Mumbai's congested railway network in urgent need of upgradation, but no solutions forthcoming

Of all the railway stations across the country that will be redeveloped, one-fifth are located on the Mumbai suburban routes. It's both significant and appropriate that the five stations on the shortlist (four within Greater Mumbai, and one just outside) are Bandra, Borivali, Lokmanya Tilak Terminus, Mumbai Central and Thane — all of them crying for attention.

These stations happen to handle both long-distance trains as well as commuter locals connecting the metropolis with its distant suburbs. The metro region is nine times the size of Mumbai, and houses a little over one-third of the total population, but is almost entirely dependent on Mumbai for its economy.

Increasing number of users, and the resulting congestion, are the hallmarks of these stations, which witness uninterrupted footfall during morning and evening peak hours, putting even more load on the short-distance commuter trains, popularly known as "locals trains". However, they are the lifelines of the city. Shut one down, and crisis would befall the city.

Local trains in Mumbai are always packed during morning and evening peak hours. Reuters

Local trains in Mumbai are always packed during morning and evening peak hours. Reuters

When signing a redevelopment agreement for Habibgunj in Madhya Pradesh, Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu had said last year, "Apart from passenger services, we can look at commercial complexes as well the station areas."

Habibgunj has the potential to be one of the revenue streams for the railways, and could generate upto Rs 300 crore. The same could be replicated in other stations as well.

The railways own spaces within and around station premises at several places. They could be put to commercial use, and that's where a private player could come in. Real estate always promises gains, and there are no better places to do so than a railway station in suburban Mumbai, which are nicely strung along the north-south alignment of the island city.

However, focus should not be on extracting benefits alone; it should also look at building passenger amenities. Currently today, all the stations are past their use-by date in terms of ability to handle crowd capacity. There is a crying demand for amenities to be improved, including the simple comfort of being able to stand in a train without being elbowed by another passenger.

Let's take a look at the stations on the shortlist. Borivali is a western suburb, an important commuter hub that handles long-haul passenger trains as well. It's a busy station and handles nearly three lakh commuters everyday, several of whom descend on it only because it's not possible for them to board trains from the stations around it — Dahisar, Kandivali and Malad.

Inadequacies of the system only worsen conditions in stations like Borivali. Every time a train from further north arrives at Borivali, it does so packed to the brim and can take in no additional passengers. Such similar pressure is also felt at Thane on the central line, which handles two separate lines: A Thane-Panvel "trans-harbour" line, and a main line going towards CST. There isn't a single location on the Western or Central systems that can be considered comfortable to board a train.

Efforts to improve the situation around stations have been made. Skywalks, a Mumbai term to describe a long pedestrian bridge connecting the station to the road outside, exist at almost all important stations, while Thane also has Satis (Station Area Traffic Improvement Scheme), but even this comes with its flaws. Public transport, meant to be discharged from a top deck, is hardly used, it being a factor of poor city transport planning. But more importantly, it has meant an arterial road needs to be used for private vehicles. Furthermore, narrow roads are monopolised by hawkers, meaning vehicular traffic can only travel in a single file. Parking for private vehicles is also inadequate.

The constraints come from the approaches to these stations, as shown at the eastern side of Bandra or Borivali stations. At both places, hawkers, many of them without requisite licences, block out valuable road space. A commuter rushing to catch a fast train would need to wait patiently, as his/her bus crawls past these congested streets.

On the west side of Borivali, meanwhile, one wouldn't even be able to identify the station entry points, unless one was a regular user. Much like Mulund on the Central line. At every spot, pedestrians who arrive at the station prefer using the roads meant for vehicles, because the footpaths are taken up by hawkers. It's a feature typical of all stations and the foot-over-bridges (FOB).

How would the exploitation of these stations for commercial purposes bring in more footfalls, without worsening the existing load? This is tricky, and even private partners may end up scratching their heads in frustration.

Updated Date: Feb 02, 2017 19:41 PM

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