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Easing Mumbai’s Suburban Train Congestion

A Case for Non-motorised Transport

Vineet Abhishek ( is a civil servant working with Indian Railways, and is presently posted at Western Railway, Mumbai. Views expressed by the author are personal.

Mumbai’s suburban trains have been plagued with the issue of overcrowding during peak hours. Big ticket projects—like the Mumbai Urban Transport Projects that have been funded by the World Bank—were implemented with the aim of creating new capacity and bringing down congestion in coaches during peak hours, but have failed to meet their stated per rake passenger targets. The folly of the singular focus on creating extra passenger capacity is highlighted and instead an integrated approach is suggested, wherein non-motorised transport infrastructure can take the load off the suburban system by weaning short-distance travellers away from it.

The author would like to thank the anonymous reviewer for suggestions and recommendations.

Cities are “engines of economic growth” and a city’s transport systems are the wheels of this engine (Kumar and Agarwal 2013). Nowhere is this more pertinent than in Mumbai, India’s largest commercial centre. Mumbai’s transport system governs its livability and economic efficiency (ESMAP 2014: 3). However, the metropolis is infamous for the overcrowding of its suburban trains, which sees scores of commuters hanging on to the compartment doors during peak hours. The city’s status as a financial capital and economic powerhouse is threatened by poor transport infrastructure. Unless there is a change in the way Mumbai commutes, the city may lapse into the “vicious circle of economic decline and lowered quality of life,” more so because of its ever-increasing population (MMRDA 2008: 9). “Suburban trains are carrying commuters beyond their carrying capacity to meet the commuting needs of the city and the system is facing a major challenge of overcrowding,” the then Minister of Railways Suresh Prabhu had written in his foreword to Mumbai Rail Vikas Corporation (MRVC 2015) White Paper.

Several multimillion dollar projects, focused solely on boosting capacity and easing congestion, have been undertaken. However, they have fallen woefully short of solving the problem of overcrowding in trains. This article explores the potential ability of non-motorised transport (NMT) to ease the pressure on suburban trains and proposes a comprehensive strategy for decongesting Mumbai’s suburban system, one which offers a range of environmental and social co-benefits.

What Ails Mumbai’s Trains?

The Mumbai Metropolitan Region is one of the world’s largest urban centres with a population of 20.7 million (World Bank 2016a: 1). Mumbai’s suburban railway system boasts of 3,061 train services over 376 kilometres, carrying 8 million people on a daily basis. Over the past 65 years, the passenger load of the system has gone up 10 times, whereas the increase in capacity has been less than four times (MRVC 2015: 3).

The rated capacity for a 9-car train is 1,800 and that for a 12-car train is 3,522 (MRVC 2012: 20). However, from Table 1 it is evident that during peak hours, trains are carrying many more passengers than the rated capacity and that the load is greater on the Western and Central lines. The density in Mumbai trains—16 passengers per square metre—falls under “super dense crush loading conditions,” and is the highest in the world (Sehgal and Surayya 2011: 63). 

Despite the overloading, the suburban railway system is a loss-making enterprise. In the financial year 2013–14, it registered a loss of ₹ 1,111.80 crore (MRVC 2015: 17). However, Indian Railways continues to support the enterprise as a social commitment, even as investments continue to fall short of the ever-increasing demand (MRVC 2015: 3). Various large-scale projects have been undertaken with the objective of decongesting passenger load per train, the most remarkable being the Mumbai Urban Transport Project (MUTP) 11 and 2A funded by the World Bank, which were initiated in 2002 and 2010, respectively.

MUTP 1 had envisaged a reduction of congestion in the suburban trains at peak hours from 4,500 persons per rake to 3,600 persons per rake. However, the projects could only limit it to 4,016 persons per rake (Table 2). The MUTP 2A set a more reasonable target of 4,000 persons per rake, both for Western Railway and Central Railway, but could only bring it down to 5,257 for Western Railway and 4,340 for Central Railway (Table 2). The MRVC attributed the failure to “demand growing faster than creation of additional capacity, and lack of alternate public transport system” (MRVC 2015: 9). Similarly, the World Bank ascribed it to the fact that “better services increased demand more than had been expected” (World Bank 2016: viii). The project outcome was rated as being moderately satisfactory by the Independent Evaluation Group of the World Bank (World Bank 2016). It may be noted that MUTP 3 has already been planned with a total outlay of ₹ 10,947 crore ($1,694 million) (DNA 2016).

While the MRVC white paper stresses that a “paradigm shift in approach is required to upgrade the system [to] at least double its existing capacity in a planned manner in next 15 years,” no mention has been made of the potential applicability of NMT in easing congestion. The same paper also talks about the required total capital investments—in excess of ₹ 55,000 crore ($8,538 million)—if the various proposals to enhance capacity are implemented in the next 15 years.

NMT on the Fringes

NMT, which mainly includes cycling and walking, are the “most fundamental of transport modes and the most sustainable,” and the chosen modes of transport for the poor (Agarwal et al 2014: 12). Research has shown that focused investments in NMT systems—such as that for cycling—can provide a range of economic and social benefits (Department for Transport 2014).

In India, the modal share of cycling and walking is very high, ranging from 58% to 30% in different tiers of cities (Datey et al 2012: 1). However, NMT is not what the transport infrastructure planners plan for while creating various policies. Instead, they prioritise motorised vehicles. It is not inaccurate to say that the urban road infrastructure in India is biased in favour of motorised vehicles (Datey et al 2012: 1). Even though NMT systems can complement public transport, they are never given due attention. Part of the reason for the declining share of NMT has been lack of infrastructure. Cars tend to get the right of way and faulty policies by city managers lead to ever-narrowing space for pedestrians and other NMT users (Agarwal et al 2014).

In a notification by the Kolkata Police dated 13 February 2014, bicycles were prohibited from 62 roads in the city. Initially, cycles were not allowed on 174 roads, which was then brought down to 62. Presently, these prohibited stretches consist of those central and arterial roads that are used heavily by cyclists for going to work. This decision by the Kolkata Police gives a true picture of the understanding, sensitivity, and maturity (or lack thereof) of the authorities towards the significance of NMT in easing traffic congestion in India (Sur 2017; Purkayastha 2014).

In Mumbai, although MUTP 1 had some small provisions for constructing pedestrian traffic crossings, most of them were cancelled after the construction of only two such crossings due to reduced funding (World Bank 2016; Agarwal 2011: 5). The fact that a project of $642.96 million could budget for only two pedestrian traffic crossings speaks volumes about the commitment of policymakers towards pedestrian infrastructure and NMT in India, both within the Indian government as well as in multilateral funding agencies. The contrast is stark when this provision is juxtaposed with the policy commitments of the current mayor of London, who has pledged a fund of £770 million over the next half decade towards improving London’s cycling infrastructure (O’Sullivan 2016). What makes Mumbai’s car-centric transport policies more counter-intuitive is the fact that car usage in Mumbai is much lower than that in London (Harris 2014).

Another example of misplaced priorities are the elevated pedestrian walkways, more commonly known as skywalks in Mumbai, a prominent symbol of the secondary status accorded to pedestrians in transport policymaking. Although these skywalks started with much fanfare, they essentially aimed to clear the streets below of pedestrians, so as to facilitate more space for smooth flow of motorised vehicular traffic (Harris 2014). Here too, the comparison with London is stark as London is getting rid of its highwalks because they are not serving their purpose, and “have become at best a nostalgic feature of the post-war urban landscape” (Harris 2014). At the very least, the concept of skywalks proves that pedestrians can be inconvenienced and forced to climb stairs if at all they want a safe mode of travel. Our planners forget that people move like water: they will choose the path of least resistance; they cannot be forced to alter their travel just because a city planner or a government official directs them to do so. Ultimately, after constructing two-thirds of the 50 skywalks which were originally planned, the MMRDA decided not to go ahead with the construction of the remaining skywalks (Koppikar 2016).

India’s persisting urban transport issues have been attributed to the lack of appropriate institutional capacity to address them. Urban transport falls under the purview of multiple agencies at the central, state, and local levels but outside the purview of Indian Railways. Land-use policies at the local level come under the purview of state governments (Singh 2005). This lack of clarity in institutional ownership of urban transports results in policies that are neither nuanced nor balanced. The focus is almost always on eyeball-grabbing large investment projects. For instance, one of India’s largest urban infrastructure projects, the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, did not encompass a single project catering to either improvement in pedestrian facilities or developing bicycle tracks (Datey et al 2012: 4).

Decongesting Mumbai Trains

NMT systems are primarily used for short-distance travel, given that the necessary infrastructure is available. Distances up to 10 km can easily be covered by cycles, and the example of the city of Copenhagen shows us that distances of up to 15 km can be accessed by cycles for everyday commuting (Table 3).

Mumbai can very well emulate Copenhagen for promoting cycling in the city. Its linear geography and flat terrain with nine rain-free months a year makes Mumbai an ideal city for cycling (Mead 2014). Moreover, cycling can be particularly helpful in reducing road congestion in the most cost-effective manner (FLOW Project 2016). In fact, recent research has also established the role of cycling in decongesting metros such as Beijing (Sun and Zacharias 2017). Though data for Mumbai is not available, the very fact that passenger congestion in Beijing and Mumbai are comparable shows that cycling can very well be used in Mumbai, both to decongest the suburban trains as well as to provide modal options for the commuters.

An analysis of the travel pattern of commuters using Mumbai suburban trains reveals that 22% of the people use suburban trains to travel distances less than 10 km (Table 4). In December 2016, on average, a total of 35,26,601 commuters in Western Railways and 41,80,789 commuters in Central Railways used suburban services in Mumbai per day. Almost 22% of these commuters travelled 10 km or less. In Western Railways, the trip length of 6–10 km was the second most popular distance slab, preferred by 20% of the total commuters. In Central Railways, 6–10 km was the most common distance slab, also used by 20% of the commuters.

In fact, if we take the case of Western Railways (Table 5), among the top 50 Origin to Destination (O-D) stations, 11 O-D stations are within the 10 km distance. They account for 11.4% of the total passengers. Tables 4 and 5 highlight that around 22% of the suburban commuters in Mumbai can be easily shifted to NMT, which can be a cost-effective way to decongest suburban railways. Here it is assumed that these commuters do not travel for large distances either to catch the train or to go to their destinations at the end of their journey. It is also assumed that there is not much of a difference in distance by train and by road. Further, a cycling corridor can always be developed using the shortest possible road distance.

A walking lane (one lane on either direction) costs ₹ 0.6 crore per km and a cycling lane (one lane on either direction) costs ₹ 1.2 crore (Ravibabu nd). Hence a road with one lane on either side for pedestrians and one lane on either side for cycling will cost ₹ 1.8 crore per km which comes to $2,62,774 (average rate of one dollar in February 2016—when the rupee was weakest against the dollar between 2011–2016—was ₹ 68.5). With an investment of $642.96 million, MUTP 1 aimed to create 30% additional capacity in the suburban trains. MUTP 2A, with an investment of $742.72 million, aimed to increase capacity by 20%. As pointed out earlier, 22% of Mumbai’s suburban rail commuters travel a distance of 10 km or less. In a hypothetical scenario where the MUTP 2A had attempted to create pedestrian and cycling infrastructure instead of increasing the capacity of suburban trains, the total project outlay of $742.72 million would have led to the creation of more than 2,826 km of robust NMT infrastructure, which would have been enough for most of the short-distance suburban rail commuters. It would be a win–win situation where robust NMT infrastructure would be created on the one hand, and on the other, extra capacity would have been produced for the comfort of long-distance travellers.

This is not to say that capacity expansion of suburban trains should not have been undertaken as without these capacity enhancement works, the congestions in the trains would have otherwise increased multifold in the absence of alternative modes of travel and road congestion would have increased as well. Rather, it is being stressed that equal focus should have also been given to creating robust NMT infrastructure, which would have given travelling options to short-distance travellers, apart from being cost effective and sustainable. Given that London, with half the number of people living in more than three times the land area of Mumbai, is investing so much in NMT, Mumbai too needs to step up and invest in cheap, efficient, and space-saving modes of transportation (UNHABITAT 2017).

NMTs for Last-mile Connectivity

The TRANSFORM (Transportation Study for the Region of Mumbai) in 2008 by the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) brings to light the fact that 1.5 million to 2.0 million people take buses in order to access train services, and “most of these trips, if one considers the linear nature of the city, would be short trips” (Ravibabu nd). Promoting NMT in Mumbai can not only result in the decongestion of suburban trains, but can also play an effective role in providing last-mile connectivity to suburban railways, as in cities like Paris, London, and Copenhagen. NMT systems obviate the need to use motorbikes, three-wheelers, or taxis to commute from origin or destination stations.

A pilot can be done by making the entire Colaba–Fort area bicycle-friendly with end-to-end cycling infrastructure (Abhishek and Pojani 2018). A prominent example like this can play a great role in promoting cycling culture among the citizens of Mumbai, inspiring similar models in other important locations in the city.

Suitable subsidies for NMT usage, coupled with increased suburban fares, can be an important strategy for making NMT a preferred choice. At the same time, cycling can be made more attractive by developing dedicated cycle parking lots, promoting shared bicycle schemes and so on. Shared bicycle schemes can lead to a reduction in the average trip time of passengers and enhance the efficiency of the urban public transport network (Yang et al 2018)

Best Practices and Challenges

Countries like the Netherlands and Denmark have been at the forefront of promoting NMT since the 1970s. These countries have national bicycling master plans which officially put forth the goal of promoting bicycling and spell out various strategies. These master plans address issues such as lane designs, intersection points, bike parking, inter-departmental coordination, and safety. Copenhagen has been spending more than $10 million annually on improving bicycling infrastructure (Troy 2012). Some non-Scandinavian countries like Germany are also aggressively promoting NMT and large chunks of funds have been earmarked on a yearly basis for developing biking and pedestrian infrastructure (Pucher and Buehler 2008). It is due to such consistent efforts that the bicycling infrastructure in cities like Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Berlin is fully integrated with public transportation (Pucher and Buehler 2008).

“Transitioning the bicycle from recreation to transportation could hinge on something as simple as a sweaty armpit” (Citylab 2014: 96). Innovations that can help cover more distances and minimise discomfort like sweating will play a big role in promoting bicycling in any city. One such technology is the “Copenhagen Wheel,” a simple back-wheel pedal-assist technology developed by MIT in partnership with the city of Copenhagen (Citylab 2014: 88–99; MIT 2017). It is an elegant battery storage disc designed as part of the back wheel which assists pedalling in proportion to the effort being made by the cyclist. In a city like Mumbai, once the necessary infrastructure is in place, innovations like these can help encourage commuters to shift to bicycles from suburban trains and private vehicles.

More than funds and feasibility, what Mumbai desperately needs is the political will and a political hero. Just like London, what Mumbai needs is its own “mayor on a bicycle,” a Boris Johnson or a Sadiq Khan, who can force a much-needed policy shift (Guardian 2016; Laker 2016).


1 The first phase of the project was called MUTP, but ever since the second phase started, the first phase has been generally termed as MUTP 1. In this article MUTP and MUTP 1 have been used interchangeably, and mean the same.


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Updated On : 26th Aug, 2019


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