Fast-tracking suburban trains

Fast-tracking suburban trains

Twelve years a slave. Yes, that is exactly what the suburban rail activists have endured since 2007, surrendering to the dictates of a mobility policy that stubbornly refused to look beyond the road. Today, as the project finally gets on track, a question remains: Will the euphoria over the rare Centre-State bonhomie survive the elections?

Beyond the Metro, beyond the elevated corridors, no one has questioned a full-fledged suburban rail network’s huge potential to dramatically decongest the city’s notoriously traffic-clogged roads. This is precisely what a Rs 23,000 crore, 161-km network with 81 stations can do to Bengaluru.

Four corridors

Spread across four corridors, Kengeri – Bengaluru City – Whitefield (Corridor-1); Bengaluru City – Yelahanka – Rajanakunte (Corridor-2); Nelamangala – Mathikere – Baiyappanahalli (Corridor-3); and Heelalige – Yelahanka – Devanahalli (Corridor-4), the network will be designed to cater to an estimated 10 lakh commuters by 2025. This is projected to go up to 17 lakh by 2041.

Also on the project agenda is a direct connectivity to the Kempegowda International Airport (KIA). At least on paper, the recent Centre-State agreement appears promising as the Railways have agreed to allot land valued at Rs 6,000 crore virtually free at Rs 1 per acre.

So, is the project good enough to take off? Spearheading the campaign for years through multiple forums, urban rail activist Sanjeev Dyamannavar is convinced that the recent deal has given the project a hyper-boost. Sustained activism has already put in place a skeletal network and the agreement will help build on it with solid institutional backing.

Positive signs

As proof of the developments already undertaken, he draws attention to these recent additions to the suburban services: Three MEMU services between Bengaluru City and Ramanagara, two MEMUs between Bengaluru City and Whitefield; two Banaswadi – Hosur DEMU services and one DEMU train service between Banaswadi and Whitefield.

Critical to the project are doubling and electrification of the 48-km Baiyappanahalli – Hosur line at a cost of Rs 424 crore, the 22-km Yeswanthpura – Baiyappanahalli line (cost Rs 170 crore), the 3rd and 4th line between Cantonment and Whitefield (Rs 457 crore) and the proposed Intermediate Block Signalling (IBS) between Yelahanka and Channasandra.

Automatic signalling ​

Costing Rs 205 crore, the automatic signalling works on the Bengaluru City – Tumakuru, Bengaluru City – Mandya, Yeswanthpura – Yelahanka and Yeswanthpura – Hosur sections are also key to the suburban project.

Currently, in progress are the track doubling works related to Yeswanthpura – Channasandra (Rs 42 crore out of Rs 150 crore allocated); Baiyappanahalli – Hosur (Rs 82 crore / Rs 340 crore allocated) and Yelahanka – Penakonda, for which the allocation is Rs. 100 crore.

Electrification of tracks is critical to the launch of a full-fledged suburban network. The process, currently on along the 195-km Bengaluru-Omaluru line via Hosur, could prove decisive on the fourth corridor stretch from Baiyappanahalli to Helalige.

More platforms

Besides automatic signalling and IBS, the project will require more platforms at the Bengaluru City, Yeswanthpura and Baiyappanahalli terminals; fencing of tracks, maximised utilisation of the Binny Mill land, Foot Over Bridges, subways, ticket counters and platform extensions.

The first phase of the full-fledged suburban network could take six years to get operationalised. But to achieve that without much delay, the state government will now have to fast-track the project by constituting the much-delayed Special Project Vehicle (SPV).

The State has already agreed to bear the cost of private land acquisitions beyond the area given virtually free by the Railways. To generate funds, the Railways can sell land at a Floor Space Index (FSI) of five along the entire suburban rail corridor.

But there is a condition on the unused Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) proceeds of the Railways. These will have to be shared equally between the State and the Centre.

Special Project Vehicle

Simply put, the decks have now been cleared for the SPV. This, says Dyamannavar, is critical since an exclusive agency is required to coordinate with multiple authorities, get all the approvals in time and accelerate the project.

Besides top South Western Railways officials including the General Manager and Bengaluru Divisional Railway Manager, the SPV is likely to have on board representatives from the Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation Limited (BMRCL), State Infrastructure Development Department, Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC) and Directorate of Urban Land Transport (DULT).

Skeletal upgrades

As work finally gathers steam on the full-fledged suburban network, thousands of commuters on the existing skeletal services demand constant upgrades in routes, frequency and service quality. Eventually, they contend, all these small upgrades will add up to a vastly improved full network.

Take, for instance, the need for a suburban train service between Yeswanthpura and Whitefield. Bhavin Gandhi from Citizens for Better Bengaluru points out there is not a single suburban train on that route now, although there are over 18 daily suburban trains between Bengaluru City and Whitefield.

Only goods trains now operate on that route, he points out. “There has been several requests from citizen organisations in the past to introduce a MEMU train. Since the Cantonment - Whitefield section has got automatic signalling, line capacity has doubled. This should help Yeswanthpura – Whitefield service to be introduced at the earliest with daily five services including on Sundays.”

Closing these gaps could help the project attract more crowds into the suburban network. But to achieve that decisive shift from the road to rail, the project will have to build bridges with other commute modes. The implication is clear: Multi-modal hubs that help commuters seamlessly transfer from a suburban train to the Metro to the BMTC bus with minimum hassle.