BENGALURU: If letters shot off by the ministers and elected representatives to the Centre seeking assistance for setting up of a commuter rail system could qualify as progress, then yes, there has been a bit of it. But beyond this, there is very little to show in terms of actual proposal or planning, despite everyone agreeing that suburban trains need to be an essential part of the city’s transport system.
Letters have been written at regular intervals to the Centre, including one written last year by Chief Minister Siddaramaiah to the Union Minister for Railways Suresh Prabhu. The CM had asked the minister to consider the proposal for commuter rail on a 50:50 cost-sharing basis and also said that they have set up Bangalore Suburban Rail Company Limited to enable the implementation of the project. But on the ground, there is little progress.
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Speaking to Railway officials and the Directorate of Urban Land Transport, one thing that is evident is a lack of coordination on the way ahead.
In September 2015, the Railways replied to a feasibility report from engineering consultancy company RITES about running commuter trains from the city centre to Whitefield, Tumakuru, Hosur, Hindupur, Ramanagaram and Chikkaballapur.
“The report had a lot of technical flaws. One has to visit the sites, check the existing infrastructure and see if there is a possibility of running the trains on the existing infrastructure, and whether it can be augmented. None of this was done. It was report was prepared in the offices and was not practical at all. People think we are responsible for the delay, but RITES should be informing the state government correctly on what can be done and what cannot. They are keeping the state government in the dark and we are being blamed for it,” said Divisional Railway Manager of SWR, Bengaluru, Sanjiv Agarwal.
The railway infrastructure in the city is in dire need of modernisation and expansion. The planned development of Byappanahalli station into a world class station never materialised. The running of intercity trains on time and increasing their frequency is a daily headache. “How are we going to run suburban trains in this situation? Unless we decongest our platforms and shift some of our trains, this is just not possible. Even if we are expanding, there is the question of land acquisition, which takes forever. All these things are to be considered,” Agarwal said.
Directorate of Urban Land Transport (DULT) Commissioner V Manjula whose department was responsible for commissioning the study by RITES, said a new report has been prepared as per which they can run some lines, and needs very little land acquisition.
“We will be sending the report to the Railways soon. There is a small amount of land acquisition, but otherwise it will use existing lines. It is definitely possible,” Manjula argued. The one thing that Manjula agrees with the Railways is on the delay that results from land acquisition, but says that the revised RITES draft points out to lines which can be run with minimal changes.
On one hand, proponents of commuter rail allege that DULT is not serious about pursuing the project and that the RITES report was hogwash meant to delay progress. On the other, Railway officials seem reluctant to shift focus to suburban trains due to their own constraints. “Where is the revenue in it?” asked a senior railways official.
“We have enough problems trying to stick to our schedules with intercity trains. Suburban trains will not give us the kind of revenue we need. Will we be allowed to charge ticket rates like Metro does? We have to face a dharna and a rail roko even with minor increases in ticket prices. Why should we run on lines that are bound to make losses for us?” the official said.
In the last couple of years, however, halt stations have been built at Krishnadevaraya at RPC Layout and Hoodi and MEMU maintenance station at Banaswadi has been constructed purely for use of suburban rail.
Union Minister for Chemicals and Fertilisers Ananth Kumar, a believer in commuter rail, is firm it will get a mention this Railway budget. “I have met Railways Minister Suresh Prabhu and explained the necessity of a commuter rail system and I am hopeful it will be included this year,” he said. Ananth Kumar believes that if the four radials of Bengaluru City to Kengeri, Yeshwantpur, K R Puram and Yelahanka are equipped with double line, electrification and automatic signaling, then Phase 1 of will be ready.