Why can't Mumbai have an integrated transport system?

Jul 21, 2013, 05:05 IST | Shashank Rao and Ranjeet Jadhav

Mumbai has a highly efficient suburban rail transport system, nearly 1,00,000 taxis and autorickshaws and over 1,000 BEST buses. The monorail and metro rail services, too, are months away from being operational. Yet, the city has neither an integrated transport system nor smart cards that work across multiple vehicles unlike most global cities. Is Mumbai happy to stay in the middle ages? Shashank Rao and Ranjeet Jadhav pop the question to government officials and experts

Travelling in the local train? Check if you have the white pass in your pocket. On a BEST bus? The pass is green is colour this time. A short taxi ride to work? Better keep exact change ready. Looking for an auto? Prepare to grow old waiting. If this sounds familiar, it probably is because you live in Mumbai.

Maximum city has a huge network of transportation systems — the local trains, taxis, auto rickshaws, buses and by end of this year — even the metro rail and the monorail. But the hassle of travelling is still going to be just as bad.

One of the main reasons: the various modes of transports are simply not interested in helping each other. And the government is happy twiddling its thumbs instead of doing what the administrations of dozens of other large cities across the world have done — introduce a smart card that helps citizens hop on and off various modes of transport without having to buy separate tickets or pay in cash.

Londoners use the Oyster Card, New Yorkers use the SmartLink, it’s called Myki in Melbourne and Hong Kong has the Octopus Card. In each of these cities, one Smart Card is sufficient for a person to travel throughout the city with ease. So what’s wrong with Mumbai?

Smooth operators
Till date, the few announcements and attempts by the government to introduce smart cards have fallen flat. No wonder a recent survey by a global travel portal ranked Mumbai at the bottom of the pile when it came to ease of getting around in public transport.

Compare this to London — a city much older than Mumbai and one that has always had its own share of infrastructure-related problems. In London the Oyster Card is applicable for all three modes of transport — the surface rail, the underground Tube and buses while in New York the smart card is valid even for inter-state water transportation apart from inter-state trains. The extent of integration of public transport is so beautiful in Europe that the Eurail offers a pass that caters to almost all the major cities of the continent such as Paris, Rome, Prague, Venice, Amsterdam and Berlin. Imagine a Mumbai smart card that’s valid in the Delhi metro. Okay. Suppress your laughter. This is serious business.

A senior official who had gone on a study tour to a few European nations recently recalled that thanks to the smart card, he could travel across the cities without too much hard cash in his pocket. “Soon after we got down from the flight, we bought this card, which could be used for the feeder bus service just outside the airport. We soon realised we could use the same card to pay cab fares and even on inter-country train services. It is not impossible for this to be replicated in Mumbai but such advanced nature of transportation planning would take time,” said the official.

 Another high ranking government official, who had gone on an official trip to the United States, explained how a smart card can be swiped on the rotating metal barriers — they zip inside a socket from one end and come out from the other. “The passenger can enter the railway premises after the money inside the Smart Card gets deducted and the barriers turn from red to green. Once you enter the Metro rail or railway subways, one can crisscross different platforms and lines, without swiping a second time,” he gushed. Obviously, the official had been to the US but not to Kolkata or Delhi, where the smart card works exactly the same way on the metro rail services!

But what makes these cards truly a boon in a London, NY or Hong Kong, is the fact that the same card that allows you to board a underground train, also lets you get up on a bus and pay the taxi fare! “Many global cities have such a system that allows people to make multiple travels for next two-three hours once a card is swiped. They have thoroughly integrated both the bus and rail transportation,” said noted transport expert Ashok Datar.

Miles ahead when it comes to excuses
It’s not that Mumbai is waking to this obvious issue today. For years, the state’s planning agencies have failed to make any concrete progress towards introducing a common travel card for Mumbai, despite several proposals and such ‘study tours’.

Even the state-owned public transport agencies failed to push through a much-hyped ‘Go Mumbai’ card that fared miserably and shut down almost before it had been launched. The apathy is such that the swipe machines fitted at various bus and railway stations for these ‘Go Mumbai’ cards, today lie broken and neglected, with no one even bothering to remove them.

The deadline to introduce the smart card for the monorail line between Wadala and Chembur is October 2013. PIC/ Suresh KK 

To be fair, a few attempts had been made to launch an integrated smart card in the city. In fact, the Maharashtra government and the Centre were working on two different unified smart cards last year. Finally in April 2012 the Ministry of Urban Development went forward and created the National Common Mobility Card (NCMC) called ‘More Mumbai’ ostensibly for buying tickets for the Metro rail services, Monorail, suburban trains, buses and even to pay auto and taxi fares along with a special provision to swipe it for parking and toll charges. It almost sounded too good to be true. And our skepticism turned out to be correct.

Highly placed sources in the state government told SUNDAY MiD DAY that the ambitious plan had to be scrapped and they are now beginning from scratch yet again. “We are working on creating a common travel card for Mumbai,” said BC Khatau, chief of Mumbai Transformation Support Unit (MTSU). This is a parallel planning agency that is involved in studying, advising, coordinating and monitoring project related to overall improvement of public transport and infrastructure of Mumbai.

Hope on the horizon
The state government authorities, meanwhile, seem to revel in working in piecemeal fashion. So while the deadline to introduce Smart Cards for the first phase of Metro Rail between Versova to Airport Road station (the remaining stretch till Ghatkopar will be operational by early 2014) and Monorail line between Wadala and Chembur is October, officials are tightlipped when it comes to the progress of the smart card. Officials from the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) said while the first phase of Metro rail is expected to start from October this year, the Monorail phase-I will also begin operations from November. “We are hopeful that we will be able to launch the Smart Card system before the phase-I of Metro rail and Monorail begins operation,” said UPS Madan, Metropolitan Commissioner, MMRDA. He added the MMRDA will soon be calling for global tenders for the cards. The Metro rail is expected to carry 25,000 people per hour per direction (PPHPD) while Monorail can bear around 12,000 PPHPD. But will the cards be ready by October, as tenders are yet to be floated in July? Our guess is as good as anyone’s.

But even if the cards were to be ready on time, they won’t really lead to an integrated transport pass. The authorities don’t expect to cover the suburban railways in the first phase, although it is these trains that carry nearly 75 lakh people every day. Presently the railways have automatic ticket vending machine (ATVM) cards that haven’t gained much popularity among commuters. Of the 75 lakh commuters who take the train every day, just 2,00,000 use these cards.

“A common travel card for all modes of transport is of vital importance for a city like Mumbai. We are hopeful that our ATVM card too gets integrated into the system once Metro and Monorails start operations,” said a senior railway official. The BEST hope to popularise the prepaid bus pass smart cards. The point is: will all these cards ever come together as one?

How smart
Many cities across the world have smart cards that make sure traveling across a city is smooth.
New York – SmartLink – A single prepaid card gives access to rail, ferry and bus services
London – Oyster Card – This card which can be bought even at department stores, makes sure you can board the tube or the bus without having to buy fresh tickets or pay cash
Melbourne – Myki – the card can be used to travel on trains, trams and buses across Melbourne
Hong Kong – Octopus – The same card can be swiped to pay cab fares, travel on buses across the island and even buy groceries

Smart cards in Mumbai
* 3.5 lakh cards sold by BEST
* 70000 commuters use ATVM cards between Churchgate-Virar on Western Railway
* 200 ATVM machines at WR stations
* One lakh commuters use ATVM cards between CST-Kasara/Karjat/Panvel on Central Railway:
* 375 ATVM machines at CR stations 

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