Asia Life

How to Save Mumbai’s Public Transit

Upgrading the suburban rail system is a low-cost solution for Mumbai’s public transport problem.

By Xiaochen Su for
How to Save Mumbai’s Public Transit
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Fly2Blue

Mumbai faces a public transport problem. With 20-22 million residents, the city is projected to grow by another 6-8 million by 2030. Yet its suburban railway system, the main method by which residents commute to work from far-flung residential areas, only carries 7.5 million people per day, despite severe overcrowding during rush hours. The shortfall in capacity is not negligible; neither is the fact that excessive crowds on the trains claimed the lives of more than 36,000 people in the decade up to 2012, translating to more than 10 people a day. The inability of the suburban trains to cope with the increasing population of Mumbai and fatalities from overcrowding means that there is a need for new ideas on how to get millions of Mumbaikars to work and home every day safely and comfortably.

The response of the Indian and Mumbai government has been to design an extensive metro system that will cover the city with an additional 130 kilometers of tracks by 2020. However, at the cost of nearly $50 million per km, the Mumbai Metro project is hardly the most economical solution. Moreover, while benefiting areas currently not connected to the suburban railway network, the Metro project fails to the address the fundamental question of how to alleviate overcrowding and lack of capacity on the existing suburban network.

There are also political and logistical bottlenecks in developing a Metro system in the densely populated Mumbai peninsula. Even digging underground requires the relocation of thousands of people and narrowing of existing roads, if only to make way for station entrances above ground. Religious communities complain of underground trains encroaching on and desecrating their sacred grounds. Such issues make the construction of Metro tracks in central Mumbai, where additional capacity is most needed, most difficult. The situation begs for a solution that can deliver additional capacity without disturbing existing homes, religious sites, and roads.

Thus, while constructing the new Metro system, the government needs to consider low-cost solutions that can boost public transport capacity in the most trafficked areas of central Mumbai, all the while using only existing spaces devoted to infrastructure. The only solution that fits such a stringent requirement is a comprehensive upgrade of Mumbai’s existing suburban rail network. Several solutions can squeeze extra capacity out of the network, with a smaller price tag than the $6.5 billion to be spent on the Metro system. Below are three ideas worth considering.

Purchasing Double-Decker Trainsets

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To ease overcrowding, Mumbai Suburban Railway has been replacing nine-car trainsets with 12- or 15-car sets. The additional capacity from the switch is surely appreciated by commuters, but any further lengthening of the trains to increase capacity would be difficult given the finite lengths of station platforms and lack of space to lengthen them. Instead, it would be wise to consider further expanding the capacity of trains by adding a second level to them. Double-decker trains provide a 30 percent increase in carrying capacity, without significantly increasing the energy needed to pull the trains. The ability to increase capacity without a proportional increase in operational costs makes the double-decker option worthy of consideration.

In fact, Indian Railways already operate double-decker trains in the form of several long-distance services, such as the Bengaluru-Chennai Double-Decker Express. The experience of operating double-deckers in long-distance routes can be transferred to the Mumbai Suburban Railway. And while double-decker train sets are certainly not cheap, they compare favorably to the massive investment on the Mumbai Metro. Bombardier reported that in 2017, the French national railways purchased 83 sets of its top-of-the-line high-speed double-decker sets for $968 million. The cost of constructing the Mumbai Metro is equivalent to around 600 of these train sets. If a cheaper variation of the double-deckers is purchased, Mumbai Suburban Railway can almost completely rely on them for its more than 2,000 daily services.

Building an Express Railway on Top of the Current Suburban Network

As noted above, one of the primary difficulties with constructing the Mumbai Metro has been obtaining land by relocating existing residents and buildings. Especially in densely populated central Mumbai, moving and compensating a large number of people can be a logistical and financial nightmare. The same problem faced by the Metro would appear at even bigger scales in supposedly more low-cost at-grade alternatives, such as trams and Bus Rapid Transit systems. A truly low-cost infrastructure project should require as little relocation as possible.

Mumbai Suburban Railway presents a unique advantage here because it already occupies a significant piece of land in central Mumbai in the form of rail tracks and stations. More capacity can be squeezed from the same land by constructing a parallel, elevated railway on top of the existing tracks. Instead of providing the same services, the elevated railways would act as the express version of the same network, calling at only certain stops on the line. By mimicking the setup of the New York subway and Tokyo’s commuter rail system in having separate tracks and platforms on some stations for local and express services, the system can ease overcrowding by shifting more long-distance travelers to faster trains.

Furthermore, elevated tracks can be built over existing roads and even houses without the need for land acquisitions. By linking the newly built elevated railways with those built over existing ones, the suburban rail network can be extended to more areas at a lower cost than the Metro. Indeed, some observers noted that the per-kilometer cost of constructing an elevated railway is 10 percent to 30 percent of that for underground railways.

Reasonable Expansion Further to Rural Hinterlands

Given the continued expansion of Mumbai outward from its center on the peninsula, it is commendable that concrete projects are being undertaken to extend the Suburban Railway to new residential areas. However, it should be understood that the extensions by themselves cannot solve the problem of overcrowding trains in central Mumbai. If anything, trains will be even more crowded as expansions of the network provide access to more people who were previously not commuting to the city center by train.

Instead, any extensions of the rail lines should only be accompanied by suitable measures to provide enough capacity to handle the extra traffic. For instance, the previously noted use of double-decker trains and separation of local and express services should be implemented before the system expands further. Any expansions into new areas should have future capacity increases in mind. Extra land should be acquired at the time of expansion so that longer station platforms and quadruple-tracking can be built, making it possible for longer trains and separation of slow and fast trains. By acquiring extra land when the areas are still relatively sparsely populated, expansions of the Suburban Railway to the hinterlands can avoid the troubles surrounding relocations faced by the Metro in central Mumbai today.

Ultimately, the goal of having a fast, adequate railway system that extends far into the rural hinterlands should be dispersing Mumbaikers’ workplaces. If trains can provide safe, fast, and cheap means of transport throughout the larger metropolitan area, businesses would no longer need to pay the high real estate prices of clustering in central Mumbai for the sake of being able to reach their clients and partners quickly. If business travelers can rapidly move among the different neighborhoods of Mumbai, then it would make financial sense for businesses to move to the city’s outskirts, where the cost of operations would be significantly lower. As businesses move outside central Mumbai, fewer Mumbaikars will need to commute long distances, naturally reducing overcrowding on the suburban trains.

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It is certainly commendable that the Mumbai government is working hard to resolve the problem of overcrowding on the city’s public transport system. Constructing the Metro, designed to move people through areas not covered by the existing suburban rail system, is certainly a right step forward. However, the high costs associated with digging through a densely populated peninsula means that the Metro, by itself, will not be a comprehensive solution. To further increase public transport capacity at relatively affordable prices, an upgrade of the existing Mumbai Suburban Railway network should be considered. By increasing the capacity of the system that the majority of Mumbaikars depend on for daily travel, the pressure on the city’s public transport can truly be alleviated.

Xiaochen Su is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Tokyo specializing in immigration issues. He previously worked in East Africa, Taiwan, South Korea, and Southeast Asia.