Proposed suburban rail policy: will it help Bengaluru’s commuter rail dreams?

Railway network in Bengaluru is under-utilised. Pic: Shree D N

Anyone who has been following the campaign for suburban rails in Bengaluru would know that Government of Karnataka’s (GOK) proposal for implementing a suburban rail system in Bengaluru is pending since 2013. Meanwhile, recently, Indian Railways has circulated a draft policy on Suburban Rail System to all the state governments.

In last three years, we have seen three railway ministers, out of which two were from Karnataka – Mallikarjun Kharge and D V Sadananda Gowda. Including the present railway minister,  Suresh Prabhu, all had agreed that suburban rail is an important project for solving some of the Bengaluru traffic issues.

Suburban rail dreams never realised

In February 2016, during Global Investors’ Meet in Bengaluru, Suresh Prabhu had promised that his ministry will work with GOK to start the Suburban Rail system in Bengaluru. In couple of months, GOK will be hosting the Global Investment Meet (GIM) again and there is nothing in horizon to suggest that promises made in the last GIM have been fulfilled. There is not even a semblance of an intent leave alone the actual work.

In this backdrop, this draft policy from Indian Railway’s is almost a final nail in the coffin. Let me dwell on this bit to give you the contradicting clauses in the policy.

The draft policy starts with a preamble:

“Sec 3 …The Railway Budget Speech for 2016-17, stated the following regarding suburban travel: “We intend to undertake a major programme to build an integrated suburban ecosystem of IR by launching a new investment framework. IR would share equity contribution with the State Governments and ensure cost neutrality on operations.”

Sec 4…In pursuance of the above and to address the demand of State Governments for suburban systems, Indian Railways intends to build integrated suburban systems by launching new investment framework in participation with the State Governments and to ensure cost neutrality on operations…”

Then the policy states its objective:

“Sec 6…The basic objective of this policy on suburban rail systems is to eliminate the conflict between the long distance intercity transport / freight transport and suburban transport and build a financially sustainable model with participation of stakeholders so that it can be replicated in more and more cities. This model will involve participation of both the Central and State Governments and the systems that are subsequently set up may ultimately serve as nodal centres for integrated multimodal transport…”

Look at the preamble and objective; there is hardly anything that we could object to. In fact, we all will support the Indian Railway’s drive to support the suburban rail system to help the state governments overcome the rapid urbanization and resulting traffic congestion challenges in their respective economic hubs and cities.

The devil is in the details

But the devil is in the details. Even I fumbled at the first read in grasping the actual gist of this policy. The very next clause after the Objective lays bare the unacceptable position of the railways. Section 7 of this policy states,

“…Projects which are necessarily required to be integrated with the existing Railway system for operational purpose shall be considered by IR depending upon technical, financial and operational feasibility. In other cases, State Governments should take up independent rail-based suburban projects under Metro Acts in line with National Urban Transport Policy. Since running suburban services on existing tracks adversely affects the capacity of freight trains and long distance trains, it would not be possible for Railways to use existing infrastructure for the purpose of suburban services.Exclusive tracks for suburban services shall be considered by IR…”

The highlighted text negates all the noble intentions this policy has, in order to promote suburban rail system as laid down in Section 3, 4 and 6. In fact it is killing the very concept of suburban rail system. The simple meaning of this clause is that, state government should build the tracks exclusively for running suburban rail services. Indian Railways will not entertain any proposal to run suburban train services on its existing infrastructure.

After the Section 7, rest of the clauses in this policy becomes infructuous. In this context, here are the questions that are worth asking to Indian Railways.

  1. If state government has to lay the tracks on its own to run suburban rail services, then is there a need to get Railways permissions and approvals?

  2. If state government is responsible for all the finances it needs, why should it have railways as a stakeholder in the SPV?

Indian Railways, by barring the state governments from utilising the existing railway infrastructure, is clearly pushing them to opt for metro-like solutions which are both cost-exorbitant and time consuming. By this clause, railways doesn’t appear to be helping the state governments to build suburban rail systems in their respective states.

There is no rationale for this decision of the railways. Railways is open to private parties to run passenger trains, run freight trains but not willing to allow for running suburban rail services. There can’t be a more compelling reason to say that this is an anti-people policy.

If this draft policy is given the final approval, it will signal the end of new suburban rail projects in the country. It will be a unique example of a policy in the world, i.e. policy which aims to promote ‘Suburban Rail System’ in the country is actually carrying a death sentence for it. This draft policy is anti-people, anti-development and irrational, and needs to be rejected.

Read: Indian Railway’s Suburban Rail System Policy

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About Khader B Syed 6 Articles
Born in Bangalore, engineer by education and profession, Currently based in USA. Co-Founder, Praja - RAAG (Research, Analysis and Advocacy Group).

5 Comments

  1. Oh, running MEMUs is already progressing. It was announced in the budgets. State government suggested 3 routes, out of which Railways said, Yeshwantpur line was too busy, but other 2 lines were fine. This might happen in few months time.

    However, the above is not the Commuter Rail System or Namma Railu proposed by Praja and now championed by ChukuBukuBeku campaign.

    Railways has always said that city stations are too saturated and lines too few to run EMU (not MEMU) services within the city.

  2. @Balaji:
    “It makes immense sense to run more MEMUs to link Ramanagara, Mandya, Whitefield, Hosur to the end points of Namma Metro”
    This is pretty much what people are also asking. They can call it Commuter Rail Service, Suburban or whatever pleases them. Run MEMUs at decent frequency or peak hour alignment to link Ramanagaram, Whitefield, Hosur, Yelahanka-DBL, Tumkur together, and people will be happy.

  3. The project shall need to be viewed differently. It shall have to be operated more from the point of view of connectivity to mofusil towns. I don’t see it becoming a mode of transport within Bangalore city.

    I think, hourly trains between 6:00 AM and 11:00 PM to Mysore, Tumkur, Bangarpet with stops at all the existing railway station within the city could be a good start. Suburban rail along the lines of Mumbai with dedicated lines seems like a pie in the sky project at this point of time. The challenges around the expansion of SBC are far too many and GOK seems to be more than intransigent and inflexible to initiate efforts around this regard.

    A twitter handle, which apparently acts as an unofficial spokesperson for the honourable CM made a remark to the effect that progress on the proposed Commuter Rail project was tardy mainly on account of pedantic bureaucracy, slacking officials and skewed priorities of SWR. I would say that this is a case of the kettle calling the pot black as GOK too has been guilty of the same lapses.

    Land acquisition within the city also remains a problem. Minimal efforts are required to kick start these services. The modified suburban service, which GOK and SWR are talking about shall end up being a failure. Extending the trains to Bangarpet and Mysore respectively on the Chennai and Mysore lines respectively shall obliterate the necessity for KGI-Mandya and BYPL-WFD services. I suppose, BYPL could be used for Bangarpet and GBN for Mysore along with YPR for Tumkur.

    If not, the project shall die a slow death just like Delhi Ring Railway. There have been innumerable studies and surveys on the proposed Semi High Speed rail between Bangalore and Mysore. If the result fructifies and the proposed Semi High Speed Rail becomes a reality, then we can bid goodbye to Namma Railu.

  4. I fully support this draft policy of the Railways. Indian Railways is a national carrier. Just because Chennai and Mumbai have a local train network, doesn’t mean Indian Railways should run trains in every city. Both those cities have atleast 4 tracks in much of the grid and only because of that local trains are possible.

    Union Govt and state govt have chosen Metro as the mass rapid transport system for Bengaluru. Its a modern and much more useful system than local trains.

    Suburban train and Commuter Rail are totally different projects. “Suburban” as the name indicates is to link Suburbs to the city. It makes immense sense to run more MEMUs to link Ramanagara, Mandya, Whitefield, Hosur to the end points of Namma Metro.

    On the other hand, Commuter Rail system which will be for intra-city traffic, is not feasible on existing tracks. No govt either in the State or Union have promised to build Commuter Rail service (as far as I know). They all only support Suburban Rail.

    This new policy by Railways is not the first to reject the idea of Commuter Rail System. The detailed study done by RITES in 2012 made it clear that CRS was possible only if certain conditions are met. New tracks atleast on alternate stations (which seems like an apology instead of asking for new tracks everywhere) and entire Binny bill land needs to be handed over to Railways. Railways got only 3 sq-km land, the least possible scenario discussed in RITES report. Even in 2012, CRS was supposed to cost atleast 6000 crores even for the first two phases. That is very conservative estimate considering they thought Binny mill land will given “free” and somehow trains can run with only new tracks at alternate stations.

    If CRS is approved (with new lines and depots), my personal estimate is, it’ll cost atleast 20000 crores (if not as much as Metro) and displace lakhs of poor people living close to railway tracks.

    You can read the report here: http://www.urbantransport.kar.gov.in/Bangalore_CRS_Final_Report.pdf and convince yourself that CRS is not feasible.

    ***

    There is not a single station proposed to be covered by CRS, which is not already covered by Metro or going to be covered in the upcoming phases.

    Just because few people are impatient, doesn’t mean KA govt and Indian Railways should harass the people of Karnataka (who take long distance and suburban trains) for the benefit of few 100 people in Bengaluru city.

  5. Long time before we stood on Palace road with placards saying “No” Indian Railways has been holding a board permanently saying “no”. We have been deluding ourselves that IR will come up with commuter rail. Their only concern is long distance trains. They do not concern themselves with cities’ traffic worries. Even when BMRCL wanted to dig the tunnel under their tracks, they had to be cajoled with some goodies. There were some fixes and infrastructure work implemented by BMRCL for them, for free, if I recall correctly. Near Malleswaram where the viaduct passes over a railway line, IR shot down the request to slow down trains for a few weeks while the span was completed. Again, much cajoling.
    Almost every railway overbridge gets delayed because some land around the lines is held by IR and they refuse to part. They have priority on the lines and traffic has to halt anyway. Why would they care, who gets to suffer?

    The only thing that can work is to have a Railway Minister who really wants to do this and can arm-twist or shower money on IR to do this. Who will bell the cat though?

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