Mumbai, they say, is the city that never sleeps. A good reason for that are the local train lines that connect distant places within the city and certain neighbouring districts as well.
From 30 July, entry to the Mumbai suburban rail network will be regulated by a QR-based Electronic-pass system.
Local trains were shut for 84-days until 15 June, owing to the lockdown to curtail the spread of COVID-19. After which, they began to function in some measure.
Currently, the Central Railways and Western Railways of the Mumbai suburban rail network operate only 350 services each daily. These were allowed to run after the Maharashtra government repeatedly pleaded with the Union Railways Ministry that oversees the functioning of local trains in Mumbai.
Until now, the trains are available only for “essential workers” – which include healthcare workers, central and state government staffers , bankers municipality workers etc. It was left to the Maharashtra government to determine who the essential workers were and identified an estimated 50,000 people.
QR Code to access local trains
While entry to railway stations was manned by policemen frisking identity cards, complaints kept pouring about non-essential workers boarding the trains. “As the train services started, slowly as days passed, the crowd in trains kept increasing. While we didn’t dare ask passengers if they were essential workforce or not, clearly outsiders were getting in and this needed to be checked. The QR-based E-pass system could help weed out the non-essential workers,” says Sonali Gharat, a civic hospital nurse, who travels from Palghar to Borivali.
But, many feel otherwise. On July 21, over a 100 people staged an impromptu rail roko by blocking rail services at Nalasopara. They demanded access to local trains since buses were proving to be inadequate and expensive. Those most affected would be residents of neighbouring districts who commute to Mumbai everyday for work.
More than 82% of Mumbaikars use public transport. Out of which, about 51% use the railways and 26% take the bus. Only 4% of residents use private cars, according to a report by non-profit Mumbai Vikas Samiti (MVS).
“Yes, there may be some 10-15 % of non-essential workers also taking the trains, but that can surely be overlooked for an popular mode of transport like this, especially since they are anyways paying for the fares,” said Subhash Gupta, President of the Rail Yatri Parishad and member of the National Railway Users Consultative Committee.
Given the large number of people who use local trains, Gupta feels newer technologies like a QR code which restrict access to more commuters than helping the few allowed on it.
Here are two reasons why the government is not concerned about finding ways to get more and more people back to using local trains.
No rush to get passengers back
While the commuters are missing the local trains, the trains are not missing its passengers.
The Western line of the Mumbai suburban rail service suffered a loss of Rs 1797 crores till July 20, due to reduced plying owing to COVID-19 pandemic. But, it earned more than Rs 2482 crores from ferrying various goods like foodgrains, fertilisers, coal, cement, medicines, liquid milk, milk powder, salt and general consumer goods in the same period.
“During the lockdown, special efforts were made to promote freight and parcel movements through trains,” said Sumit Thakur, Chief Public Relations Officer, Western Railways. “Business development units were set up at zonal and district headquarters to push freight services. Special incentives were also offered to attract customers and infrastructural development was also taken up alongside. We hope to continue the freight services even after normalisation of passenger services,” he added.
That is one main reason why the government is not in a rush to open up the local trains to all and sundry.
The other reason is structural. The Mumbai local trains fall under the aegis of the Union Railway Ministry.
Center vs state
Although Union Railway Minister Piyush Goyal hails from Mumbai, he has failed its people’s expectations to open up local train services.
Administration of local trains in a metropolitan city coming under the Central government has caused confusion in the past as well. Even regular maintenance decisions of the trains in the pre-COVID times faced delays. The October 2018 MVS report on transportation in Mumbai showed urgent decisions like raising platforms to reduce gap between train and platforms to avoid passenger deaths, provision of additional Foot Over Bridges (FOB) at stations etc needed approvals from Railway Board or Railway Ministry in New Delhi.
Getting approvals from New Delhi seemed especially laborious when there was increasing passenger load on Mumbai’s local trains.
“Why should our Chief Minister beg before Delhi to start rail services? It being a critical service provider to the city, control should be under state since they are aware of local conditions here. MVS has been demanding an integrated Mumbai Transportation Corporation as an apex coordinating entity for all transport agencies from Mumbai, on the lines of the Transport for London (TfL),” said transport activist A.V. Shenoy of MVA. “This should resolve issues of coordination and networking between agencies. This is the lesson for transportation in Mumbai from the present pandemic,” he added.
This integrated transport body is also expected to plug communication gaps in planning and execution of policies between multiple stakeholders handling the city’s transportation needs like Monorail, Metro, Central and Western Railway, Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport (BEST), Road Transport Office (RTO), traffic police, Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority (MMRDA) and the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC).
“Considering the sheer volume of the passenger traffic handled by Mumbai’s suburban train network, an integrated transport body is the need of the hour,” said Rail Yatri Parishad’s Gupta. “Mumbai’s concerns and challenges are distinct and it would be unfair to club city’s transport policy decisions with that of the rest of India, a point I have been trying to repeatedly emphasize at various Railway Board meetings,” he added.
For now, though, using QR code to enter a Mumbai local train is here to stay. The railways is looking at this as a good opportunity to check the feasibility of the QR-based E-pass system, that had been on the cards for some time.
“May be at a later stage, we plan to introduce a QR-based retractable flap barrier gates at railway entry points akin to Metro,” said G.V.L Satyakumar, Divisional Railway Manager of the Western Railway.
“Lets see how it evolves from here on” he added.