Fast-track suburban rail service

A dedicated commuter rail service is Bengaluru's crying need. But as lakhs of suburban commuters struggle in infrequent long-distance trains and makes

Fast-track suburban rail service

Packed far beyond its capacity, the long-distance Kochuveli Express chugged into KR Puram railway station at 5.55 pm. Awaiting its arrival, casual workers, IT employees, and students in their teeming hundreds had grabbed every inch on the platform, gearing up for their next battle task: To gain a foothold on a train hardly equipped for suburban commute.

But the daily travellers, shuttling between home and work in gruelling two-three hour rail trips, had no choice. For, the State, the Centre and the Railways had kept them waiting for years on the promise of an efficient yet economical suburban commuter rail network for the City.

Despite its proven potential to benefit a million travellers, the project lies trapped in a labyrinthine web of assurances, feasibility reports, and expert studies.

DPR in the works

Here’s another proof of the project’s painfully slow progress even at the drawing stage: Rail India Technical and Economic Service (RITES) was tasked with preparing a Detailed Project Report (DPR) on the suburban network in September 2013. But only now has it submitted its report to the Department of Urban Land Transport (DULT). The report that cost Rs eight crore to prepare, has taken over 18 months and is still a work in progress. The DPR could take many more weeks before it gets into the public domain. Praja RAAG, a citizen’s collective spearheading a campaign for years to kickstart the project, finds this perplexing. The report, as Praja’s Sathya Sankaran points out, should not dwell on unimportant details. Instead, it ought to go beyond the feasibility report to discuss issues such as commercial model, funding and the Special Project Vehicle (SPV) created to take it forward.

Why not a priority?

In their desperate rush to latch on to any train that helps their suburban commute, lakhs of passengers wonder why the project is not a priority for the government. “A Commuter Rail Service (CRS) should be the fulcrum on which Bengaluru’s mass transport needs should rest on.

“A network of suburban rails can connect the City with surrounding towns that are employment generators, helping people reach Bengaluru quickly, maybe in an hour,” Sankaran explains.

Decongesting the City and its traffic-clogged arterial roads is one definite advantage. For Bengalureans trapped in high-rental living spaces, the CRS could also be the best bet to find a spacious yet affordable house in the suburbs. Says Sankaran,“Trains have right of way. Office-goers can plan their travel since CRS trains can become predictable in their schedules.”

Poor frequency

That predictability is what sales officer, Babu D S, seeks when he commutes daily from Kolar to Baiyappanahalli and back on work. “We have to mostly rely on long-distance trains, and a few passenger trains that don’t even have toilets. The poor frequency means the rush is unbearable, even to alight and board,” he says.

Long distance trains, with their majority of coaches reserved, are ill-equipped to handle the rush of short-distance travelers. Besides, the coaches have doors too narrow for quick alighting and boarding of high-volume passengers.

But for Babu, the immediate priority should be to increase the frequency of trains. “If they cannot add new trains, let them at least increase the number of coaches in the existing trains.” This view is echoed by Vishwanath Pakala, a Whitefield resident with a Biotech job on MG Road, who commutes between Baiyappanahalli and Whitefield. He complains, “Between 3 pm and 6 pm, there are no trains at all on this route.”

Feasibility report

Three years before the DPR, in June 2012, RITES had prepared a feasibility report taking into account these concerns. The project was to be implemented in three phases, with the first focusing on sections where the suburban demand is high.

All remaining sections were to be taken up in the second phase. Additional halts on the CRS network and increasing EMU rake lengths from nine to 15 cars were part of the third and final phase. Three years ago, a portion of the first phase, termed Phase-1A was to be taken up for ‘immediate implementation.’ Electrification of a few identified stretches, automatic signaling and upgrading facility at terminals and rolling stock were identified as focus areas.

Under Phase 1A, the Bengaluru-Mysuru, Bengaluru-Bangarpet and Bengaluru-Tumakuru sectors were identified as corridors for suburban upgrade. To improve the Bengaluru-Mysuru and Bengaluru-Bangarpet sectors, the feasibility report had recommended procurement of five MEMU rakes at a cost of Rs 105 crore.

Upgrading lines

Also on the CRS agenda was upgrading the Bengaluru City to Bengaluru Cantonment track to a twin single line system and introduce automatic signaling on the Cantonment-Baiyappanahalli line. Four pit lines were to be developed at the Baiyappanahalli station and two at Yeshwantpur station.
But three years after these calculations, the DPR ought to consider the substantial rise in passenger volumes. The estimated cost for Phase 1A, Rs 173 crore, and Rs 8,759 crore for the entire project, is also bound to increase correspondingly.

Yet, even the escalated cost would eventually prove small change in terms of the huge benefits from an efficient CRS system. It would surely be so for someone like Sudhakar Y, who spends four hours travelling from KGF to his Bagmane Tech Park office near Baiyappanahalli and back.

Sudhakar’s travel schedule has remained unchanged over the last eight years. “I take the Swarna Passenger at 6.30 am from Marikuppam, KGF to reach KR Puram around 8.30 am. On my return, I take the same train at 6.30 pm. There are no trains on this route from 3.40 pm to 6 pm.” His travel could have been much faster had the CRS taken shape.

Collective push required

The project deserves a mighty push from all stakeholders concerned, the State, the Centre, the Railways and Commuters Associations. Despite forming a Bangalore Suburban Rail Corporation Ltd (BSRCL) to implement the project and committing to bear half the project cost, the State government has failed to sustain the pressure.

Nor have the Centre and Railway ministry taken note of the urgency. Chief Minister Siddaramaiah had indeed written to Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu in February, seeking the project’s inclusion in the railway budget. But the only forward movement since then has been the DPR.

Can Bengaluru, with its humungous inflow of office-goers, students and jobseekers, manage any longer without a suburban rail service? The feasibility report had estimated the CRS demand as 3.2 lakh trips in June 2012. It was projected to rise to 13.5 lakh trips in 2021 and 20.3 lakh trips in 2031.

Every hassled suburban traveler fervently harbours a hope now: They should not be eventually forced to settle for a diluted project, too late in the day and too little for comfort.

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