, had said that the entire railway system is a mess and there is a urgent need to modernize it so that people can travel safely with some dignity, unlike what every commuter, especially on Mumbai's local trains experience every day. “There are no maintenance contracts given by the Railways and they are carrying out even the basic repairs on ad-hoc basis,” he had said.


Remember, Mumbai commuters are 'trained' to be patient by the hardships of daily commute. Nevertheless, they do have an anger building against the system, especially modes of public transport. And unless there is some visible improvement in the suburban rail network, the anger may erupt anytime and anywhere.


Hope, the local man Suresh Prabhu looks into these suggestions and help ease the life (of commuters) and (rail) line before it is too late.

Dr. Rakesh Goyal
9 years ago
Mr. Prabhu travels by road in Mumbai. How will he know the pains of local train travelers?

Further, now his railways related eyes and ears must be same set of railway officers, who are instrumental of making railways a chronic cardiac patient and have vested interest in keeping railway system sick.

The first step for Mr. Prabhu must be to define minimum acceptable and measurable service levels. This has to be done with consumers of railway services. Then he need to propose the detailed and point-by-point action plan with deadlines to provide these minimum acceptable services. Then he need to calculate cost of plan. SPV will be an instrument to fund the cost and recover the money. All these must be done with social and technical audit in a transparent and accountable method.

To propose some SPV without defining - what to do, is normal bureaucratic avoidance tactics.
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