Mumbai's metro rail on wrong track

Published: Saturday 15 March 2008

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The Mumbai metro looks set to run on standard gauge tracks. The Union Ministry of Railways had recommended the broad gauge system, but the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority deemed the narrower standard gauge system suitable for Mumbai's geography. Not everybody is pleased with the decision. Justifiably so. It seemed that the metropolitan authority was too keen to score a point over the railway ministry and so eased out technical experts who favoured the broad gauge system.

There is more distance between inner edges of rails in the broad gauge system. This means that coaches running on broad gauge tracks are a little more expansive than those operating on standard gauge rails.

The system was ruled out because the state government felt that broader wagons would not negotiate sharp turns of 100 metre radius that are plentiful in congested Mumbai. But it seems that the state government acted in undue haste here.Not because it was short of information. In fact the ministry of railways had informed the Maharashtra government that broad gauge trains can negotiate turns as sharp as 100 metres radius. The Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority also felt that the broader coaches were not suitable for the Andheri Ghatkopar section. But it offered no reason for recommending standard gauge tracks on other corridors. In fact, the findings of the detailed project report on the Charkop-Bandra-Mankhurd corridor have been disclosed to only a select group of contractors. Why this secrecy?

Down to Earth
The standard gauge corridor plans to cater to rush hour traffic demand for the next 25 years. But there is no provision to increase capacity, either by way of increased frequency or increased length and width of the trains. In fact, the system is incapable of taking wider coaches. It might prove to be an embarrassment if the Maharashtra government's plans for Mumbai fructify. Economic hubs in concentrated pockets of the city will surely increase the number of commuters. The standard gauge system is unlikely to stand the test of this pressure, and is likely to get saturated in 15 years or so.

Broad gauge coaches could have fitted far better into the Maharashtra government's plans for Mumbai. Their capacity is 25 to 30 per cent higher. So a six coach broad gauge train could have carried the same number of passengers as an eight coach standard gauge train. For the Andheri-Ghatkopar corridor, the metro would have required 72 coaches against the 108 coaches it requires now. This would have meant far lower operational costs. The electricity costs, for example, could have come down by 20 per cent.

Construction cost for the Andheri-Ghatkopar section is around Rs 200 crore per km. Compare this with the construction cost for the Delhi metro Rs 100 crore per km. One coach costs Rs 9 crore. Compare this with the M umbai Urban Transport Project's price of Rs 2 crore for a coach.

Broad gauge tracks would have linked the metro with Mumbai's suburban railway system. It would have allowed the extension of metro services to suburbs such as Panvel and to the new airport.

Heavy capital investment required for a new line from Navi Mumbai could well have been avoided if the metro was linked to the existing suburban railway system. The government is instead spending Rs 100 crore on a new bridge on the Thane creek that will take the metro to Navi Mumbai.

The Maharashtra government touts the metro as based on state of the art technology. It overlooks the fact that many of the acclaimed metro systems in the world run on broad gauge lines.

There is enough scope to review the decision to have standard gauge corridors. In fact for Delhi Metro (first phase) the decision to change from standard gauge to broad gauge was taken when the entire corridor was ready and track was to be laid.

V K J Rane is former managing director IRCON International Ltd, a public sector enterprise of the Union Ministry of Railways

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