A Day on WR's Mumbai Suburban Network

by Bharat Vohra


Photos from this trip can be viewed here: Mumbai trip

At the outset I'd like to state that this trip was undertaken with official sanction from the concerned railway authorities.

It was a routine personal visit to Bombay for me. Only this time, there was a full day set aside for some railfanning - an activity which sadly I had not taken up seriously while living there!

Having lived there for most of my life, suburban trains were a common part of one's routine. It was railfanning for some like us and for others it was a ritual they had to perform - whether they like it or not! While Vikas wouldn't be termed a regular suburban train user during his years in Bombay, he lived close enough to Churchgate station to spend a lot of his spare time there watching trains come in and go out. And with that his fascination grew. He moved to Delhi soon after and I moved much later but we shared a common fondness for Bombay's suburban trains and a fascination for how they were run like clock work precision.

It was during one such discussion prior to my trip that we decided we'd try and organize, through the proper official channels, a Bombay EMU cab ride to experience things first hand - on those very trains that we've watched all these years and often rode on!

It was all fixed up a day prior to my departure. We were to meet our contact at the magnificent old head office building of the WR at Churchgate at 10 am that morning. Vikas flew in from Delhi and I picked him up from the airport and we drove straight to C'gate (CCG) station. We met our contact at the appointed time and soon a Loco inspector (LI) was arranged for to show us around. A quick breakfast of piping hot Idlis and filter coffee followed at Satkar - one of the many restaurants opposite the station.

After snapping up some of the arrivals and departures, we boarded the 10:48 12 Car Virar Fast. This was one of the 'DC only' Jessops built rakes in standard maroon - yellow livery. We had been on the Delhi EMU cabs before and while those were more spacious, the Bombay ones were a lot more compact, functional and with far better ergonomics than their Delhi counterparts. We realized later that cab design differed quite a bit even within the various train sets on WR. However functionality was the order of the day. There was no unnecessary waste of space, nor were the instrument panels spread out..everything was concentrated around the motorman and to that extent it was driver friendly. Walkie-talkie's were not in use - it was a lot more high tech than that. TMS or Train Management System was installed in all driving cabs of WR. TMS would allow motormen to pick up the phone (attached to a console in the cab) and at the flick of a button talk to the guard, another train's crew, any station en route or even to the TMS Center at Bombay Central. It was an amazing system and we were to discover this through the rest of the day.

Departure was a little late as the incoming rake arrived a few minutes late..that must have severely dented WRs 99% punctuality figures for the day!:-) However that was all made up in the form of an ontime arrival at Virar - 1 hour 20 mins later.

Realising that Vikas and me were keen on taking some snaps from the cab, the LI picked up the handset and spoke to the TMS control center at Bombay Central (BCT). It's a 3 minute scheduled run to the 1st stop out from CCG - Marine Lines and although the LI had requested 'control' for a window cleaner at BCT, the 1st cleaner showed up at Marine Lines, another one at Charni Road and we had to eventually call of the request at Grant Road! Such was the response time of station staff through TMS! Of course this was a very minor situation but one can only imagine how useful the TMS can be in times of crisis.

The journey progressed well..speeds did not exceed 60 kmh on the stretch to BCT. Everything was of course very familiar to us.the trains running parallel to the road from CCG to Charni Road, the gymkhanas and the sea to our left..closing in on chowpatty at Charni Road and then that awesome curve right towards Grant Road. We had seen all this before..from our windows and while standing at doors..only this time, the angles and views were a little different!:-)

BCT had the usual assortment of WDS4's milling around, the rakes which would form the evening departures parked neatly in the washing lines..a flash of the LHB rake here and a WCAM2 sneaking behind the trip shed there! Not to much action at the time cause all the morning arrivals had, well - arrived! We were to come back to BCT later though, so more will be written about that in a bit.

The 5th track meant for outstation trains joined us at BCT and would continue till Mahim. Dadar was reached in a matter of a few minutes and on the way we passed about 10 odd LHB coaches parked in the carriage yard before the station. These were probably excess stock that couldn't be accommodated at BCT.

The 2 tracks of the harbour line joined us at Mahim now making it a 6 line corridor and continued till Bandra where they crossed over us using an overbridge or 'flying junction' as Vikas called it! From Khar/Santacruz onwards we were on the country's only 7 track section (2 harbour, 2 WR slow, 2 WR fast, 1 outstation train) which continues through till Andheri - quite a sight from the cab seeing so many tracks and so many movements all at once! From Andheri the no. of tracks gets reduced to 5 as the harbour line trains do not go beyond this point. The 5 track section continues till Borivali from where the real choke begins in the form of a 2 track section to Vasai. Vasai - Virar is another 4 track section thanks to the recently laid 'all AC' double line.

We crossed innumerable EMUs enroute to Virar (no point even counting!) and only about 3 outstation trains - the 1st of which crossed us just outside Santacruz hauled by a WCAM1. The 2nd crossing took place between Andheri and Jogeshwari. This particular train was behind an LHB liveried WCAM2 - an impressive livery no doubt but as we discovered later on at BCT - the paint quality leaves a lot to be desired! The 3rd outstation train crossed us just before Bassein bridge (south) with a regular liveried WCAM2. Closer to Vasai we were crossed by a KYN homed WCAG1 hauled BCN freight which was one of the few freights for the day bound for Jogeshwari yard or the BPT yard at Wadala via Bandra (BAMY).

A majority of freights entering the WR suburban section are routed via Vasai - Diva and onwards to JNPT / CR. Only a handful of them go south of Vasai using the route mentioned above. These movements are usually done during the late night / early morning hours or then slack periods like the one we were witnessing.

At Vasai we could see a Container rake snaking onto the WR mainline from Diva. We eventually caught up with it at Vasai Road station, ran parallel with it for a bit and then overtook it. It was being hauled by a MGS WAG7. This was the first sighting of an AC loco by me or Vikas in the Bombay suburban section and also a first viewing of the recently laid ac only section between Vasai and Virar.

Vasai road station itself has undergone a lot of change since I last saw it (Jan'04) as have a lot of other stations between Borivali and Virar - all of them readying for expansion to a 4 track section. Vasai seems to have undergone the most significant changes though - there are now no less than 7 platforms there of which only about 5 seem to be in use at the moment. This is a far cry from the earlier 3 no doubt. West to east - the 1st is an EMU terminus platform for trains originating / terminating at Vasai, the next 2 are the WR slow platforms, the next 2 are the WR fast platforms and the last 2 are the outstation platforms for trains coming through WR and heading to CR / KR or vice versa.

There were 2 dead WAG7s standing at Vasai yard along with a dead WCAM1 and another WCAM1 in the new dark blue - light blue livery (another 1st sighting for us) was at the head of a BCN freight but seemed to be powered down for some reason. A lone WDS4 was marshalling some stock on the side lines.

The AC section has come up extremely fast given that there were little or no works in progress when I traveled this stretch last in Jan'04. Work on the Bassien Creek bridge to accommodate tracks 3 & 4 is progressing well to - almost 90% ready from what we could gather. Having said that, there was little evidence of works on the Borivali - Vasai section other then at the stations enroute and this is really suprising. Land acquisition was sighted as one of the problems for this.

No freight traffic was encountered on the newly laid ac section from Vasai to Virar and all we had were other EMUs crossing us from time to time on the DC only tracks. For some strange reason, I noticed that the new catenary masts are not of the AC style but the old DC style! Vivek Manvi or any of the others in Bombay could confirm this though.

Virar was reached on time and soon after we docked at one of the terminus platforms, we made our way outside to yet another 'udipi' joint for some refreshments. Back on the platforms a little later to witness the arrival of the Container rake that we had overtaken sometime ago which was subsequently overtaken by the northbound Paschim Exp headed by a WCAM1 in the now common dark blue - light blue livery.

On the return journey we were to footplate till BCT only and alight there to have a look at the TMS Center. Our rake this time was one of those AC-DC units with the dark blue - cream livery with 2 cream stripes on the lower part of the body. The cab was quite different to the Jessops rake we had footplated earlier. This one seemed to be a little more spacious as well.

WR operates 1007 suburban services daily on its 28 station, 60 km long suburban section from CCG to Virar. There are 2 EMU car sheds at BCT and Kandivli which collectively home about 64 rakes (82 in terms of 9 car units). More than half of these are 12 car rakes while the rest are 9 car units. A third of these rakes are dual voltage capable. A third car shed is slated to be built near Nalla Sapora which would home all the 'AC only' rakes to handle the Virar-Dahanu services - as and when they begin. Leaving aside rakes under routine maintenance and POH, there is only 1 standby rake kept at 1 of the carsheds during the morning and evening peak hours - a testimony to the reliability of rolling stock in service!

Rakes can be classified in 3 categories broadly - the original ICF and Jessops built units which are in the standard maroon - cream livery. These are rated to run at 80kmh. The next is the blue - cream liveried dual voltage units which were supplied fresh by ICF/BEML and are rated to run at 75 kmh. The 3rd category of rakes is the blue - cream with double cream stripes converted to dual voltage (by the EMU POH workshops at Mahalaxmi) rated to run at 70 kmh. The MPS on the BCT - Virar stretch is otherwise 100 kmh.

Talking of speeds, it is almost impossible to tell the speed of your train while your in the cab without looking at the speedometer. What seemed like 40-50 to us was actually 70-75!! That in itself is a tribute to the superb quality of track on WR's suburban section. Turnouts at CCG are cleared for 40 kmh and that just sets the tone for the rest of the route north! No permanent way gangs were noticed anywhere by us and expectedly so given the heavy traffic on the route. All repair and maintainance work is carried out at night - in the few hours these gangs get inbetween scheduled services. A look at the WR working TT reveals that there are only 40 mins in a 24 hour period where there is absolutely no movement scheduled on the track - ie between the last train ending its journey anywhere on the route to the 1st train starting its journey from anywhere on the route! Quite an impressive feat that! Credit is also due to the excellent maintenance of EMU rolling stock which ensures a smooth ride even during peak hours! Having said all of that, standing at an EMU door or simply watching them go by seems like theyre doing close to 100 - a deceptive feeling no doubt!

After an equally eventful journey back, BCT was reached on time and after alighting we made our way to the Divisional Office where the TMS Center is located. The TMS was set up 2-3 years ago by Bombardier Transportation of Canada with some hardware supplied by Siemens. It has got to be one of the most fascinating train operation systems I have ever seen. The TMS center itself is quite a compact set up with one large room housing a cinema screen size panel containing an illuminated track layout of all 28 stations of the WR suburban section. On this track layout, operators in the control room can follow the progress of any EMU/passenger/freight train or light engine as its path gets lit up from one signal block to another. All signal aspects are clearly visible as are the turnouts, LC gates and so on. That sight itself - larger than life as it was - had me staring at it for minutes on end. Detailed logs of all movements and operations are created and analysed at regular intervals ensuring that the same mistakes don't get repeated and the system continues to run like clockwork. Punctuality on WR has gone up with the introduction of the TMS as operators are now able to monitor what train is getting stuck where and on account of what. This information in turn is relayed to the motorman / guard of the EMU concerned and they can inform the commuters of the delay over the PA system. The TMS also facilitates a real time train describer facility at stations. While all stations have at their entrances - airport style TV sets projecting the status of various trains on various platforms, the larger stations and the plan is to have it on all, have LED displays on each platform giving you a real time countdown to the expected arrival of the next scheduled train. Akin to the ones they have on the London Tube and a lot of other mass transit systems around the world. An impressive and most useful system no doubt!

There are only a couple of controllers in this room who monitor 14 stations each and follow the progress of countless trains as they get lit up on the screens above.the sight is really one to behold! Outside of this room our the support functions like Signalling & Telecom, Permanent Way, Electrical, Mechanical and so on which are triggered off by the controllers to respond to any situation that may occur and which is of direct relation to them. Nothing overstaffed or 'sarkari' about this set up - only compact and thoroughly efficient!

After the TMS visit and saying our goodbyes to the LI, we proceeded to the McDonalds at BCT where we met Vivek Manvi. Headed back out to the north end of the BCT mainline platforms to catch some shunting action and the LHB rake being backed in for its 1655 departure. Lots of action at BCT trip shed as well with as many as 7 WCAM1/2s stacked up on 3 lines in and around the trip shed - all being readied to haul the evening departures out of BCT.

We then boarded a slow train from BCT to Santacruz hoping to catch the sight of the 2 Rajdhani's pass by. Made it there in what we thought was ample time to select a location from which to view the pass bys but the Rajdhani had other ideas - it usually takes 17-18 mins to do the run from BCT to S'cruz and keeping that in mind we had 3-4 mins left at S'cruz but lo and behold, before our train could come to a complete stop, the Rajdhani raced by at about 70-75 kmh having done the run to S'cruz in as little as 14 mins!! Next up was the Kutch Express which was sandwiched between both Rajdhanis and finally the AK Rajdhani. All 3 trains were powered by WCAM2s. The only WCAM1 sighting at S'cruz was the blue - red liveried WCAM1 hauling the BCT bound Swaraj Exp. And with that Vikas and me managed to see all 3 new liveries being tried out by BL shed in one short day!!!

We parted ways at about 6 pm after a most enjoyable and thoroughly enlightening day of rail fanning!

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