Note: The following article originally appeared in the December 2001 issue of 'Indian Railways', and is reproduced here by generous permission of the author, Shirish Paranjape.
When the first train on the Indian soil made its maiden journey from Boribunder to Thana on the 16th of April 1853, very few might have imagined how strong the bond between the city of Bombay and the railways is going to be.
Today the two are inseparable, and therefore, the railways, and more specifically, the Bombay Suburban Railways are rightly called the lifelines of the metropolis. Signs such as 'BO - 06:57 - Slow' or 'N - 08:23 - Fast' are part of the daily life of the metropolis. The suburban railways have played a very prominent role in the development of the city, and it is virtually impossible to imagine Bombay without its 'locals', as the suburban trains are fondly called.
So much so, that we could almost take the Suburban Railway system for granted, thinking that it has always been like this. But if we look back and reflect, we would realize all the changes which have been gradually taking place in the suburban railway system, while it has tried to keep pace with the burgeoning demands of the metropolis.
Let us take a look at the various aspects of these changes, many of which have quietly come in while the life in the city goes on unhindered.
For long, the network consisted of
A giant leap (literally too) was taken when the Central railway harbour line was extended across the Thane creek, over an imposing long bridge. This paved the way for the 'locals' to run right upto Panvel, Khandeshwar etc. This single development has made a very impacting change in the life of the residents of New Mumbai, drastically reducing the travel time to (and from) places such as Vashi, CBD-Belapur, Panvel. This has made the travel between the city of Bombay and New Bombay easier and comfortable, and indeed, contributed to the sudden spurt in the popularity of New Bombay.
Similarly, electric 'local' train services now operate upto Khopoli, beyond Karjat, thus obviating the need to change at Karjat into another non-electric train, and making commuting to and from the industrial town of Khopoli simpler and faster.
Another important step was taken to extend the Harbour line upto Andheri on the Western railway, adding to the convenience of the residents of the western suburbs. With this change, it was possible to operate direct services from Andheri to New Bombay. This additional pair of tracks between Bandra and Andheri also helped greatly in increasing the frequency of Andheri-Churchgate services operated by the Western railway.
The opening of another line - from Thane to Belapur - in future, will further help those visiting New Bombay, including the industrial areas of Thane-Belapur road.
With the ever-increasing number of services, a lot of effort has been put in to enhance the capacity of the suburban route network. This has been done in several ways, such as:
Furthermore, many different methods have been used for 'de-bottlenecking' and increasing the operating speed of the services.
Among the foremost is the closure of many level crossings, an action facilitated by building of road overbridges. This has helped the suburban services tremendously. Similarly, the construction of the Raoli junction flyover on the harbour line has helped increase the speed. Before this was built, Bandra-VT local had to cross the path of the VT-Mankhurd local, and so one of them had to wait for the crossing. Many readers would recall the ghastly accident which occurred at this spot (prior to the building of the Raoli junction flyover) involving two locals travelling in opposite directions, when many lives were lost.
Thus apart from increasing operational speeds, these projects have also helped in the safety of the public.
A similar major project to help reduce the discharge time and train reversal time was done at Bombay VT - after which all the platforms have 'double-discharge' facility. Bombay-ites would remember that the railway engineers accomplished this massive project without any significant effect on the schedules.
Similarly, when the Mahim-Bombay Central Fifth line project was done, the commuters were treated to a great surprise. Over just one weekend, the tracks were so re-arranged that the platform at Lower Parel station came on the left side in the new arrangement, while the commuters were, for years, used to seeing a right side-platform! Again, while the work was on, the services continued normally, without any major curtailments.
To try and cope up with ever-increasing demand due to the expanding population of the metropolis, the suburban railways have kept on increasing the number of services operated. Both Central and Western railways have over 1000 services daily, and these, together, handle an estimated 5 million, (yes 5,000,000!) commuters, daily. This number is more than the entire population of some countries such as Finland, Norway, New Zealand ; or the combined population of Singapore & Mauritius.
Western railway, for instance, has a train arriving into Churchgate at a mind-boggling interval of just 90 seconds or so, during the morning peak-hours. At an estimated 4000 people per train, just imagine the mass of humanity being discharged at Churchgate every morning!
Since the frequency of trains is already near the saturation point, the carrying capacity per train was boosted by 33% by introducing 12-car locals (before this all the rakes were 9-car). Over the last few years, the number of 12-car services has progressively increased, bringing some relief to the commuters staying beyond Borivali. To be able to operate these 12-car services, enormous work has been done on the station platforms, the signal-to-signal spacing, and so on.
With this kind of frequency, and the spacing between the trains as is seen on this network, an automatic signalling system was undoubtedly a must. To make it better and reliable, the communication backbone now uses an Optic Fiber Cable (OFC). The OFC ensures that a large amount of data can be carried without distortion, and with great speed. It has also helped save precious metal (copper), used previously for communication cables.
For the speed control of traction motors, chopper-control has been developed jointly with BARC. This technology uses power semiconductors instead of the conventional contactor and resistor method, and offers smooth, step-less control, apart from reducing the maintenance needs. The Central Railway is using several such chopper-control rakes.
A giant leap is being planned by way of changeover of the overhead traction system from the present 1,500 Volts DC to 25,000 Volts AC. Today, the former voltage is present only in the Bombay area, while the rest of the country uses the later. This changeover will involve dual-voltage locals. The first of such locals has already started service on Western railway.
For greater operational efficiency and safety, motorman-guard communication is also being planned on the suburban trains.
The railways have been regularly, and progressively, doing their bit to improve the passenger amenities.
On the trains we have seen introduction of special compartments for the physically challenged. Similarly, 'ladies special' trains, which are operated during the peak hours, are a boon to the working ladies. However, the scheme of providing reserved seats for the Senior Citizens is not as successful as one would like it to be.
One of the biggest changes has come in the ticketing system. Commuters were earlier, often, faced with long serpentine queues for buying journey tickets, particularly on holidays. The introduction of Coupons, which can be purchased in advance, and can be validated at Coupon Validation Machines (CVMs for short) has totally changed the scenario, for the better. This scheme was first started by Western Railway, and the Central Railway has bettered it - atleast with respect to the CVM. The machines installed on Central Railway are of the interactive type, using which the passenger can conveniently find out the fare between any two stations. Railways have done well to have a longer validity of the coupons. Earlier they would lapse on the 31st March of every year, while now they have been valid till 31st March 2005.
While the CVMs have helped the casual travelers, there is help for the season ticket holders too. Thanks to computerization, it is now possible to purchase, at a third station, a season ticket between other two stations. For example, at Bandra, one can purchase a computerized season ticket between Andheri & Churchgate. This has indeed given tremendous flexibility to the commuters, while, helping the railways to reduce pre-printed stationery.
Another major change one can notice is with regard to the Train Indicator. Not very long ago, the 'Next Train' indicator used to be a clock-face with hands, operated manually, on the platform, by young boys, who seemed to remember the entire schedule by heart. The 'Destination' indicator used to be a triangular wedge-like horizontal piece, with three different destinations written on the three faces. One had to reach near these indicators to get the desired information. Then came the electronic indicators, which offer large and clearer display, thus improving visibility even from a long distance. The use of these Electronic Display Boards has made it possible to display the information simultaneously at multiple locations - station entrance, overbridge, and platforms, and to control/ change the information remotely.
In the last few years, a whole lot of new foot overbridges have been added to the suburban stations. These new overbridges are broad, spacious, and airy - and have indeed given a foreign look to some of the stations. Also, they have helped eliminate the rush-hour human traffic jams which could be witnessed frequently, and have made passage hassle free and convenient.
To cater to the needs of the ever-increasing populace, the railways have gradually introduced several new originating stations. Thus we now have locals starting from (and terminating at) Dombivali, Goregaon, Malad, Bhayander etc., which has made life a bit less complicated for the residents of these areas. Similarly car sheds have been added at Kandivali (on WR) and Kalwa (CR) for stabling, repair & maintenance of the rakes.
The Public address system throughout the network has been immensely improved. Each station can now broadcast its own announcements, or announcements originating from the Central Announcement System. The Central Announcement System has been very useful whenever there is an inordinate delay or disruption of services. It has also been widely used to page for people who get separated from their near and dear ones, or when any emergency information is to be relayed to anyone. The railways have also used this system to inform the passengers about information about main-line trains, such as change in train timings, introduction of new trains, holiday specials, additional halt, delays etc. Similarly, auto-announcements and pre-recorded announcements which we hear now days have improved the clarity of information, and perhaps made the job of the announcers a bit less tiring. Earlier, I always felt, only the local trains themselves could match the speed at which the announcers kept announcing about the train time-platform-halts, and on many occasions it was like Greek to occasional travelers.
Another aspect of improvement in passenger convenience has been the total changeover to tube-lights in the coaches, as against the incandescent bulbs used earlier. This has definitely helped the coach look brighter and cleaner, and has been of great help to those who choose to read or work during the journey.
Some time back, Mumbai witnessed several incidents of stone throwing on the locals by miscreants, inflicting injuries on many a passenger. Alarmed at these incidents, the railways have progressively provided window grills on all the rakes for the safety of the passengers. Similarly there was an accident when many ladies, who jumped off their train (which had halted midway between two stations) due to a fire, got injured due to the fall. At least Central Railway has taken steps to provide, yes 'steps' for every ladies compartment of the trains, to facilitate alighting midway if such a need arises.
Similarly, many trains have been provided with speakers in passenger compartments, but I have yet not seen these getting used for any public announcement.
The Mumbai Suburban railway is indeed a shining, perhaps unparalleled, example of efficient, punctual, pollution-free, and speedy service, backed up by a desire and commitment to continually improve, whether it relates to passenger convenience, technology, operational efficiency, or anything else. It is, therefore, not without reason, that it is called the 'Life-line of Mumbai'.