By talking of Bullet Trains and super-fast ones and 864 EMUs, is the Railway Minister trying to tell “acche din ane wale hain”, while not addressing the immediate problems of over 75 lakh daily commuters of Mumbai's suburban rail network?
The Narendra Modi government presented an interesting Railway Budget for 2014-15, epitomized, as far as Mumbai was concerned, by Kirit Somaiya, the newly elected Bharatiya Janata Party's member of Parliament (MP) from Mumbai North East. While the spokespersons and leaders of opposition parties were critical and the Mumbai commuter expressed disappointment, Somaiya tried to show misplaced positives of what Mumbai was getting. He said that Mumbai will get connected to Ahmedabad by Bullet train and 6 new trains introduced. He said there would be 33% enhancement in local train capacity in three to five years. He talked of raising of platform heights, and to prevent the 15 deaths and 25 injuries that occur daily, the opening and closing of doors and more Foot Over Bridges (FOBs) will be installed. Toilets at every station have also been promised. Rahul Shewale, Shiv Sena's MP, sounded less enthusiastic but repeated what the Railway Minister said, that they were introducing 864 electric multiple unit or EMU ‘trains’.
The Railway Minister DV Sadananda Gowda’s budget speech began with plenty of statistics of how many projects were commenced and how few were implemented by the Railways in the past decade. Keeping with Modi Government’s emphasis on raising aspirations, the Minister announced an impetus to the super-fast or Bullet train from Mumbai to Ahmedabad and nine super-fast trains connecting metro cities. Obviously these are not projects that will get completed in a hurry, considering the costs involved and funds available with railways. But for that, the minister has come up with an ‘innovative financing’ concept of private-public-partnership (PPP) and foreign direct investment (FDI).
PPP is a good way to execute projects with private investment and entrepreneurship getting them completed without overruns in time or money. But what is the experience in such large infrastructure projects? Take Mumbai Metro One, the 11.4kms line that took eight years for completion with innumerable missed deadlines. Going by the original cost estimate, it should have cost Rs1,500 crore but the bid price came to Rs2,356 crore, with a viability gap funding of Rs650 crore. For unexplained reasons, the costs have increased to Rs4,321 crore on which Reliance Infra, the private partner, is seeking reimbursement. The costs of food and beverage with the vendors at the concourse levels are already exorbitant. (Read: Mumbai Monorail: Tall claims & the reality
Are public service projects under PPP going to take such direction of exclusivity? It gives the feeling that such projects are nothing short of 5Ps i.e. Pilferage of Public Properties by Private Parties.
Coming back to Mumbai, mentioning 864 EMUs rather than 72 EMU rakes for Mumbai suburban railway indicates an effort to impress that “acche din aa rahe hain” (better days are coming). The fact is that these 72 EMU rakes are part of the Mumbai Urban Transport Project (MUTP), conceived a decade ago and is nothing new – just the allocation of funds for it, which is anyway coming from the World Bank to Mumbai Rail Vikas Corp (MRVC). Under MUTP, converting nine coach trains to 12 coach trains and improving signal system and power supply from direct current (DC) to alternating current (AC) was to lessen the crowd density in coaches by 35%. Secondly, the 72 new EMU rakes are being introduced into the system and some older rakes are being retired. Another point to note is that the daily commuter volume was 60 lakh when the MUTP was conceived and now it is over 75 lakh, an increase of almost 25%. Thus, the net effect is that the commuter density has not reduced as significantly as the increase in capacity that is planned.
Since there was no mention of the Churchgate-Virar elevated AC Rail Project in the budget, the folly of the project has been realized early thankfully. As far as Mumbai city and suburbs are concerned, there is hardly any scope to augment commuter carrying capacity in the railway services. Whatever needs to be done, has to be done in the Mumbai Metropolitan Area and the Budget does not even mention it.
Raising of platforms to reduce the vertical gap between the platform level and the EMU coach floor has been mentioned. When that is completed, the gap between the floor level of empty rake and the platform level will still be as much as 300 to 320 millimetres (mms) and that of fully loaded coach will be just about 25-30mms lesser.
Railway Minister Gowda has mentioned that station amenities will be improved, provided with facilities like toilets and food courts, and the system will be made friendly to differently abled persons. While there are proposals to put escalators and lifts in place, the last link, that of boarding and alighting has not been mentioned. Somaiya, the MP, who has been a campaigner for raising the platform levels for some time now, has perhaps no idea that by facilitating level boarding, several commuter issues get addressed. (Read: Making the Railways friendly for the disabled –Part I )
Somaiya has gone on record by saying that there are 15 fatal and 25 injury causing accidents on the Mumbai suburban rail network every day. This may be a little exaggerated but the real numbers aren't much lower. While automatic door closing facility will no doubt bring down this number significantly, it will be at the cost of about 1,000 commuters, who will not be able to board a train in peak period. With about 50 services per hour, the number of commuters being ‘left behind’ for providing this safety facility comes to about 50,000. The current railway projects will not be able to meet this requirement. Even then, the commuter density within the coach will continue to be very high.
Metro Rail is estimated to provide a capacity of 72,000 persons per hour. This will naturally be adequate to accommodate the ‘left behind’ commuters. But the question is when will this facility be available? Going by the construction time of Metro One mentioned above, the entire Metro master plan will take 70 years, yes, 70 years!
As far as Mumbai is concerned, the initiative has to come from the Government of Maharashtra and Ministry of Urban Development, Government of India, and not Rail Bhavan.
As far as the PPP model of executing projects is concerned, the agreement must be transparently firmed up with public (citizens) participation or scrutiny, lest PPP becomes a PPPPP.
On FDI issue, it has to be in line with PPP.
(Sudhir Badami an IIT Bombay graduate in Civil & Structural Engineering, is a Transportation Analyst. 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. He was member of Bombay High Court appointed erstwhile Road Monitoring Committee (2006-07). He is member of the Committee Constituted by the Bombay High Court for making the Railways, especially the Suburban Railways System Friendly towards Persons with Disability.)
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