Will Bengaluru’s suburban rail project speed up?

After years of public pressure, Bengaluru's suburban rail project is gradually taking off. But confusion prevails as the project details are still being worked out.

After years of public demand for a suburban rail network in Bengaluru, the project seems to be rolling out slowly. But there is much confusion as authorities are still working out the details.

Just last week, the state government gave its consent to register a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) that would implement the project worth Rs 22,242 crore. The SPV named B-RIDE (Bangalore Integrated Rail Infrastructure Development Enterprises Limited), is expected to be registered within a month. It will be a joint venture between the state and the centre.

After years of delay, it was this February that the state and central governments arrived at mutually-agreed conditions to form the SPV. Since the decision came about just before the Lok Sabha polls, it was seen as a political gimmick too.

Though the project is progressing now, in the background is a letter from the Railway Board this April, to restructure the project and revise its DPR (Detailed Project Report). The Board’s advice was based on directions from the PMO (Prime Minister’s Office).

The letter had said that the suburban network should not compete with the Metro; hence it should focus on connectivity to suburban areas rather than within the city. The letter also proposed PPP (Public Private Partnership) model for project implementation, and fixing of fares so as to meet operation and maintenance costs.

After this, over 30 citizen groups in Bengaluru had written to Railway Minister Piyush Goyal, condemning the directive to rework the project. In June, P C Mohan, MP of Bangalore Central, also met Goyal, and pointed out that the directive would further delay the project. He requested that approvals be fast-tracked, so that works could start this year itself.

Srinivas Alavilli, member of the citizens’ movement CfB (Citizens for Bengaluru), says, “Hurdles like the Railway Board letter are setting back project over and over again. The letter came when the project was finalised and about to be implemented. It’s always one step forward, two steps back. It infuriates us so much.” The project has been getting postponed for long, with repeated studies, discussions and disagreements.

Last month, CfB requested Bengaluru South MP Tejasvi Surya to form a ‘Multi partisan Working Group of MPs’ – comprising all MPs from Bengaluru and its suburbs – to realise the project.

CfB’s letter to the MP, published on its Facebook page, also outlines three issues to be addressed quickly – withdrawing the objections in the Railway Board letter, revising train timings and commissioning additional services, and speeding up automatic signalling projects. However, Alavilli says they have not got any response from the MP yet.

But Sanjeev Dyamannavar, member of the citizens’ advocacy group Praja RAAG, seems rather enthused about the project progress. “There were 12 meetings just before the Lok Sabha election, and these led to a lot of clarity between the state and central governments. Getting things approved and moving is definitely a step forward from what it was like 5-6 years ago,” he says.

SWR to implement five independent projects

Though there are uncertainties surrounding the larger suburban rail project, the South-Western Railways (SWR) is to implement five independent projects related to the network, worth Rs 1745 crore. This was decided at a high-level meeting chaired by the state’s Chief Secretary T M Vijay Bhaskar last month. The expense for these five projects is to be split equally between the state and the centre.

These projects are:

  • Doubling the track between Baiyappanahalli and Hosur stations
  • Doubling between Yesvantpur-Lottegahalli-Hebbal-Banaswadi-Baiyappanahalli-Channasandra
  • Conversion of 15 DEMU rakes to MEMU ones
  • Procurement of 11 MEMU rakes
  • Automatic signalling between Baiyappnahalli-Hosur, Baiyappanahalli-Yesvantpur-Tumukuru, Bengaluru-Mandya and Yesvantpur-Yelahanka

While the first four had been sanctioned, the fifth project was awaiting approval as of mid-June.

Suburban rail ignored for long

Suburban rail services initially existed only for HAL employees, to commute from the City Railway station to Vimanapura Railway station, since 1963. A modern system was proposed only in 2007.

Today, there are only skeletal suburban rail services in the city. Several campaigns for suburban railways from citizen groups, including ‘Rail beku’, ‘Modalu train beku’ and ‘Chuku Buku Beku’, have steamrolled the city in the past few years.

Suburban rail is cheaper, has more capacity

The main advantage of suburban rail is that it costs less than the rapid transit systems, according to the government consultancy company Rail Indian Technical and Economic Services (RITES). RITES had prepared the feasibility report for the overall suburban rail project.

RITES had estimated that, once completed, the suburban rail would have total daily ridership of 9.28 lakh by 2025; that is, double the four lakh population that travels by Metro rail currently. It would also ease some of the burden on the Bangalore Metro Transport Corporation (BMTC), which has daily ridership of around 45 lakh at present.

In 2031 and 2041, the daily ridership in suburban rails could even go higher, up to 12.4 lakh and 16.8 lakh respectively. The network is also proposed to have direct connectivity to the Kempegowda International Airport. Hence, the project is expected to fulfil Bengaluru’s long-term traffic needs.

Four corridors, 81 stations

The entire suburban rail network of 161 kms will be divided into four corridors. A drone-based aerial survey, conducted by RITES had suggested four possible routes:

  1. Kangeri-Bengaluru City-Whitefield (35.4km)
  2. Bengaluru City – Yelahanka – Rajankunti (24.9 km)
  3. Nelamangala – Mathikere – Baiyyappanahalli (38.9 km)
  4. Heelalige – Yelahanka – Devanahalli (61.2 km)

The basic infrastructure for these routes already exists. Overall, 81 stations are planned in the network, of which platforms would have to be built for 52. The tracks may also have to be doubled or quadrupled in a few places.

Twelve of the stations are expected to have intermodal connectivity with metro stations. Five stations will have interconnectivity within the suburban rail network.

Suburban train and tracks will be designed to have travel speed upto 90 kmph, though the average speed is likely to be only 32 kmph. Each train will have six cars, and will run between 5 am and midnight. Part of the suburban corridors will have broad-gauge tracks (1676 mm) running parallel to the existing ones. Another section would be elevated.

Challenges in implementation

The main worry is about the lack of space, mainly due to private buildings on the edge of the railway boundary on Kengeri-Bengaluru City and the Bengaluru City-Cantonment corridors. There are also religious shrines along the Kengeri-City and Hebbal-Banaswadi sections, which need to be shifted. Additionally, 64.83 acres of private land, and 1435 acres of railway land have to be acquired.

Moreover, a number of sub-surface, surface and overhead utility services exist across the alignment, housing a complicated criss-cross of networked cables, pipes and drains. Because of these concerns,  a delay in construction is expected. The construction would be taken up in phases.

Most of the construction would be within the metropolitan limits. Also, the following stations are expected to be developed into major hubs – Bengaluru city railway station, Cantonment, Yeshwanthpur, Channasandra, Baiyappanahalli, Chikkabanavara and Devanahalli.

Given the confusion about implementation, Alavilli says CfB is now pushing for some individual projects irrespective of whether these are covered in the overall suburban rail project. “When suburban rail is discussed, the focus is on high-end aspects like elevated tracks. But the infrastructure for suburban rail already exists. We just need to enhance capacity by some measures like automatic signalling, to at least allow more services now,” he says. It is to be seen if authorities will respond to such citizen demands, or will find these reason enough to expedite the project overall.

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