Going underground

Mahendra Ved and Jayanta Roy Chowdhury

Since it first came into operation in 1984, Kolkata’s underground rail system – India’s first – has helped transform the lives of commuters. Affordable, clean and safe, the Metro model has been successfully rolled out in Delhi and there are plans to extend the network to more than 20 other cities.

Life for Rajbir Singh, 47, a trader, has changed since the met­ro network spread its tentacles across Delhi. “My travel time has been cut drastically,” says Singh, who lives and works in this mega-city of 16 million. “I avoid all the snarls while shut­tling from one part of this city to another by diving underground to catch the metro. This enables me to make 14-16 calls on customers as against 8-10 earlier.”

For urban India, the Metro has been a boon: nothing short of a transport revolution that impacts upon the economic and social lives of city dwellers. This clean, orderly and punctual rapid trans­port system has improved the lives of millions, not only chang­ing the way they travel, but also providing thousands of new jobs. Begun in 1984 in Kolkata, India’s metro-building has gained pace, with Delhi completed in 2002. At least a further 26 cities are lay­ing networks, using a combination of indigenous and foreign tech­nology and expertise – from planning and financing to day-to-day operation.

On the threshold of ‘Metro-isation’ are Chennai, Hyderabad, Jaipur, Ahmedabad, Kochi and Bangalore. As India’s most popu­lous and congested city, Mumbai urgently needs a new metro sys­tem; and despite construction challenges – the city is essentially a patchwork of seven islands – building is already under way.

Travelling by Metro costs almost the same as by bus or train – less if you use the Smartcard payment system. It offers air-con­ditioned comfort in a country where the temperature rises to 49oC in the shade in summer and humidity can reach 80 percent. No screeching traffic. No jerks or jolts. No waiting at traffic lights. No standing at bus queues that are rarely respected. No haggling with unruly auto-rickshaw drivers and cabbies. The Metro is also a great leveller: CEOs leave their cars in parking lots to board the same trains as their secretaries.

During peak hours, the Metro is packed, as anywhere else. But think of the overland trains in Mumbai or Kolkata that are even more crowded, minus the comfort and safety that a Metro car­riage offers. Because of its punctuality, there is a degree of cer­titude when commuting underground – once you have boarded, you know exactly how long your journey will take. The Metro has become the city’s lifeline.

India’s underground system is linking cities with surrounding suburbs and villages, rendering greater urban character to the ag­glomerates. Delhi, for instance, once dubbed ‘an overgrown vil­lage’, is now closer to being an international city with this world-class transport. Delhi Metro boasts a fleet of 280 coaches, which run as 70 trains daily. Each train can accommodate about 1,500 people, 240 seated. Maximum speed is 80 km per hour, with a 20-second alighting and boarding time at stations.

Until the Metro came to Delhi, the city’s public transport was primitive with rickety, unsafe buses and leading politicians acting like a transport mafia, prolonging decades of neglect. Their domi­nance delayed the building of the network, which should have ar­rived three decades ago. Many believe, had Metro rail come ear­lier, Delhi would not have experienced the Maruti revolution – an explosion of small cars that now cause congestion and pollution.

Rail-based Mass Rapid Transit Systems (MRTS), like the Metro, are capital-intensive and have a long gestation period. In develop­ing countries, a paucity of funds and a lack of vision have prevent­ed the planning and implementation of such transport networks. Delhi, for instance, has experienced phenomenal population growth and is now home to 2.2 million people. It should have at least 300 km of MRTS track, but it only stretches to 190 km – even so, Delhi’s commuters are happily served compared to other cities.

For the Metro’s success, full credit should go to its dynamic former chief operations officer, Elattuvalapil Sreedharan, who brought in sweeping changes to infrastructure building. He retired last year, aged 79, but remains consultant and guiding spirit to many other Metro projects. His task began with India’s first un­derground railway service in Kolkata, work for which began in the early 1970s. The knowledge he gained from working on the Kol-kata Metro helped him build Delhi’s Metro at a much quicker pace.

Punctual and fast, the Kolkata Metro has won plaudits for its smooth rides and cleanliness in a city otherwise known for its traf­fic snarls, potholed streets and squalor. Starting its service on 24 October 1984, it now carries half a million passengers daily.

When construction began, Kolkata (or Calcutta as it was then known) badly needed an underground system – just 4.2 percent of its surface area was devoted to roads compared to an average of 30 percent in other Indian cities. Traffic jams were perennial. Dr B. C. Roy, the first chief minister of West Bengal, where Kolkata is locat­ed, proposed a metro as early as 1949 and invited French railway engineers to suggest a plan. But their recommendations remained on the drawing board – the costs envisaged were too daunting at a time when the state was trying to re-settle millions of refugees fol­lowing on from India and Pakistan’s bloody partition.

In the late 1960s, the Indian Railways was tasked with devel­oping the Kolkata Metro. It proposed a five-line plan in 1971. Kolkata’s key challenge, however, was a high water table, which meant that even a 1.5-metre dig would be disrupted by ground wa­ter. Japanese technical help was called in to sort out the problem. To date, only 23 km of track has been laid out of a planned 97.5 km, but even this has made a tremendous difference to the lives of ordinary citizens who take a rare pride in ensuring that Kolkata Metro is one of the cleanest in the world.

A unique feature of many of Kolkata’s stations is the artwork on display on walls and pillars. Maidan station – which is the stop for the city’s largest park, home to a number of fabled sports stadiums – has etchings of footballers, cricketers and other sportspersons. The Rabindra Sadan station is adorned with prints of paintings and poetry by Rabindranath Tagore, after which the station is named.

India plans to spend INR2 trillion ($35 billion) in various metro projects across the country in the next ten years. In February, a government-appointed panel suggested that investment of INR.8.2 trillion ($144 billion) would be needed over the next five years for the modernisation of Indian Railways. Besides government fund­ing at the central and state levels, financing is coming from banks, both state-owned and private, industrial corporations, and foreign collaborators from Japan, South Korea, Germany and France, among others.

While the railway system that the British began building in 1853 continues to chug on, the nascent Metro promises to swish past, linking a rapidly urbanising India.

About the author:

Mahendra Ved is a New Delhi-based freelance writer and columnist. Jayanta Roy Chowdhury is a Senior Business Editor with The Telegraph, Calcutta


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