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Viability of Surface Rail for Urban Mass Transit

Planning for urban mass transport, should Indiaâ??s cities opt for metro rail, mono rail or surface rail? While in the heart of the city different options are necessary, the viability of surface rail needs to be explored seriously because of its advantages in cost, capacity and flexibility.

Viability of Surface Rail for Urban Mass Transit

Planning for urban mass transport, should India’s cities opt for metro rail, mono rail or surface rail? While in the heart of the city different options are necessary, the viability of surface rail needs to be explored seriously because of its advantages in cost, capacity and flexibility.


he choice for urban mass transport investment is centred on the metro rail and monorail, with an implicit assumption that surface rail transport is unviable. In Delhi around Rs 10,500 crore was invested for a 66 km metro line. Chennai is planning a 300 km monorail system, which may require Rs 45,000 crore as per estimates. Bids for Mumbai’s 13 km elevated metro system give a picture of its viability, the lowest bid was for Rs 2,300 crore including the subsidy (technically termed viability gap funding) of Rs 1,200 crore. Similarly, the 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 the heart of the city, the above options are necessary, the viability of surface rail needs to be explored more seriously because of the advantages of cost, capacity, and flexibility. At Rs 8 crore per kilometre, the cost of surface rail is minuscule compared to Rs 250-300 crore for underground rail, Rs 150-180 crore for elevated rail, and Rs 100-150 crore for monorail. The capacity of surface and elevated rail systems is comparable and varies between 8,000 and 40,000 passengers per hour per direction, while monorail may have 20 per cent lesser capacity. Surface rail has flexibility in capacity expansion and operation as compared to the metro and monorail systems for the system is on the ground.

A major constraint in developing a 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 the existing rail network and another for the newly developing suburbs directing growth along the new rail network.

Owing to the foresight shown by the British, most Indian cities have a welldeveloped 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, the approach to city planning needs to be revised with the 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 a new road network to feed the rail terminals to enable easy access to commuters. This requires revision in the master plan to reserve 2-3 per cent of land for rail transport.

Hyderabad Example

Hyderabad and suburban locations have around 160 km of railway network, including 120 km on four main corridors and 40 km of bypass lines and small spurs, covering well-populated areas in the city. Out of this, 48 km was made fit for urban traffic as part of phase 1 of the Multimodal Transport System (MMTS). Around Rs 500 crore are required for upgrading the system to run urban traffic on it and Rs 200 crore for connecting roads and developing bus terminals. To upgrade the existing system to cater to urban traffic the following is required: (i) develop alternate routes to run goods trains with scope for future expansion; (ii) ease terminal constraints at Secunderabad and Hyderabad stations.

To move goods trains additional capacity needs to be created by constructing a 160 km outer ring rail with an investment of around Rs 1,500 crore, with scope to expand to four lines in the future. We need to develop a link network of around 100 km costing Rs 800 crore connecting the existing rail network to the proposed outer ring rail. Terminal constraints 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 crore.

To summarise, a surface rail based urban mass transport system requires a total investment of around Rs 3,200 crore for upgradation of 160 km of existing rail network, adding 260 km of rail network, and improvement in road connectivity. Comparatively, a 59 km elevated metro rail is estimated to cost Rs 9,000 crore, of which the subsidy is expected to be around Rs 4,800 crore (subsidy is estimated by the author based on bids for the Mumbai system). The state government is also investing Rs 5,100 crore for developing an outer ring road and link roads. Thus, a surface rail system of much larger capacity (420 km) will be created at one-third the cost (or 60 per cent of the subsidy) of an elevated metro rail of much lower capacity (59 km).

Thus, surface rail costs one-twentieth of an elevated metro rail and is a feasible alternative for many Indian cities such as Hyderabad, New Delhi and Nagpur that have existing rail networks. 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 a surface rail to meet future public transport needs of the city.


Email: ravibabumanchala@gmail.com

[This article expresses the author’s views and not necessarily those of the organisation that he represents.]

Economic and Political Weekly

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Economic and Political Weekly April 22, 2006

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