Namma Metro is widely praised, never mind that its current reach is only 6 km and that it will be years before it makes a dent in the city’s legendary traffic jams.
Every once in a while, other ways to ease that congestion are sought, from monorail to high-speed rail to flyovers. One suggestion doing the rounds is commuter rail — a system which may yet move off the drawing board. Infrastructure consultancy RITES will submit a draft report on commuter rail to the government next month, and a committee of stakeholders will begin deliberations.
This system would use short-distance passenger trains running on existing railway tracks to connect Bangalore with distant suburbs, as Mumbai’s suburban trains do in that city. The idea is to exploit tracks that are not being used to full potential. “Commuter rail has the potential to transport people living 60-100 km away to the city in one and a half hours. That’s the same time you would spend commuting to Electronics City by car if you lived in the city,” says Sanjeev V Dyamannavar, a member of advocacy group Praja.
The group submitted a “call to action” report on commuter rail to the government in July 2010, and has suggested six routes covering 375 km, with 24 trains per day per route. The six growth centres Praja identified are Hosur, Ramanagara, Tumkur, Chikballa-pur, Dodballapur and Bangarpet, all within 100 km of the city. The RITES report identifies 10 routes, covering 405 km, which could transport 2 million people a day.
Dyamannavar says the system offers multiple advantages, apart from the obvious one of easing traffic. “If people staying in the suburbs can travel easily to the city, they will naturally prefer to live there, which will also reduce housing pressure on the city.” The commuter rail system even avoids large-scale land acquisition, as it would use either existing infrastructure or Railways land. This means that it can be implemented within a year of the report being accepted and approved by the government and Railway Board, he says. There is no deadline for the report to be accepted.
RITES’s report says the city’s public transport commuting needs are met mostly by Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC) buses, which have a daily ridership of 4.5 million. But the report points out that traffic congestion limits the expansion of bus services, while the metro and proposed monorail are confined to city limits.
The investment commuter rail requires is also limited. Phase 1 of Namma Metro is estimated at Rs 12,000 crore for 42.3 km, serving possibly 1 million passengers a day. RITES estimates the total cost of implementing two phases of the commuter rail system, with a capacity of more than 2.5 million trips a day, to be Rs 8,346 crore. Commuter rail would also be useful to people with lower income, as its tickets would be much cheaper, says T G Sitharam, chairman of the Centre for Infrastructure, Sustainable Transportation and Urban Planning at the Indian Institute of Science.
Previous reports looked only at track availability, says Sudhanshu Mani, divisional regional manager of South Western Railway, and “seem to have been drawn up without domain knowledge”. But the RITES report, he says, is inching towards acceptance by the Railway Board and the Cabinet.
Nevertheless, implementation will require that new stations be built so that stops are no further than 2 km apart, that existing stations be upgraded, that the entire signalling system be automated and that new railway rakes be procured.
For all its merits, commuter rail is no panacea for traffic problems, warns Ramesh Ramanathan, social entrepreneur and co-founder of non-profit Janaagraha. “The system is very sound in principle but implementing it will require tremendous inter-agency coordination which, while not impossible, has proven to be very difficult in India.” There is very little coordination, he points out, even between the regional railway boards and state governments. “What we need is a blueprint for an integrated multimodal transport system, prepared by a technically competent group, which addresses all the aspects of such a system from operational details to financial implications.” And of course there is that one ingredient critical for the implementation of any public project — political will.