Friday, June 16, 2006

Crush hour

This piece on Mumbai's locals appeared in the current issue of the Hafta mag.

Crush hour

Everybody’s got a story about Mumbai’s local trains. From those pushed back after daring to get out at Andheri in a Virar fast, to those enduring the blare of the bhajan mandals. Hindi movies have shown romance blooming in local trains – from a virile Amol Palekar courting a shy Tina Munim in “Baton Baton Mein” to an insipid Vivek Oberoi proposing to a spunky Rani Mukherji in “Saathiya”.

However, try romanticising a Mumbai local train journey to a daily commuter, and you’re likely to receive one tight slap. Reality is closer to a haunting scene from J. P. Dutta’s “Hathyar” which showed Sanjay Dutt seeing his dead father lying in between railway tracks, amidst the whizzing locals. (And before you ask, local train accidents in Mumbai are estimated at anywhere between 3,500 to 4,000 every year, half of which are on the rail tracks).

Size matters

Mumbai’s local rail system is among the largest in the world. In terms of traffic, the Western and Central Rail system carry an estimated 6m people everyday. To put things in perspective, the New York Metro North Rail carries 6m people in a month.

Mumbai doesn’t sleep much and neither do its trains. The first train of the day rolls out of Virar at 03:26, about an hour after the last train for the day checks in there at 02:30. At Kalyan, the first train is out at 03:27 and the last train in at 01:14. Between themselves, both rail systems run close to 2,070 services to ensure a frequency of one train every five minutes.

You don’t need statistics to tell you that Mumbai’s rail system is also among the most crowded in the world. A nine-coach rake with a carrying capacity of 1,700 people routinely carries 4,700 people during peak hours. This is what is defined as – and you will surely agree with this rather nice term – “super dense crush load”, which translates to about 1.4 to 1.6 people per square foot of floor space. And this does not include the space that enterprising Mumbaikars find on-top of the compartment, around the compartment (i.e. clinging on to windows), and even between compartments. Since inception, while rail capacity has been expanded 2.3 times, rail traffic has gone up – guess? – a whopping six times.

Telling a Mumbaikar that the Government is doing something about this daily torture could in all likelihood invite another tight slap. Be that as it may, the two projects that could ameliorate the current situation are the Mumbai Urban Transport Project, Phase 1 (MUTP-I) and the Mumbai Metro.

Laying down the tracks

As per the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority’s website, the MUTP has been formulated to...er… “bring about improvement in traffic and transportation situation”. The project cost of the MUTP is pegged at Rs4,526crores – or just under US$1billion. Note that 70% of the project cost – or Rs3,510crores – is dedicated solely to Mumbai’s Rail system.

A separate company – the Mumbai Rail Vikas Corporation Ltd, which is a joint venture of the Indian Railways and the Government of Maharashtra will execute the rail component of the project. When completed, the MUTP will add 35% to local train capacity during peak hours and reduce the “super dense crush load” to about 3,000 people. This will be achieved by (a) adding a fifth line from Borivali to Mahim and (b) adding additional pairs of tracks between Kurla and Thane and Borivali and Virar.

However, the MUTP suffered a major setback in March this year when the World Bank suspended it’s funding for the project. This followed issues relating to relief and rehabilitation of the project affected people (sounds familiar doesn’t it ? but no Aamir Khan here), resettlement of shopkeepers, demolition of houses for road-widening and functioning of a grievance redressal system. This is a text-book example of the multiplicity of problems and resultant controversies that surround a project of this size. As always, there will be no easy answers. As always, the Government finds itself in a problem of its own doing.

While the rail component of the MUTP has not been affected by the World Bank pulling the plug, the road component (which includes crucial east-west link routes like the Jogeshwari-Vikhroli link and the Santaruz-Chembur link) has taken a hit.

At last count, the fifth railway line has been laid between Santacruz and Borivali, and 45% of work between Kurla and Thane has been completed.

Of pipe dreams and grand designs….

The Mumbai Metro Rail is another classic 30-year-old-in-the-making project. Its siblings include the Bandra Worli Sealink and the Mumbai Transharbour Link. However, after years of prevarication and lack of political resolve, one leg of the Metro – the Versova-Andheri-Ghatkopar (VAG) leg was finally cleared by the Government last month. But not without disputes – one relating to funding and the other to a choice between standard and broad gauge rail.

However, even for the Metro, some experts were of the view that a sky bus would have been cheaper. Environmentalists also claimed that upgradation and overhaul of the existing rail networks would have addressed the transport problems better than spending a whopping Rs20,000crores on the Metro.

In its final form, the 146km long Mumbai Metro would consist of three parts. Other than the VAG, the Metro would include a Colaba-Charkop leg and a Bandra-Kanjur Marg leg. Of course, you would have to wait till 2021 to see the entire network in its full glory. By which time, Himesh Reshammiya would have won the Grammy for Album of the Year. Or the Oscar for the Best Actor.

…and four-letter words

Indeed, all these projects remain a distant dream for Mumbaikars. Yet, there is a lot still being done on the ground to get these projects moving. A lot that should have been done earlier, but is finally being done now. And till all these projects see the light of day, the average man on the street will continue to endure bland signs which exhort him to bear inconvenience today for a better tomorrow. Till then, hope remains a four-letter word.