Suburban rail systems in India: Can Bengaluru take a leaf from their books?

Did you know that Mumbai local trains carry close to 8 million passengers a day? And Kolkata's is the largest suburban railway network in India by track length and number of stations. The only way Bengaluru can get a suburban rail network comparable to these cities is through more funds, focus and administration.

The year was 2010. Praja RAAG — a non-profit dedicated to research and advocacy work on local civic issues in Bengaluru — started the ‘Namma Railu’ campaign in the city with the launch of a ‘Call to Action Report”.  Namma Railu was the moniker given to the campaign for Commuter Rail, also known as Suburban Rail in India.

While the term commuter rail focuses on the commuter, the word suburban rail focuses on the area served, the suburbs. Both refer to the same mode, though internationally the term ‘commuter rail’ is used more often.

An advocacy campaign was launched by Praja RAAG around the report to explain the virtues of using the existing Indian Railway tracks and commerce that has flourished around these stations over many years. This advocacy campaign started with a train ride and touched all pillars of democracy along the way: society, business, government.

As part of the Steel Flyover Beda campaign, the Citizens For Bengaluru (CfB) decided to also suggest and put together some asks (‘Bekus’ – meaning wants), which led to the #chukubukubeku campaign taking off in December 2016 from the buzz already created by the Namma Railu campaign.

The new government which came to power in May 2018, in its budget, announced a 30,000 crore Elevated Corridor project consisting of seven serpentine roads cutting across the heart of the city, instead of pushing for the Suburban Railway project although an MoU had been signed between the Ministry of Railways and Government of Karnataka in January 2017. This MoU had, in fact, provided for the formation of a Special Purpose Vehicle Vehicle (SPV).

Citizens again stressed on the need to push the suburban rail first, with their #ModaluTrainBeku campaign in August 2018.

Why commuter rail?

India’s GDP is rising and there is pressure to create more jobs. A McKinsey report on urbanisation in India says 70% of net new employment will be generated in cities by 2030. The burden of this urbanisation first falls on the cities with an already existing brand and the first casualty of any increase in commerce is Mobility.

There is thus an urgent need in cities to focus on mass transport. The mobility pyramid needs to be inverted to induce more efficiencies into the transportation in the cities. Train-based mass transport pre-dates the motor car. It continues to be a reliable people mover because of its right of way.

Many types of train systems have been deployed in many countries. But let us, for now, take a look at one particular type called the commuter rail or suburban rail.

What is the difference between Metro and Suburban/Commuter Rail?

In simple words, Suburban/Commuter rail serves a population that lives beyond the city limits in suburbs (beyond 15 km) (as obvious from the name), while Metro Rail serves population within city limits (12 km to 20 km). Compared to rapid transit (or metro rail), Suburban/ Commuter rail has lower frequency, following a schedule rather than fixed intervals, and fewer stations spaced further apart. They primarily serve lower density suburban areas (non inner-city).

In India, Indian Railways operates interstate services on all tracks in the country. The Indian Railways Act did not allow trains to be operated by anyone else beyond municipal boundaries. The Metro Railways Act of 2002 allowed the NCR region to break free and build metro systems.

This act was amended in 2009 to allow other cities like Bengaluru to build metro systems beyond BBMP boundaries. Until the amendment, BMRCL had to take refuge under the Indian Tramways act to build the metro system.

Examples from around the world

London: A report by Takao Okamoto and Norihisa Tadakoshi in October 2000 documents the history of commuter railway systems across the world. London was the world’s first city to build a public transport system, starting with intercity rail links in the mid-19th century, but railway construction within the built-up city was banned in 1859, so terminals were located on the city outskirts.

As of 2013, the commuter railway had 12% ridership within the Greater London Area of 1578 sq.km. The 12 commuter train networks have 52 lines and 1,325 stations forming a rail network of 4,300 km today.

Berlin: Berlin’s railway system was developed quite early and a modern network of some 300 km was already in place by the 1930s. Berlin’s S-Bahn consists of 15 lines totalling 331 km with 166 stations. It carries over 770,000 passengers each day serving greater metropolitan area having a population of 4.30 million in an area of 7340 Sq.km.

Moscow: The first subway line in Moscow was opened in 1935 and was quickly followed by a succession of new routes and branch lines. The Stalinist regime saw the subway system as a symbol of prestige, so subway stations (or ‘palaces’) were designed with considerable grandeur. Today the Moscow trains are operated by Central PPK and its network includes 10 lines.

Paris: The Réseau Express Régional, commonly abbreviated RER, a hybrid suburban commuter/rapid transit system serving Paris, France and its suburbs was opened in 1977. The RER combines the operations and roles of a local city-centre underground rail system and suburbs-to-city-center commuter rail. Inside the city center, the RER functions much like the Métro, but is faster as it has fewer stops. This has made it a model for proposals to improve transit within other cities.The network consists of five lines and the network has 258 stations covering 587 kms and has several connections with the Paris Métro within the city of Paris.

Cities in USA: Currently, there at 26 operational commuter rail systems located in 29 major U.S. metropolitan areas. The following are the cities and suburbs having a commuter rail system: Albuquerque and Santa Fe, Austin, Baltimore and Washington DC, Boston, Chicago, Chicago and South Bend, Dallas and Ft. Worth, Denton and Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami and Ft. Lauderdale, Minneapolis and St. Paul, Nashville, New Haven, New York (2), Newark, Philadelphia, Philadelphia and Harrisburg, Portland ME, Portland OR, Salt Lake City, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, Washington DC and Alexandria.

Suburban/Commuter rail systems in India

The Suburban/Commuter rail system in India too has some of the oldest and largest networks in the world. Suburban/Commuter/local trains in India form the backbone of public transport in many cities including Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Lucknow, Kanpur, Delhi, Hyderabad, Pune. Bengaluru, Ahmedabad, and Coimbatore are in the pipeline.

Mumbai and Kolkata have the largest suburban network in India, with Mumbai servicing more than 400 kms and close to 80 lakh people using it every day (see table below)! Chennai and Hyderabad carry lakhs of people a day. Delhi and Pune also use suburban services, although in skeletal form.

A snapshot of some of the commuter rail systems in the major metropolitans of India are shown in the table below:

Mumbai Chennai Kolkata Delhi Hyderabad
Area MMR (Mumbai Metropolitan Region) – 4355 sq.km

Greater Mumbai – 458.28 sq km.

CMA (Chennai Metropolitan Area) – 1189 sq.km

Chennai City – 426 sq.km

KMA (Kolkata Metropolitan Area) -1851.41 sq. km NCR (National Capital Region)– 58,332 km²

NCT (National Capital Territory) – 1,484 km²

Hyderabad Metropolitan Area – 7,100 km²

Hyderabad City – 650 km²


(Census 2011)

Mumbai Metropolitan Region – 18.3 million

Greater Mumbai: 12.4 million

Chennai Metropolitan Area – 8.6 Million

Chennai City– 4.6 Million

Kolkata Metropolitan Area – 14.1 million

Kolkata City – 4.5 million

NCR – 46.1 million

NCT – 16.8 million

Hyderabad Metropolitan – 7.7 million

Hyderabad City – 6.7 million

Suburban Rail System began operations in (Year) April 1853 1931 1854 1975 2003
Number of lines 6 3 25 NA 3
Total length (kms) 427.5 303 1243 35 44
Number of stations 132 151 348 21 36
Passenger (pax/day) 78.1 lakh 11 lakh 31.51 lakh 4000 2 lakh
Fare system Zone based Zone based Zone based Zone based Zone based
Operator(s) Central and Western Railways Southern Railways Eastern and South Eastern Railway Northern Railways South Central Railways

Bengaluru does not have a dedicated Suburban/Commuter rail system yet. However, according to a Namma Railu campaigner, the dreams seem to be slowly inching towards realisation with the central government clearing Rs 17000 crore for 500 services a day and 200 kms of serviceable zone. Currently, there are about 94 services that the Indian Railways runs on these segments, carrying around one lakh passengers.

A full-fledged Suburban/Commuter rail needs a dedicated special purpose vehicle to provide focus, infrastructure, funds and operational expertise for the local shuttles. The only way Bengaluru will get to the capacity of any of the above Indian cities sustainably is by switching tracks, and doing so fast.

In the end, as IAS official Sivasailam once remarked in a meeting on commuter rail, “Where there is a will there is a railway, or we (shall) only have survey (s).”


  1. Sheshashayan says:

    There are trains frequent trains from Hosur to byapanahalli and sbc to Whitefield during peak hours .These suburban trains are running with a very good response.The govt should make a dedicated line for suburban trains and increase the frequency.

  2. vadakkus says:

    Finally an article that acknowledges the real problem when it comes to building suburban railways in India. The problem is bureaucratic and political more than it is economical or an engineering challenge. Indian railways was formed with the explicit goal of linking the country together with long distance trains. No thought or importance was given to local or commuter trains. This centralised one size fits all top down approach will not work anymore. Cities, regions and local governments should be allowed to make their own decisions wrt their transit projects. Decentralisation is the way forward, as it is done in Germany. Such a policy change to free local transport projects from the clutches of the Indian Railways will go a long way in solving transit problems in Indian cities.

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