A new mode: The metro and Mumbai

Mumbai is in the midst of an infrastructure makeover. Drawing on his fieldwork in the city, Carl Adler looks at how new transport modes in India’s financial capital will reshape the metropolis.

हिंदी संस्करण पर जाएं

I wake up, get ready, go outside and walk the kilometre or so to Churchgate. I weave between thigh-height bollards and lengths of fence that constrict the footpath and occasional gaps in pavement. There is no optimal height at which to fix my gaze to avoid impediments to movement; there are surprises everywhere here, and the entire scene requires full attention. Eventually, I reach Churchgate. I bought a monthly pass for between here and Bandra, so I do not have to wait in the queue snaking out from the ticket window. I will not have to do so for another three weeks. I walk through the metal detector at the end of the long white corridor and look out at the wide purple trains sitting snugly in their berths.

Each train rests under a display with big green numbers and letters that indicate when a train is leaving, where it will stop and where it will end up. This code is simple, but cracking it all those months ago made me feel a little bit more like I belonged here. Now I don’t even need to think about it. I walk to the train under the sign that tells me it does not run express, that it goes to Andheri, and that it is leaving sooner than the others. I enter the carriage and flip a switch near my seat to turn on the overhead fan. Within thirty seconds, we depart. The doors do not close, but this is normal. Over my twenty-five-minute-or-so commute to Mahim Junction, the crowd in my car swells and people stand beside those open doors, gripping the texturised vertical metal bar which bisects the entrance for support. At each station, riders jump onto the platform before the vehicle stops, jogging alongside the train for a few metres and slowing to a walk. We reach Mahim Junction; I exit the carriage and watch the train pull north into the haze.

Hanging out

I spent nearly half a year following this commute, Monday through Friday, in the thick tropical heat. As an amateur transport enthusiast and budding scholar, Mumbai’s local trains stole my attention more than anything else in the metropolis. The system has served as the city’s circulatory system for over a century and a half. Subsidised fares allow access to Mumbaikers from all socioeconomic backgrounds. Its idiosyncrasies are the stuff of legend. Countless Bollywood films feature clips of people hanging out of crowded local trains. Characters often meet in the unmistakable cage-like interiors of cars. Mumbai’s local train system is as emblematic of the city as the Gateway of India, the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and the Art Deco facades along Marine Drive. It is, however, not without its flaws. 

2.64 billion Mumbai Suburban Railway’s annual riders arguably rate service as the worst anywhere in the world

Mumbai’s local trains have an abysmal safety record. According to India’s Government Railway Police, 2,691 people died within the network in 2019. In addition, 3,194 people were injured. These numbers would be unthinkable in other cities. Falls from moving carriages and people crossing between platforms at rail level are the main causes of these fatalities. People also sustain injuries from jumping from moving cars as they pull into stations. Crowdedness makes rush hour travel a nightmare for commuters. Carriages are broken down into two classes. First and second class do not have many material differences, but first-class ticket prices are around ten times as high as second-class fares, leading to situations where there is intense congestion in second class and a great deal of space in first. All romantic and idealised notions of the system fly out the open train doors on crushing weekday mornings, and the realisation that this system needs some sort of an upgrade sets in. Finally, the local train system has a limited service area. Shrutika Manivannan, a young professional based in Mumbai, commutes with local trains but highlighted the system’s relatively poor connectivity. “[The local train is] convenient for large distances because it saves me on commute time, but I avoid it for shorter ones considering reaching the station itself takes some time”.

“I want my travel to be super cool and modern,” say Mumbaikers on the move

To ease some of this pressure, Mumbai has embarked on an ambitious project to build a new metro system. This project will completely change the way many Mumbaikers move through their city. It promises a safer, more comfortable alternative to local trains. The new network will eventually include ten lines and aims both to serve areas that do not currently have local train access and provide an alternative to some local train routes. According to the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), the completed system will stretch over nearly 190 km. By having a more comprehensive urban railway network, Mumbai also hopes to see a reduction in the number of private vehicles on the road. As of now, there is only one operational line, Line One. Line One serves an east-west corridor that did not previously have a railway connection and provides important transfer points between two of the three local train lines. It was constructed through a Public-Private Partnership, with Reliance Energy Limited holding a 69% stake. The project cost about INR 43 billion, and service began in 2014. Riding Line One gives insight into what rider experiences on other lines will be like.

Fast track

I first rode Line One in the autumn of 2018 in order to reach a job site. A colleague and I walked through the humid afternoon from our office in Dharavi Koliwada to Sion station. Rush hour had just begun, and we crammed into the Central Railways car when it pulled up to the platform. We stayed near the doors for the whole trip- going further into the car could have meant getting stuck behind the ever-swelling mass of commuters. We left the train at Ghatkopar, Line One’s eastern terminus, and followed the signs for the metro. Eventually, we reached the bright and polished metro station. We walked to the ticket window, bought our electronic tokens and waved them in front of the chip reader on the turnstiles. The gates opened and we took the escalator up to the platform. The LCD panels above our heads told us the next train would depart in just two minutes. Soon, we stepped onto the air-conditioned train and sat down. We watched the city roll underneath us and, within ten minutes, had reached our destination.

Turning point: The Mumbai Metro in action

The many subsequent times I have ridden Line One all blend together- using the line is pleasant and straightforward. This new system lacks the local trains’ quirks and it may never be the centrepiece of urban identity that local trains are for many Mumbaikers. But, it will undoubtedly free up space on the network and it may give drivers a viable alternative to commuting with private vehicles. Most importantly, the metro’s enhanced safety will allow more Mumbaikers to live with at least a little less fear.

Carl Adler is a Master student at Sciences Po Paris and is working on an internship at the International Transport Forum.

Several additional lines of Mumbai’s metro are expected to be operational by the end of 2022.

The International Transport Forum works on decarbonising transport in India over two projects:

The Decarbonising Transport in Emerging Economies (DTEE) – India project aims to help India’s government and other stakeholders to identify transport measures and establish pathways to reduce transport CO2 emissions and meet their climate goals and NDCs. Learn more

The NDC Transport Initiative for Asia (NDC-TIA) aims at promoting a coherent strategy of effective policies for decarbonising transport that are co-ordinated among various sector ministries, civil society and the private sector. Learn more

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