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Why Mumbai Monorail naysayers may have got it wrong

India's first monorail in Mumbai with gorgeous, brightly coloured aerodynamic trains that seem to glide by, wrapped around a single concrete bar, has captured the nation's attention. The jokes have also begun, with Photoshopped pictures floating on social media networks of passengers hanging out of a monorail, given the well-known, horrendous peak hour conditions on Mumbai's suburban railway network, which is more about crush hour than rush hour.

Perhaps the interest is also because Mumbai gets so little in the way of infrastructure as compared to Delhi with its great roads, a world-class metro that nearly spans 200 kms in length, the only airport terminal in India with direct high-speed train connectivity from the city centre and more. Mumbai, in comparison, has seen far less of world-class infrastructure and when it has come, it is often half-baked. Take the Rajiv Gandhi Sealink. Like former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi's dreams, the sealink is quite incomplete too, with vehicles zooming over the sea on a wide six-lane road, only to land in Worli on a four-lane road with obstacles, traffic lights and a ridiculous roundabout because traffic dispersal plans from the sealink were an afterthought, as with much of Mumbai's shoddy infrastructure. The Eastern Freeway, Mumbai's other showcase infrastructure project is also not complete though even in the partially finished state it has eased traffic between Chembur and the city centre.

 Why Mumbai Monorail naysayers may have got it wrong

The Mumbai monorail. Sachin Gokhale/ Firstpost

Faithful to the spirit of Mumbai's infrastructure history, the first phase of the Mumbai Monorail is less than half complete and currently runs for 8.9 kilometres (km) of the total length of 19.54 km. Interestingly, if you travel the distance between Chembur, the first station and Wadala Depot, the last station on the operational part by road, the shortest distance over wide roads is just 5.2 kilometres according to Google Maps. And for the trivia buffs, no, even when complete, Phase 1 of Mumbai's monorail will not be the world's second longest monorail line as reported in many places. That honour belongs to the Osaka Monorail main line which runs for 21.2 kilometres. The world's longest monorail is Line 3 of the Chongqing Rail Transit (CRT) in China which runs for all of 55.5 kms.

The Mumbai monorail quite literally travels off the beaten track into parts of Mumbai that most Mumbaikars would have never seen. Which is why it takes 8.9 kms to reach the end point that is accessible over road in 5.2 kms. But that is the point of the monorail, which was originally envisioned as a feeder service to Mumbai's suburban railway system, a role it should serve when the second part of Phase I starts operations, with trains going to Jacob Circle. When that happens, the monorail will provide an interchange facility for Mumbai's Central Railway and also end fairly close to Western Railway's Mahalaxmi station, though it is unclear why planners were short-sighted and could not take it a meagre few kilometres ahead to Mumbai Central, one of the most important stations on the Western Railway and also a terminus for cross-country, long distance trains.

Scroll.in has a piece about how the monorail seems to be built for real estate developers rather than commuters and given the frenetic construction in the area near the Wadala Depot station, where the skyline is dotted with under-construction towers, this does seem like a reasonable scenario.

Some builders are more into selling dreams than homes. Take New Cuffe Parade, a development by a large developer that shamelessly copies the name of an expensive, tony part of South Mumbai which has some great sea views, and promises a similar life in Wadala while ignoring the fact that the real view around is that of slums and smoke-spewing chimneys from the Rashtriya Chemicals & Fertiliser (RCF) factory and oil refineries further down from RCF.

But truth be told, very few of those who buy flats in these real-estate developments will commute by the monorail given the route it takes and given the increasing aversion of India's upper middle class to public transport. Most flat buyers here will have at least a car, if not two. The Eastern Freeway which takes residents living here to South Mumbai in a time span unimaginable a few years ago is the real wet dream come true for developers here.

The second part of Phase 1 will certainly serve many more areas of eastern Mumbai and even link to key railway stations. What's also important is that in this part the monorail takes roads that are quite narrow and again, off the beaten track into areas not served very well by existing mass transit systems. For instance, if you were travelling from Wadala Depot to Jacob Circle, and took the route the monorail follows by road, even a rookie cab driver in Mumbai would discourage you, given the narrow roads and crowded roads in many areas that are quite lower-middle class. It is here that the monorail will have maximum effect because there are few BEST bus services here, especially till the line reaches middle-class localities near Dadar.

While transport experts see the monorail as quite useless, the reality in an infrastructure-starved metropolis like Mumbai may be far different. For instance, when air-conditioned fleet taxis started some may have wondered if they would remain a small niche, but today the city is desperate for more despite thousands of such fleet taxis on the streets. If the government issued licenses for fleet taxis freely in Mumbai, fleet taxi companies would bring in many more cabs . In the Scroll.in piece, experts tout alternatives like a Bus Rapid Transport System (BRTS) with dedicated lanes for buses, which they say can achieve the same frequency and speed as the monorail at a much lower cost.

The unfortunate reality though is that BRTS is widely accepted as a failure in Delhi with its much wider roads as compared to Mumbai . In India BRTS has worked in smaller cities and not in any metro. Besides, on the existing route of the monorail, no BRTS is possible because some of the roads it traverses are two-lane roads.

And while the monorail has also been criticised for limited capacity as compared to Mumbai's trains and speed of operation, perhaps there's room for different perspective too. Mumbai's suburban trains were 9-car rakes for years, till 12-car rakes came in and now even 15-car rakes operate, with a majority of rakes now converted into 12-car rakes. While the current trains on the monorail have 4 coaches, the Chongqing Rail Transit (CRT) monorail has trains with 6 coaches and will upgrade to 8 this year. Surely that can be done when demand rises and platforms lengthened as has happened with the suburban railway system in Mumbai? As for speed, the monorail operates at an average speed of 65 kms per hour, while Mumbai's BEST buses operate at a stately average speed of less than 12 kms per hour. The monorail is also quieter and doesn't contribute to noise pollution like BEST buses do.

But the elephant in the room is cost. At a cost of nearly Rs 2,500 crore the monorail may act as a great feeder system and provide comfortable travel for Mumbai's masses, but it is unlikely to recover the money from ticket sales alone. But this being India, there could be some surprises here too. Ever since the monorail opened to the public this past Sunday it has been open and running more services than planned and making far more money than the government thought it would. On Sunday, around 20,000 Mumbaikars took joyrides on the monorail. Things were expected to slow down during the week but surprisingly, the crowds have kept up. And it's not regular commuters but citizens looking for a joyride.

When I often pass by the Wadala Depot monorail station on my way to work around 8:30 in the morning, I see groups of people waiting to get a ride. I wouldn't be surprised if the many tour buses that take tourists on Mumbai 'darshans' soon include the monorail as part of the tour. After all, it's India's first monorail and people are excited about the aerodynamic coaches in bright colours that glide by that they have never seen or experienced before. It's like experiencing travel in a developed country finally in Mumbai.

Mumbai's monorail story has just begun. Let's not show it the red signal even before it finds its wheels.

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Updated Date: Feb 07, 2014 07:46:20 IST

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