Dharmendra Jore Column: Mumbai dreams of consistent services more than bullet trains

Dharmendra JoreMumbai doesn’t ask for much when it comes to trains. Citizens want more trains with a little more room to breathe. They don’t want seats with leather cushions or air-conditioned coaches. What they want is trains that run on time and don’t break down. They want safety inside the coaches and on the tracks.

The growing number of deaths on tracks and in overcrowded trains, inadequate amenities and safety measures, have added to the trials of the people who toil hard to keep the country’s financial capital working 24x7. There are intelligent and workaholic people in the railways who have been trying their best to do away with deficiencies, but the government’s apathy doesn’t let them stretch beyond a limit.

Now, fed up city commuters have some hope from the agreements that India signed with Japan on December 11 and 12 — a comprehensive technological cooperation agreement for modernization, safety and technology upgradation of Indian Railways. The Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project — part of the growth story envisaged by the PM — is being touted as a game-changer in the country’s railroad network. So, there is no harm in assuming that this growth story will have some chapters dedicated to Mumbai’s overused, falling railway network, which continues to ferry more than a crore commuters daily.

Mumbaikars concept of doesn’t go beyond ‘chhota fast’ and ‘bada fast’ locals. They cannot, in their wildest dreams, think of luxury on these rickety suburban trains – a few square inches of space to fit in, and a nice breeze are considered luxury enough.

The city’s very own Suresh Prabhu heads the mammoth Indian Railways. Being a Mumbaikar makes him more responsible for the city, and hence he needs to tell us how Japanese technological advances will benefit the city’s suburban train service. He needs to have a blueprint in place to implementing at the earliest.

Seven years down the line, we are expected to get a bullet train to travel to Ahmedabad and other cities in the neighbouring Gujarat. Since it is Modi’s pet project, we can presume that it will show some concrete work on the ground before the PM goes to polls in the summer of 2019. The 508-km railway line will cost Rs 97,636 crore, of which Japan will lend over Rs 79,000 crore. The loan is for a period of 50 years with a moratorium of 15 years, at an interest rate of 0.1 per cent. The Japanese finance will be exclusively used for the bullet train. The existing travel time of seven hours between the two cities is expected to reduce to two hours. The fare should be a little more than what the railways charges for first class travel on the Rajdhani.

Keeping in mind the bullet train’s nearly perfect plan, Mumbaikars should pose pointed questions to Prabhu as to how he will resolve other rail issues that have been ignored by successive governments. Plans of elevated corridors, air-conditioned trains, new tracks, modern rakes and prevention of accidents and upgradation of stations haven’t really taken off. Considering that plans like the bullet train will involve even more time and money, we fail to understand why politicians and railway managers have failed to provide basic facilities that do not cost much.

It’s not that the city hasn’t had professionals who broke away from traditional methods and did some good for the commuters. Actually, it is a lack of political will that has stalled improvement. The railways’ top bosses need to do some proper planning in consultation with commuters and experts. But they will be able to do this only when they discard a bias against the city. And making this happen is the job of local politicians.

People will recall that Prabhu would himself travelling on Mumbai’s suburban trains from his Vile Parle home to various destinations, before he rose to eminence in politics. We would suggest that the minister embark on the journey again, preferably in peak hours, and see what a Mumbai commuter’s trials and dreams are made of.

Dharmendra Jore is political editor, mid-day. He tweets @dharmendrajore

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