Metro rail network and not suburban railway is the future of Mumbai

I explain why the metro railway network and not the suburban railway network is the future of Mumbai


Recently, there have been two events that have put sharp focus on the public transport in Mumbai. One is the predictable impact of the first heavy rains of the season on the suburban railway trains. Multiple train services are affected and it caused a lot of people to be stuck on the way to office. Given that the suburban railway network is the lifeline of Mumbai (and larger MMR), literally thousands were affected. Most affected were the commuters on the Central railway line which connects far flung areas like Karjat, Kasara, Badlapur etc to the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST).

Metro railway vs Suburban railway (Image courtesy: DNA India)

The other event was the environmentalist brigade and Bollywood “rent-a-cause” celebrities joining hands to oppose the construction of the Metro depot in a part of Aarey colony. The land acquired for Metro 3 use is 2% of Aarey colony.

Aarey land used
Courtesy: MMRDA

They are proposing alternate locations for the metro depot, construction for which has already started. The Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRC) and the state government are pushing ahead with the project. As usual in such cases, the truth lies somewhere in between the positions taken by the environmentalists and the government. Aarey while not being a forest is a crucial green lung for the city. But the Metro 3 route is equally critical in improving the quality of lives of the citizens of Mumbai. The Metro 3 connects several business districts like Nariman Point, Bandra-Kurla Complex (BKC) and SEEPZ-MIDC. Such a project for the common good needs to go ahead, no matter the hard positions of it’s opponents.

Mumbai has a huge suburban network that was setup by the British (starting about 150 years ago) and diligently expanded by the Indian Railways after independence. The Western Railway that extends from Virar (in fact from Dahanu near the Gujarat border) to Churchgate, the Central Railway that connect Karjat / Kasara to the CST and the Harbour Railway that goes along the eastern seaboard to Mumbai and terminates in CST. The suburban railway is indeed a lifeline for the extended Mumbai Metropolitan region (MMR) and ferries about 75 lakh passengers daily (figure as of 2016-17). These various suburban train lines are like the arteries of Mumbai. But like many good things, the network has a dark side. The suburban railway operates more than 2,400 services daily and still there is overcrowding in peak hours. Passengers try to get into the train compartments trying to reach their work place / home and are packed like “sardines in a box”. Many people lose their lives in this struggle to catch the train they want in a bid to reach their destination on time. This overdependence on the suburban train network (which is still the fastest point to point transport) has created a hellish situation for the people who travel on it everyday.

There are limitations on expansion of the suburban railway network as well. Most of the routes have four to six tracks and there is no space left for expansion horizontally. The railways have been drawing plans for expansion vertically viz. have elevated tracks over the existing railway lines, but there are many practically problems and huge costs involved in implementing this solution. The railways have tried bringing innovative signalling technology to increase the number of services (bring down the time between two services), increasing the number of coaches on a train from 12 to 15, introducing AC trains to attract the traveller segment that preferred Ola/Uber. But these measures are incremental as the passenger carrying capacity of the suburban railway network has been exhausted.

The solution that the Devendra Fadnavis government is working on to reduce the load on the suburban network as well as provide more connectivity choices to the commuters is the metro railway network. Currently Mumbai only has 11.4 km of functional metro network. However it has the eight highest passenger density of any metro line in the world and has a daily ridership of four lakh. Crucially this line significantly reduces the journey time from Versova to Ghatkopar from 90–120 minutes to 21 minutes, and bypasses about 45 traffic signals and provides East-West connectivity. The Mumbai suburban railway network runs North-South only. So commuters going from Andheri to Ghatkopar had to take a 90 minute road travel or use the Western Railway (WR) to travel to Dadar and then switch to Central Railway (CR) to go to Ghatkopar. The train journey took 60 minutes but commuters had to travel in overcrowded trains. Now of course the commuters can complete this journey in the AC comfort of the metro in 30 minutes (including the waiting time).

In the five years of his tenure, Fadnavis has started work on the 16.5 km Metro 7 (Dahisar- Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport), 18.6 km Metro 2A (Dahisar – DN Nagar, Andheri), 23.5 km Metro 2B (DN Nagar- Mankhurd), 33 km fully underground Metro 3 (Colaba – Bandra – SEEPZ), 32.3 km Metro 4 (Wadala – Thane Ghodbunder), 14.47 km Metro 6 (Oshiwara – Vikhroli) etc. Many more routes are in planning / tendering stage. Once functional by 2024-2025, these routes will connect Mumbai city to the suburbs, Thane, Mira Road, Bhiwandi, Kalyan, Navi Mumbai etc. The metro network length in the MMR would be approx 250 km. This would nearly match the length of the various suburban railway networks. The ridership capacity created in 9-10 years (2016-2025) by Fadnavis government would also be nearly as big as the suburban railway network built over 150 years.

The metro network will reduce the load on the suburban railway network and improve the quality of travel for those passengers too. Check the image below of the Metro routes 7 (represented in red color) and 2A (represented in blue color) that are being built on either side of the Western Railway route (represented in grey color),

Mumbai Metro Routes 7 and 2A
Courtesy: TOI

These metro routes will give three choices for commuters going between Dahisar and Andheri, for point to point travel. Hence a commuter planning to go to his/her workplace along the Western Express highway could prefer the Metro 7 route, instead of the Western railway. This is akin to having faster and parallel processing by having three CPUs inside the machine. This would distribute the commuter load across all the three metro and railway lines, with BEST and autos acting as the last mile connectivity.

In a nutshell, the suburban railway network will continue to be relevant in Mumbai long after all the metro routes become functional. But it would no longer be the sole lifeline of Mumbai. The metro railway networks provide faster connectivity and crucial East-West connectivity across Mumbai that the suburban railway can never provide. Considering the huge number of intersections between the metro network and the suburban railway network, these two networks would be complimentary to each other instead of competing for passengers. A common ticket system across all public modes of transport would help in further integration.

Hence the policy makers should try to upgrade the suburban railway network across the MMR, but they would do well to remember that the future of public transport can only be the metro rail network.