Making Surface Rail a Viable Mode for Urban Mass Transit

by M Ravibabu

(The author has published an updated version of this article in the Economic and Political Weekly (April 22, 2006).)

Surface rail costs one-twentieth of an elevated metro rail and is a feasible alternative for many Indian cities.

Choice for urban mass transport investment is centred on: metro rail and monorail with an implicit assumption that surface rail transport is unviable. In Delhi around 10, 500 crores was invested for 66 kilometre metro line. Chennai is planning a 300-kilometre monorail system, which may require Rs 45,000 crores as per estimates. Bids for thirteen kilometre Mumbai's elevated metro system give a picture on viability of the system, the lowest bid was for Rs 2300 crores including subsidy (technically termed viability gap funding) of 1200 crores. Similarly, draft national urban transport policy gives low priority for surface rail transport when it says, "at grade (surface rail) systems are very good for suburban systems and the fringe areas of a city where space is more easily available".

While in some cases, especially in heart of the city, the above options are necessary, viability of surface rail as needs to be explored more seriously because of the advantages of cost, capacity, and flexibility. At Rs 8 crores per kilometre, cost of surface rail is miniscule compared to Rs 250-300 crores for underground rail, Rs 150-180 crores for elevated rail, and Rs 100-150 crores for monorail. Capacity of surface and elevated rail systems is comparable and varies between 8,000 - 10,000 passengers per hour per direction while monorail may have 20 per cent lesser capacity. Surface rail has flexibility in capacity expansion and operation compared to the metro and monorail systems as the system is on the ground.

Major constraint in developing surface based rail transit system is the availability of space for right of way. A two-pronged approach would be effective in making space available; one for the core city based on intense usage of existing rail network and another for the newly developing suburbs directing growth along new rail network.

Owing to foresight shown by the British, most Indian cities have a well-developed rail network for running mixed traffic consisting of passenger carrying and goods trains. The network can be used for urban mass transport by augmenting section capacity, terminal decongestion, and developing alternate routes to move goods trains.

For newly developing suburbs, approach to city planning needs to be revised with surface based rail network acting as the main hub for movement of urban passenger traffic. This requires planners to identify land for a four-line main corridor, double line link corridors and reorient new road network to feed the rail terminals to enable easy access to commuters. This requires revision in master plan to reserve 2-3 per cent of land for rail transport.

Hyderabad Example

Hyderabad and suburban locations have around 160 kilometres of railway network including 120 kilometres on four main corridors and 40 kilometres of bye pass lines and small spurs covering well-populated areas in the city. Out of this, 48 kilometres was made fit for urban traffic as part of Phase 1 of Multimodal transport system (MMTS). Around Rs 500 crores are required for upgrading the system to run urban traffic on the remaining system and Rs 200 crores for connecting roads and developing bus terminals.

To upgrade existing system to cater to urban traffic the following is required:

  • Develop alternate routes to run goods trains with scope for future expansion
  • Ease terminal constraints at Secunderabad and Hyderabad stations

To move goods trains additional capacity needs to be created by constructing a 160-kilometre outer ring rail with an investment of around Rs 1500 crores with scope to expand to four lines in future. We need to develop link network of around 100 kilometres costing Rs 800 crores inter connecting the existing rail network to proposed outer ring rail.

Terminal constraint can be eased by eliminating shunting movements at the stations. This is possible if maintenance is shifted to four suburban locations, one in each direction, and trains ready in all respects are turned out. Four modern coaching maintenance terminals require around 240 acres of land and an investment of Rs 160 crores.

To summarise, surface rail based urban mass transport system requires total investment of around Rs 3200 crores for upgradation of 160 kilometres of existing rail network, adding 260 kilometres of rail network, and improvement in road connectivity. Comparatively, a 59 kilometre elevated metro rail is estimated to cost Rs 9000 crores of which subsidy is expected to be around Rs 4800 crores (subsidy is estimated by the author based on bids for Mumbai system). State government is also investing Rs 5100 crores for developing outer ring road and the link roads. Thus, surface rail system of much larger capacity (420 kilometres) will be created at one third cost (or sixty per cent of the subsidy) of an elevated metro rail of much lower capacity (59 kilometres).

Thus, surface rail costs one-twentieth of elevated metro rail and is a feasible alternative for many Indian cities such as Hyderabad, New Delhi and Nagpur that have existing rail network. The draft urban transport policy should be modified to leverage this strength. Similarly, city master plans should be modified to reserve 2-3 per cent of land for surface rail to meet future public transport needs of the city.

(The author works for the Indian Railways. The article expresses author's views and not necessarily that of the organisation he represents).