Bengaluru suburban railway project: A deliberate slowdown?
For decades, as Bengaluru roads got hyper-congested by explosive vehicular growth, a dream project remained only on paper: A well-networked four-corridor suburban rail system, which could have dramatically decongested the roads. But an absolute fixation with the costly Namma Metro has sidetracked the rail project for 39 years!
The urgency to get the project started has been clearly missing, despite its apparent head-start over the Namma Metro. Unlike the flashy Metro, the suburban rail is proposed to be built over an existing rail network crisscrossing the city. Meaning: Drastically reduced land acquisition costs.
It was September 22 when the State Infrastructure and Housing Minister V Somanna informed that a tender valued at Rs 859 crore had been finalised to build a 25-km stretch of the suburban railway system. The preparatory work for the 148-km network has cost the government Rs 120 crores.
Spread across 148.17 km, the suburban rail network will feature four corridors: The 41.4 km Corridor-1 will run from KSR Bengaluru City to Devanahalli, with an elevated stretch of 18.98 km with eight stations and an at-grade stretch of 22.42 km with seven stations.
Corridor-2 (25.01 km) will operate between the Baiyappanahalli Terminal and Chikkabanavara. The elevated stretch of 12.9 km will have six stations, and the 12.1 km at-grade stretch, eight stations. A new station at Jalahalli and an interchange station at Lottegollahalli are on the project agenda.
Spanning a total length of 35.52 km, Corridor-3 will run from Kengeri to the IT hub of Whitefield. Currently, the Southwestern Railway has taken up the 17.05 km Bengaluru Cantonment – Whitefield stretch under this corridor for the quadrupling of tracks. Of the nine stations along the corridor, four are elevated.
Even with an existing skeletal network with severe frequency issues, several rail commuters have tried the rail route. They board the long-distance and MEMU trains from the city to alight at Heelalige. To cover the last mile to their offices in Electronic City, they either take a cab or a BMTC bus. But due to the notorious delays in long-distance trains, this travel mode is patchy at best.
Now, what about the Metro lobby’s alleged interest in getting the suburban network delayed? To understand this better, seasoned urban rail activists draw attention to Corridor-1 leading to Devanahalli, a branch of which extends all the way to the Kempegowda International Airport (KIA) Terminal. This is far beyond the currently operational Airport Halt Station on the airport’s periphery, where passengers alight the train and board shuttle buses to the Terminal.
Suburban vs Airport Metro
Considering the enormous boost to airport connectivity – KIA stands at a distance of about 35 km from the city centre – the Centre had imposed a rider that Corridor-1 with its airport link be taken up on priority by the project implementation agency, the Rail Infrastructure Development Company (Karnataka) Limited (K-RIDE).
But K-RIDE chose to focus first on the Baiyappanahalli – Chikkabanavara line (Corridor-2) and shifted Corridor-1 to the last in its priority list. This triggered an outcry among commuter rail activists and those seeking a robust, reliable, high-frequency train service to the airport. They pointed fingers at the Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation Limited (BMRCL) and other interests for the delay, and dubbed it ‘deliberate.’
Ridership, a non-issue?
While land acquisition costs are relatively low for the suburban rail link, the Airport Metro line still has issues. The BMRCL August 2022 Newsletter shows that an additional 13,000 sqm of land is yet to be acquired. It is estimated that, realistically, the first passenger will board the airport line only after June 2026. But mobility experts, well versed with the Metro’s slow pace of work, feel it could take at least another two years.
This is precisely why they want the Airport suburban line to be the first priority. The planned alignment will run along already existing lines from Heelalige to Baiyappanahalli and thereon along the Channasandra line, crossing Hennur, Yelahanka and Doddajala. Double tracking and electrification have been completed in several stretches of this line.
Reaching the airport by road during a 24-hour timeframe could take a minimum of 45 minutes and a maximum of 120 minutes. “If someone is in a hurry, why would they take the Metro? Besides, the Metro line takes a route along the ORR, as an Eastern semicircle, which caters to only about 25% of the city. In the case of suburban rail, the SBC Station will be a hub, quickly shifting and heading straight to the airport,” he reasons.
Coordination, not conflict
Under a single agency like a Bengaluru Public Transport Corporation (BPTC), multiple commute options could be integrated, schedules and routes synced for maximum convenience. “This is the best way to optimise the resources and services of the BMTC, BMRCL and the suburban rail system. In European cities like Berlin, Zurich and Amsterdam, multiple modes of transport run under a single operator, and they include even tramways, ferries and cable cars,” Dr Ashish points out.
Such an integrated mobility system will help complement routes and schedules of multiple commute options. “Common ticketing will then become a cakewalk. You could then have common passenger information systems accessible on Mobile Apps, and displays, trip planners, all integrated.”
Low patronage, he points out, could then be cited as an excuse to withdraw the service and let BMRCL get the upper hand. Airport-bound trains that stopped at the KIA Halt Station had faced the same problem. Low frequency and reliability concerns kept the commuters away. The Bangalore International Airport Limited (BIAL) has had its shuttle bus services running from the Halt Station to the Terminal. But that has not really helped boost ridership.
This, he feels, can be easily leveraged for two hours of suburban service in the morning and evening. “They are not doing this, and instead are introducing trains in a way that it fails.”
Done rightly, the train ridership is bound to soar. Hundreds of office-going commuters queue up daily for existing skeletal services that operate between the SBC City Railway Station and Whitefield, one of the two biggest IT hubs in Bengaluru. Over 2,000 daily train commuters are part of WhatsApp and Telegram groups that track the live running status of trains, delays and cancellations. This organic, lively mobility ecosystem by the people could be the springboard for a full-fledged system to forge ahead.
On the train service to Electronic City, he draws attention to the shuttle vehicles operated by some IT companies to and from Heelalige station. “They ferry their employees both in the morning and evening,” he says but hastens to add that the last-mile connect is still a problem.
Suhas could see the demand and wanted more trains and coaches on certain routes to expand the skeletal services. He approached the South Western Railway (SWR) Divisional Manager but was told that the demand did not translate to passenger numbers.
He knew why the mismatch happened. “Back in 2016, I could see the bogies packed with passengers. But many were not taking tickets or renewing their monthly passes. The Railways estimate demand by the number of tickets sold. Obviously, ticketless travel did not reflect in official ridership.”
Yet, despite these teething issues and punctuality problems, the skeletal service has slowly emerged as an alternative to the highly congested roads. This is particularly evident on the K R Puram to Whitefield stretch, where construction on the Baiyappanahalli – ITPL Metro extension has been extremely slow. “There are 102 trains operating from KSR to Whitefield. Some trains that go to Marikuppam also stop at K R Puram, Hoodi and Whitefield,” notes Suhas.
Feasibility reports for Metro or suburban rail, prepared by consultants, were always influenced to show Metro as a far better service, he notes. Sanjeev has been actively tracking the progress of both projects for decades. “The State bureaucracy never tried to interact with the Railway Board or Railway Technical officers to find a suburban rail solution,” he notes.
One constant solution offered by most mobility experts to navigate the problem is a single agency to plan, convene and coordinate the various transport modes.
This, he says, is a case of competing priorities and can never be resolved without an authority such as BMTA. “This authority should be chaired by the Chief Minister himself since he is the minister in-charge of the city. It should also have the Mayor, the Transport Minister and representatives from other agencies on board.”
CM should take charge
The Chief Minister and Chief Secretary, he says, should monitor and review the project on a monthly basis and see that all the necessary clearances from different agencies are expedited. “Basically, it is now an administrative issue since everything else is now in place for the work to begin. They should, for instance, ensure that both road and rail traffic diversions required for the project are done without hassles.”
Rasheed Kappan is a senior journalist based in Bengaluru with nearly three decades of experience. In the past, he has worked in the Deccan Herald, The Hindu and The Times of India, covering issues related to urban mobility, sustainibility, environment and the interface between policy, planning and activation on the ground. A graphic cartoonist, he is the founder of Kappansky and explores the linkages of art, media and innovation through multiple creative platforms.
- First published: Nov 27, 2022 11:01PM
- First published: Nov 24, 2022 05:00PM
- First published: Nov 23, 2022 06:31PM