Mumbai’s suburban railway cannot carry its population, but there is a solution

Mumbai's suburban railway carries loads 6 times its capacity at peak times, making it uncomfortable and deadly. A Bus Rapid Transit System can change that.

As Mumbai returns to normal after the COVID pandemic, offices and schools have reopened. With them, the number of commuters travelling through public transport is steadily approaching pre-pandemic levels. 30 lakh people boarded the BEST buses daily in April 2022, and the number will soon cross 35 lakh. 70-72 lakh passengers travelled on the suburban railway every day, just 6-8 lakh shy of the 2019 figures. The familiar scenes of congestion have returned.

Mumbai’s suburban railways are known for the often dangerous rush hour, for which the term ‘super dense crush load’ was coined. Over 16 people stand chest-to-chest on each square metre of a 12-car train’s floor. The passenger load at peak times – between 8:00 AM to 11:00 AM and 5:30 PM to 8:00 PM – was 3.6 lakh persons per hour (PPH) in 2009. Today, that number should have surpassed it. 

The overcrowding in trains is not just a cause of discomfort. It is deadly. Over 2,500 people are killed and 3,000 are injured every year, due to falling in the gaps at the station platform, off the train, crossing the tracks, hitting electric poles, etc. And at the heart of this, the root cause is simple: inadequate hourly capacity.

A 12-car rake, which can comfortably carry 2,400 people, carries over 6.000 people at peak times. 80 lakh people usually travel on the suburban railways in a day. The capacity per hour, with trains running every 4 minutes, is about 1.8 lakh PPH. Compared to the load the trains carry, the shortage in capacity is at over 1,80,000 PPH.

This is where the metro was supposed to come in.

The newest metro line 2A and 7 in Mumbai
The newest metro Lines 2A and 7 were launched on April 2nd from Dahisar to Dahaukarwadi and Aarey respectively. Photo: Udit Mehta

Has the metro bridged the gap?

In 2004, the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) unveiled plans for a brand new transport system for the city: the metro. 

The Mumbai Metro Master Plan (MMMP-2004) was 146.5 km long over 9 metro lines and came with an estimated price tag of Rs 19,500 crore. Approvals, detailed project reports and tenders came quick and ready for the first line, and construction started on a public-private partnership (PPP) basis in 2006.

The line would go on to be the 11.4 km Line 1, plying east-west between Versova-Andheri-Ghatkopar from June 8th, 2014. It was constructed to operate six coach trains at a frequency of 3 minutes. Each coach is capable of holding 300 people, resulting in a peak time capacity of 36,000 persons per hour per direction (PPHPD). It set its goals at a daily ridership of 6.65 lakh by 2021, and 8.83 lakh by 2031. For this, it would have to accommodate 23,321 PPHPD and 30,491 PPHPD respectively.

In reality, however, frequency has been 4 to 8 minutes with four coaches only, reducing the capacity to less than 18,000 PPHPD. Ridership has been 5 lakh at best, and only due to the fallout from a BEST workers’ strike in early 2019.

There is a need to enhance this, as many people travel to MIDC and SEEPZ for work, from the Ghatkopar and Andheri stations. They travel from far out extended suburbs and the south Mumbai. The scope is high too, with the connected Andheri station seeing a footfall of 13 lakh daily. But because the cost of the metro’s rolling stock, ie. additional coaches, is high, capacity has not been increased.

Read more: Mumbai Metro progress update: What’s on the cards?

Future Lines

None of this has had a damper on the plans for the Mumbai metro. On the contrary, they have only been made grander. The MMRDA has continued to extend and add plans for new lines, even after the updated MMMP in 2015. By 2031, the anticipated 14 lines are expected to cover 337 km in the city and beyond, rivalling the 390 km suburban railways, at least in infrastructure.

The Comprehensive Transport Study Report of 2008 (CTS-2008) revealed that passenger load and density on the railways is greatest between Andheri and Borivali, with the density continuing to be high up to Virar. The northern parts of Line 2A and 7 were prioritised, because they run in the north-south directions between Andheri and Borivali, where load is the highest. The southern sections of these are expected to get ready in another 6-8 months. With their launch on April 2nd, the MMRDA stated that they were plying six coach trains carrying 2,280 people, i.e. 380 persons per coach. This is about 25% higher than the figure of 300 mentioned for Line 1, even though the metro trains are typically uniform in width and length on all lines.

If we assume that the true capacity of the coaches is 300, they will have a capacity of 48,000 PPHPD at a 3 minute frequency. According to the MMRDA, Line 2A will provide a capacity of 15,565 PPHPD and Line 7 18,584 PPHPD, much less than the 48,000 PPHPD they are capable of carrying.

Hopefully, by 2031, we will have the other metro lines plying in the north-south direction to supplement the suburban railway’s capacity. Line 4 will add a similar capacity of around 15,000 PPHPD. Even if we assume the upcoming planned metro lines have 8 coach trains running at a peak frequency of 3 minutes, the maximum hourly capacities they will add is 1,80,000 PPH on the Dahisar-Thane to Bandra-Mankhurd band. But it is doubtful they will operate at their full capacity, as we have seen on the currently operational lines. It is unlikely they will operate at the needed capacity for much after 2031.

While it is irrefutable that the introduction of more metro lines will have a reduction in the passenger load on Mumbai’s suburban railway, it is still quite a distance away in time frame from the passenger load the railway carries today and will in the near future.

What is the solution?

The only solution to improving public transport in the city is significantly increasing its capacity, fast. We need an additional capacity of at least 1,50,000 PPH over and above what is currently proposed by the metro Lines 2A, 2B, 3, 7 and 4.

The metro, apart from being a time-intensive project, is expensive. The contract for Line 1 started at an expense of Rs 2,356 crore but ended costing the company Rs 4,321 crore. The underground Line 3 was estimated to cost Rs 23,000 but will exceed the amount by approximately Rs 10,000 crore.

Even when the infrastructure, stations and tracks for the metro are laid, meeting the metro’s expected capacity and increasing it will depend on the supply of rolling stock, ie. additional coaches and rakes. Not only are these expensive too, but a delay in obtaining them will also cause additional cost escalations. The singular focus on the metro has caused people to suffer, on the trains and the roads.

Increasing the capacity of the suburban railways is also not a viable option. The trains have been upgraded from 9-coach to 12-coach trains and converting them to 15-coach trains, while on the horizon, will require massive infrastructural changes on the track and stations. Land acquisition for a 5th and 6th line between Mumbai Central and Borivali, proposed in 2008-09, is still pending.

This leaves the only other transport in Mumbai’s Mass Rapid Transit System (MRTS): the monorail. But with its expense and unsatisfactory performance in the past 8 years, it is not an option worth considering. 

But there is yet another transit system, currently missing in Mumbai, that can be the solution: a bus rapid transit system (BRTS).

The bus rapid transit system TransMilenio in Bogota, Columbia
The TransMilenio in Bogota, Columbia is the largest bus rapid transit in the world. Photo: Felipe Restrepo Acosta, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

BRTS – Bus Rapid Transit System

A BRTS is not just the presence of a public bus system, like the BEST buses in Mumbai. It is simple but streamlined, combining the bus as a vehicle in a system of a metro or train.

The buses will travel the length of the road on dedicated bus lanes, out of bounds to other vehicles. The bus stops will be embedded seamlessly on the route, and be level with the floor of the bus. People will not climb up or down but walk in and out.

While this will be a time-saver, it will also be a lot more accessible to the elderly and persons with disabilities, especially those in a wheelchair.
With all these operational efficiencies combined, the buses will be able to travel at an average speed of 40 km/hr. This is hardly a reality in BEST buses today, which move at the speed of traffic.

A BRTS is also far cheaper than the metro, with estimates putting it at 1/10th the cost. The same is true for rolling stock of buses, which would allow a well-designed BRTS to achieve high frequencies and high carrying capacities. Unlike a metro, this can be done in record time. In Bogota, Columbia, it has been able to carry 45,000-50,000 people per hour, rivalling the capacity of our present and upcoming metro lines. 4 routes along the length of the metro will supplement our public transport capacity to what is needed, and reduce road congestion.

To attract the people reluctant to use public transport, car users, a BRTS can even run a premium service at higher costs. This will promise the drivers luxury, minus the burden of traffic that’s customary at peak times.
Micro-buses, with a 10-12 passenger capacity and at a frequency of one-third of current shared-rickshaws, can provide first and last-mile connectivity for the passengers of MRTS i.e. railway, monorail, metro, as well as BRTS. This will also encourage more people to use all forms of public transport.

The MMRDA has even conducted feasibility studies for a BRT route on the western express highway and the eastern express highway. But any plans for one have been shelved to make way for big-ticket projects, like the metro. But this has led to suffering. A concrete solution hangs in the balance.

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