Mumbai Suburban Network have become horribly unreliable and unsafe
Stampede on Friday, 29th September at Elphinstone Road station, in which 23 commuters died and 39 others are injured, is a freak railway accident and deserves media headlines. However, most of the reporting on the tragelacks focus and perspective. While reports said the foot overbridge (FOB) was 106 years old and dating back to the British era, it is barely 35 years old. Reports also said the Railway Minister had sanctioned a wider bridge at this location two years ago, but nothing has been done.
The fact is that on an average, most sanctioned works in the Mumbai suburban region take 10 years to execute; some continue for over 25 years. Implementing infrastructure work is tough because of system limitations coupled with a shortage of funds. The works sanctioned at the demand of a Member of Parliament is often given low priority in case of funds constraints.
I recollect that out of sheer frustration, MPs would often sponsor the foot overbridges from their MP LAD funds to ensure expeditious completion.
Crowding on FOBs is not uncommon, but there has never been a stampede. Still, it should not be seen as an isolated incident. Suburban services have become horribly unreliable and unsafe, with people getting killed or injured by falling from crowded trains or getting run over. The management has no comprehensive plan to reverse the trend.
The Mumbai suburban network is an intense system, carrying more than 76 lakh commuters every day, that too only on the surface. Comparable urban transport systems like those in Tokyo, Beijing or Shanghai do have the numbers but are mostly underground or elevated.
Mumbai locals have the fastest average speed of about 50 kmph and are the cheapest urban transport system anywhere. It also has the unique distinction of providing the longest service at over 20 hours daily but is unable to recover more than 50% of expenditure from fares.
Mumbai is a dream for any transport operator as it offers immense challenges and opportunities. Locals are rightly called the city’s lifeline as its economic activity depends on it. Unfortunately, nobody owns the system and I have learnt this the hard way.
The Ministry of Railways, the owner, sees it as a liability and wants the General Managers of Central and Western Railways to manage the show, without seeking any input. The State government and local bodies invariably take adversary positions except during crises.
The Mumbai Rail Vikas Corporation (MRVC) is an institution set up only for developing the suburban system, but this 50/50 company has no power to sanction work and has to go through the Railway Board even for small decisions. Often, bosses in Delhi take a negative view if they feel that local administration is taking extra interest in suburban infrastructure.
For example, the covering on platforms (COP) at Churchgate was only for nine coaches. The trains were augmented to 12 coaches in the early 1990s. The work to extend platform covering was sanctioned but did not get executed due to practical difficulties. After 20 years, work was sanctioned again and executed in 2011. Much later, the Railway Board deleted this work while sanctioning an estimate for MRVC.
Now. The young officer responsible for its successful execution is facing a Vigilance inquiry for not awaiting formal sanction. The message from Delhi is clear: merely including a work in the Pink Book doesn’t give the authority to execute it. Under such circumstances, it would have been foolhardy for an officer to take initiative on the Elphinstone Road FOB.
The MMRDA has its own plan, as the Comprehensive Traffic Study (CTS) for Mumbai envisages modern transport means like the monorail, Metro, water transport and expressways instead of increasing the suburban railway network. However, after more than 10 years, there has not been much progress. In any case, MRVC’s plan to comprehensively augment the suburban network has to be considered, and the World Bank is prepared to extend monetary support.
It is possible to reverse the trend if its pricing is delinked from all-India pricing, Delhi loosens control and gives more autonomy to MRVC, local public representatives and other stakeholders are involved in planning and funding, and station areas are declared special development zones.
* The writer is former Member Engineering, Railway Board and former General Manager of Central Railway.