It was 5.40 pm on a Monday evening. I had just swiped out of my office and walked briskly towards the Vydehi hospital junction in Whitefield, Bengaluru. The traffic was heavier than normal and the entire route towards Graphite India junction had come to a grinding halt. The wait at the BMTC bus stop would invariably be five to ten minutes to catch the buses going towards Big Bazaar and Metro.
I remembered reading on Facebook about the new train feeder to Metro, that leaves Whitefield at 6.15 pm halting at Hoodi at 6.25 pm and then reaching Baiyappanahalli at 6.40pm. This sounded too good to be true but knowing that any combination by road would take a minimum of 90 minutes to Baiyappanahalli, I decided to give it a shot.
With no buses in sight, I found an empty auto, hopped in and asked him to take me to Hoodi circle. Charging Rs 100, he took me through short cuts – past KPTO to the left, Windmill and Crafts to the right till he reached a mud track. The track is 100 meters long which got into a winding narrow lane, and I was in the thick of traffic towards Hoodi circle.
I was going to open Google maps and search for Hoodi railway station. Just then, a bunch of purposeful commuters tumbled out of a bus, backpacks slung across, hand clutching the cell phone, they swarmed across the road, and crossed over.
“Are you catching the train?” I yelled.
“Yes!” one of them yelled back.
Seven minutes later, we were at the station, paid Rs 10 and joined the gang of the 300-odd people who had fast-tracked their commute home!
There is a ‘track your train’ app, that can be downloaded, which is surprisingly accurate. At 6.20 pm, the app showed that our beloved train had reached Whitefield. Indeed, it had, and at 6.25 pm we heard the hoot. A few minutes later the train pulled into the station. Most of us found a place to sit.
In 10 minutes we were at KR Puram, and after a halt for about five minutes we pulled into Baiyappanahalli, around 6.45 pm. I knew that I had beaten the road traffic by at least 45 minutes – if not more. This became a Facebook post on my timeline. A selfie with the train was WhatsApped home located past Kengeri off Mysore road. My family knew that I could be home within an hour and a half.
My commutes back to home were earlier being spent driving on the hidden roads past Varthur road and Sarjapur road / Hosur road and Nice Road – a 100-minute journey of focus and skill. Now, catching the 6.25 pm train became a ritual.
On one occasion I was even let down. I had reached Hoodi at 6.05 pm to see another train pull out, that was the 5 pm train from Marikuppam which was an hour late. While I waited patiently for my 6.25 pm train, I saw four trains zip past the station at 100 kmph in the opposite direction, each timed about 10 minutes apart. My train showed up 45 minutes late past 7 pm, with the tracks towards city empty for more than an hour. Clearly the railway officials cannot point to traffic density as a problem. The best thing we could do as Bengalureans was to find the twitter handle for Southwestern Railways and tweet.
A few hundreds of us who are regular on the train realise that it is not just the time that we save. Thousands of vehicles that clog the roads from Whitefield polluting the roads, putting the hawkers, shops and residents into enormous health risks, are kept off the road.
Lessons from Chennai
We were remembering our daughter’s sojourn in Chennai a few years ago in an engineering college located between Tambaram and Chengalpattu, well away from the city. It was her first stay in the hostel. She would spend the weekends with grandparents. Local trains show up every 15 to 20 minutes to Chengelpattu, which she would take. The 35 km journey from Guindy to Potheri was done in 50 minutes.
Work would take me sometimes to the Tidel park (equivalent of ITPL in Bengaluru) near the infamous OMR road. But I found the MRTS lines that connect Chennai Beach to Velachery having a stop close to Tidel park, with a ramp built for people to walk towards the station to be hauled closer to home by trains that arrive every 10 minutes.
While Chennai is expanding its metro at slightly slower pace compared to Bangalore, its suburban electric trains have two southern arms (MRTS and Chengalpattu), a western arm going all the way to Arakonam, 70-km away and a northern arm going to Gummidipundi 45 km away. These trains would run every 5 to 15 minutes – they have nine coaches capable of handling 2000 passengers. To run trains at such a frequency the tracks had to be electrified, doubled, or quadrupled. The southern arm used to be on meter gauge – a 1930’s vintage and continued that way till the late 1990s before being converted into broad gauge. The western wing got electrified in 1980.
The northern tracks towards Andhra Pradesh were electrified in 1981, and the suburban trains followed in these sectors; the MRTS line was thrown open in 1995. Railways had an operating rhythm of doubling lines, electrifying them, and adding suburban trains in every major city, except Bengaluru.
Bengaluru has to leverage the network
Bangalore, being landlocked and being away from the sea, has significant advantages. Space was available in all directions for the city to grow, and there is already a railway infrastructure that is extensive. There are tracks running from Mysore to Bengaluru to Jolarpet/Chennai – which are electrified and have a double track. This would take care of the Southwest-East traffic and covers Bidadi, Kengeri, City, KR Puram and Whitefield.
The Tumkur to Bangalore stretch with a loop towards Yelanhanka, Banasawadi and Carmelaram can connect the Peenya/Jalahalli – Yeswantpur belt to north Bangalore and Electronic City. The Bangalore–Yelahanka–Hyderabad-Mumbai line is now electrified and covers the BIAL airport region; this track can connect Baiyapanahalli to Manyata Tech Park to Yelahanka industrial belt. In fact, there is a loop line from Yelahanka to Devanhalli and Bangarpet which runs close to the airport. Unlike Chennai, the rail network in Bangalore is much more extensive, and just needs to be leveraged.
Here is an implementable recommendation for a few more trains in Bengaluru:
1) Once every 20 minutes from Whitefield to Baiyappanahall (Metro connection)
2) Once every 20 minutes from Tumkur to Yeshwanthpur, (Metro connection)
3) Once every 20 minutes from Bidadi to Bangalore City or Kengeri once metro line is ready
4) Once every 60 minutes between Carmelaram and Yeshwanthpur.
I am waiting for the day when boarding a local train is no longer a major event, and becomes natural in Namma Bengaluru.