Taking the track less travelled
With the ever increasing number of vehicles – the capital has nearly 75 lakh registered – clogging the roads, promoting public transport has been high on the agenda of the city government.
While the Delhi Metro initiative has been an instant hit, several other ideas like the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system and the monorail project are in the pipeline. Experts are even debating introduction of trams and magnetic pods.
Ironically, while town planners keep brainstorming new experiments to decongest traffic, a suburban railway service started over three decades back is fast chugging into oblivion.
The Ring Rail was a big hit in its time among office-goers. But, sadly, not many of the current generation have even heard about this 35-km-long circular rail service with 20 stations, leave alone using it.
The Ring Rail service was launched ahead of the Asiad Games in 1982 as a showpiece project. Three decades later, going by the frequency of trains and the ridership, this service seems to have lost its relevance.
Despite being an environment-friendly mode of transport and one of the cheapest, it does not have many takers, barring a few passengers mostly belonging to the lower socio-economic strata of society.
The service caters to some prime locations like Lajpat Nagar, Sewa Nagar, Lodi Colony, Sarojini Nagar, Safdarjung, Chanakya Puri, Sardar Patel Marg, Brar Square, Inderpuri, Kirti Nagar, Patel Nagar, Dayabasti, Sadar Bazar, Shakur Basti, Kishanganj, New Delhi, Pragati Maidan, Shivaji Bridge, Tilak Bridge and Hazrat Nizamuddin. Most of the places served are commercial hubs.
But not many take the rickety trains.
“Travelling from New Delhi to Safdarjung will not take more than 20 minutes. And the fare is eight rupees. No other means of travel can provide that kind of a service at such a low rate. But its does not have many takers as the service has several problems. Many of them are not even in control of railways,” says a Northern Railway official.
Railways officials say the service, which runs on a dedicated track called ‘Delhi Avoiding line’, is plagued with problems like encroachment near stations, lack of approach roads and no feeder buses to stations. Most stations on the Ring Rail do not have proper entry or exit points, and there are no proper roads leading out of the stations. Passengers have to walk through residential colonies to reach the connecting road.
“The approach roads at most stations have been encroached upon. There are encroachments on railway land near the tracks as well. Moreover, the nearest arterial roads are a bit far from the stations,” says divisional railway manager Anurag Sachan.
“So we need to have proper feeder service to connect the stations. We have approached Delhi government on several occasions for removing encroachments as well as providing feeder service. However, nothing concrete has emerged to date,” he says.
Officials say the popularity of the Ring Rail saw a sharp fall due to drastic changes in Delhi's geographical spread over the last two decades.
“Unlike Mumbai, which has seen longitudinal expansion, Delhi has expanded in a circular manner. The longitudinal expanse helped the local train service in Mumbai retain its significance.
But the Ring Rail came up along the Ring Road and served nearby localities like Nizamuddin, Safdarjung, Lodhi Colony, Brar Square, Sarojini Nagar and Chanakyapuri,” a railway official explains. “The Ring Road is no longer at the periphery of the city. So it does not serve the purpose any more.”
Also, with alternative modes of transport like the Metro becoming the lifeline of the capital, the Ring Rail is fast slipping into oblivion. While the average ridership of Delhi Metro, which currently has its network spread over 200 km, is around 2 million per day, only about 2,000 people on an average travel on the 35-km Ring Rail every day.
Metro officials, however, say the completion of phase III of the Metro is expected to boost the connectivity as well as utility of the Ring Rail service. When the construction is over in 2016, at least 14 Metro stations would be in proximity to Ring Rail stations.
Some new stations on the Mukundpur-Yamuna Vihar network such as Sarai Kale Khan, Sarojini Nagar, Bhikaji Cama Place, Dhaula Kuan, Naraina Vihar will come up near Ring Rail stations.
“Two existing Metro stations that are close to the Ring Rail – Lajpat Nagar and INA – will be expanded and transformed into major interchange hubs. The Sarai Kale Khan Metro station will also have a dedicated entry or exit point for those travelling to Hazrat Nizamuddin,” says a Delhi Metro spokesperson.
“Currently, Kirti Nagar, Inderlok, Shastri Nagar, Chawri Bazar, New Delhi, Barakhamba Road and Pragati Maidan are the other stations of the Delhi Metro network that are connected to the Ring Rail network,” says the spokesperson.
Ring Rail with Metro combo
There have been suggestions in the past of integrating the Ring Rail with the Metro as both services runs on broad gauge. But railway officials cite both technical and financial reasons for not going ahead with any such project.
“It is not feasible to dedicate the line for suburban passenger service because the line was basically laid for movement of goods train. The line was laid in 1975 for goods train and was known as Delhi Avoiding Line,” says Sachan.
“Passenger trains were introduced on the tracks only in 1982. All goods trains passing through the city use these routes to avoid major stations like New Delhi, Old Delhi junction and Hazrat Nizamuddin. We can’t increase congestion at major junctions by allowing goods trains to cross through these busy stations. Timely movement of goods trains is equally important for the revenue of the railways,” adds Sachan.
Officials say with the compulsion of running freight trains on the tracks, there is a limit to which the ridership could be scaled up on the Ring Rail service.
“Goods trains get priority as there is an optimal section capacity utilisation rule – the number of trains that can travel one after the other on one track. Presently, there are around 10 trains operating on the line. At best, we can scale it upto 20. Even if the trains run to full capacity, the maximum ridership would go up to 20,000,” says a railway official.
Despite these problems, the railways had given the stations on the line a facelift before the Commonwealth Games in 2010.
At least seven stations near the Games venues — Chanakyapuri, Sarojini Nagar, Inderpuri Halt, Lajpat Nagar, Sewa Nagar, Lodhi Colony and Safdarjung — got a facelift.
“The surrounding areas of the stations were improved through the construction of pathways. Approach roads were also resurfaced. Station buildings were revamped, apart from improvement in platform surfaces. New benches were also installed and new signages put up at the station buildings. However, it hardly serves the purpose if people can't get to the station easily,” said a railway official.
Railway officials say the service is being continued, despite its declining relevance, as it has significant benefits like being economical and giving a pollution-free ride.