Suburban rail service: Bengaluru is waiting

Bengaluru had a suburban rail service as far back as 1963, for HAL employees to commute from the City Railway Station to the Vimanapura Railway Station. Today, ironically, you need the ‘Chuku Buku Beku’ and ‘Modalu Train Beku’ campaigns to demand suburban services and provide viable options to commuters to take to public transport and avoid traffic snarls that occur on dense IT corridors throughout the city.

A suburban train can carry up to 5,000 passengers in 15-coach trains. Even the eight-coach trains that are part of the skeletal suburban service today can carry 2,412 passengers at a time. Compare this to Namma Metro’s three-coach trains that carry 975 persons or six-coach trains that carry 2,004 persons.

Importantly, the cost of providing the suburban rail service, as per the Rail India Technical and Economic Services (RITES), is Rs 15–20 crore per kilometre for a commuter rail system, versus the metro rail cost of Rs 250 crore and a monorail cost of Rs 175 crore per km. Equally crucial, the cost of travel and the time taken to travel for a commuter using the suburban service is only a fraction of what it would cost him to use alternative means of transport.

The skeletal service today, even on its most vital section — Baiyappanahalli to Whitefield — has too few trains running in the morning and in the reverse direction in the evening, although it takes only 25 minutes to cover this ride, compared to the hours that are required to negotiate traffic snarls if the road were to be used.

Lakhs of IT sector people have become restive and begun demanding a suburban train service as the main road to the eastern edge of the city sees traffic snarls every day. Citizens have wholeheartedly participated in ‘Rail Beku’ and the ‘Modalu Train Beku’ (First, we want trains) campaigns, raising slogans like ‘Chuku Buku Beku’ , even travelling on available passenger trains to their place of work to reiterate their demand for fast-tracking the suburban rail system by utilising existing rail tracks in and around the city to ease its traffic woes.

The results have been sporadic. A suburban train service between Baiyappanahalli and Whitefield was inaugurated in August 2017. While it was expected to decongest slow-moving traffic on the IT corridor, it was too little, too late to reduce bottlenecks on Old Madras Road and to get people to start using suburban trains.

Taking a leaf out of the Namma Metro playbook, a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) akin to BMRCL, has to be put in place. The SPV between the state government and South Western Railway (SWR) is required to fast-track the project through swift allocation and utilisation of funds for multiple projects in a streamlined fashion.  

The SWR and the Karnataka government are jointly looking at four corridors, totalling 160.5 km, including Kengeri–Whitefield (35.47 km), KSR Bengaluru–Rajanukunte (24.88 km), Nelamangala–Baiyappanahalli (38.94 km) and Heelalige–Devanahalli (61.21 km).

The basic infrastructure for these routes already exists, with some stations requiring platforms to be built and others requiring doubling or quadrupling of tracks. Additional stations will need to be built on these corridors to ensure stations at intervals of 1.8-2.2 km. 

The Detailed Project Report (DPR) will have to be tabled before the Railway Board for final approval, land will have to be acquired and a higher Floor Space Index (FSI) will have to be approved along the suburban rail corridors to financially leverage the project.

Provision of dedicated tracks exclusively for suburban train services, intersections between roads and Namma Metro lines in the city, addition of stations to the railway network with interchange facilities having both Rail-Rail and Rail-Metro interchanges and an automatic fare collection system will have to be put in place.

While the state and central governments continue to slug it out over the details, the existing railway tracks in and around Bengaluru continue to be underutilised, the skeletal rail services continue to be user-unfriendly. Today’s rail passengers take trains without proper access to rail stations, no feeder buses, missing foot over-bridges and unlit railway stations.

Last week, prospects brightened when Railway Minister Piyush Goyal and Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy held a joint press conference and said the differences had been ironed out. The Railways has agreed to give 650 acres of land for the project at Rs 1 an acre, and the state government has agreed to raise the FSI as per Railways’ demand.

Goyal said the state government’s 19 conditions for project approval would be ratified by the Railway Board; Kumaraswamy, in turn, promised that his cabinet would on Monday (February 25) pass a resolution on the suburban rail project.

The entire planned network, they said, would be ready six years from the date of commissioning of the project. Meantime, Bengaluru keeps its fingers crossed and patiently waits for a readymade and sustainable answer to its rising vehicular pollution and traffic mess!

(The writer is a former director on the Board of BEML)

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