Forget bullet trains concentrate on existing railway system

Forget bullet trains, focus on the basic stuff. After last week’s chaos on Mumbai’s suburban railway network, often called the city’s lifeline, the message from Mumbaikars to Union railway minister Suresh Prabhu is clear. On Friday, a pantograph, the overhead device on a Central Railway (CR) suburban train that draws power from the electric line, got entangled with the line, bringing it to a halt. Power supply to the network was switched off to fix the problem, stopping trains on the network. Agitated commuters travelling from far-flung suburbs to the city turned violent, with some blocking the tracks and others setting vehicles on fire. The railway motormen who faced passengers’ ire then went on a flash strike, stranding thousands of commuters. It took seven hours to get the trains moving again. The woes of Mumbai’s suburban commuters are nothing new. Just a day earlier, the state government had allowed employees at Mantralaya, the state secretariat, to report for work up to an hour late, provided they work an hour late. Staff unions had been demanding this for a long time, since train disruptions are a fact of life in India’s financial capital. According to Mumbai Mirror, there were 15 major and 85 minor technical disruptions such as burnt pantographs, cracks in the tracks, derailments and signal failures in the first nine months of fiscal 2015. Why so? Mumbai’s suburban railway network is one of the busiest in the world, carrying close to 8 million passengers a day. While Western Railway operates one line between Churchgate to Dahanu, Central Railway operates three lines: the main line from Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) to Karjat and Kasara, harbour line between CST and Panvel and the trans-harbour line between Thane and Panvel. Problems are more frequent on Central Railway, which need the urgent attention of railway minister Prabhu. The first major task is shifting Central Railway’s electrical system from direct current (DC) to alternating current (AC) between Thane and CST. It is the only stretch on Indian Railways where trains operate on the antiquated DC system. The conversion project has got delayed by almost three years. Last month, Central Railway completed the project and carried out tests; now, the railway safety commissioner must now give his clearance before Central Railway can roll out the system. Prabhu, handpicked by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, can help cut the red tape and move Central Railway to AC system at the earliest. The conversion has two distinct advantages. First, it will reduce incidents of pantographs getting stuck in the overhead wires. The current pantographs are designed to draw power from both AC and DC systems, but such design leads to pantographs getting stuck while switching from one system to another. Second, Central Railway operates coaches older than 30 years, while law mandates they should be scrapped after 25 years. However, Central Railway is unable to replace them because they can run on both AC and DC systems. The new coaches from the integrated coach factory in Chennai can run only on AC systems. Another reason for breakdowns is the maintenance backlog in absence of sufficient time and money. Railway maintenance work is supposed to be conducted in the brief three hours in the night when the network is closed for suburban traffic. However, during these hours too, goods trains to and from Mumbai and Jawaharlal Nehru port use the network, tying the railways’ hands. The answer is to have dedicated lines for suburban trains, but work on this has got stuck in Thane-Diva and CST-Kurla stretches due to paucity of funds. According to railways’ own rules, tracks must be replaced after every three years, but due to lack of funds and time, 300km of tracks in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region have not been replaced for 10 years. There are many more issues related to maintenance, upgradation and augmentation which can be listed out such as need for creation of a parallel metro network and improving the road network in areas beyond Mumbai. The voters of Mumbai gave the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) 10 out of 10 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Millions of commuters who use the suburban network will be grateful to the government if it can make their daily travel better. There lies the path to a repeat of his party’s 2014 performance in 2019. Prabhu, a chartered accountant who worked in the city in his younger days, should know. Bullet trains can wait.