As a changing megacity gets back to full throttle, it will have to look past trains to make commutes multi-modal
As newer business districts emerged away from downtown, Mumbai’s commute is no longer only on the north-south axis. The east-west commutes cannot be serviced by the local trains
The excitement was palpable—at multiple entrances to Andheri rail station, at ticket counters with long queues, on platforms with careful crowds, in train compartments with fist bumps, elbow shakes and smiles behind colourful masks. Mumbai was back in (train) business.
On 1 February, services on Mumbai’s suburban railway network were restored to full capacity 11 months after they were suspended due to covid-19. If virus cases spike, a review is all but likely. But for now, Mumbaikars of all persuasions and professions can once again access their “locals", albeit with some time restrictions.
“I had not met my sister in Virar all this time. We used to meet once a month. Either she would come or I would go, but initially, there were no trains at all and later only a few people were allowed. I’m so happy today," said Usha Waghmare, 54, who bought her return ticket from Andheri to Virar, 57km apart. It was not yet 7 am; she would be back later that day.
In another crowded compartment of a train headed to Churchgate in south Mumbai, servicing the city’s old business districts, was media instructor Nilesh C. who had juggled between work-from-home and stay-at-work since July last year. “The crowds are all back. There are no seats any more. This feels like the Mumbai I knew, the Mumbai that was missing since March last year," he said of his 78-km commute to work.
Mumbai without its trains is a city on pause goes the popular maxim. Western and Central Railways, the two arms of the network spread across 450km, ferrying nearly 7.5 million commuters a day, shut down all operations on 25 March last year and stayed shut for three months—a rare moment in the history of the 167-year-old urban commute system.
As the city gradually reopened from July, services returned in a limited way—only 20% of trains were on tracks by September—then, expanded to allow essential workers and covid-19-related professionals. Diwali, Eid and Christmas went by. Through it all, Mumbai’s rhythms did not cease.
So, did Mumbai learn to cope without its famed lifeline? The answers are complex—the city figured out a range of alternatives in the short run because commute requirements were low, but as Mumbai recovers its full mojo, its dependence on trains will have to return.
However, living without its lifeline has put the focus back on the city’s road transport, persuaded transport policy wonks to revise their perceptions of Mumbai’s north-south commute axis, and brought its shifting radial work locations into the spotlight.
“We are not seeing Mumbai as it was in February 2020. Though roads are jammed with traffic, millions of people are out on streets, malls and restaurants have reopened, and life looks like the frenzied Mumbai-normal, it is a different rhythm," said Pankaj Joshi, planner and director of Urban Centre. “We coped without trains because it was not—it still is not—Mumbai in full throttle. The scale of the commute now is not what it was pre-lockdown." he stressed.
Buses to the rescue
When railway operations shut down, Mumbai missed a heartbeat. The rail strike in May 1974, led by then trade unionist George Fernandes, was the only other time suburban train services had paused. The heart-stopping serial bomb blasts in March 1993 did not halt the trains, the serial blasts on trains in July 2006 left 209 dead and more than 700 injured but did not dent services.
The train-less months put the spotlight on the often-ignored bus service of the Brihanmumbai Electricity Supply and Transport (BEST). Originally set up as a tramway in British Bombay in 1873, it is owned and operated by the city’s municipal corporation. Its 3,000-strong fleet of buses carries an average daily load of more than three million passengers.
The system had fallen out of favour with many commuters and even the administration in the last few years, but BEST buses saved Mumbai through the pandemic. Skeletal services ran during the lockdown, ferrying essential workers and healthcare professionals to hospitals and covid-care centres. Buses were even turned into makeshift ambulances.
“We pressed more than half of our fleet into operation," said a BEST official. As the Uddhav Thackeray government introduced “Mission Begin Again" from July to December, BEST increased its fleet on the roads, gamely trying to put covid-19 protocols in place. Its full fleet was augmented with 800 buses on wet lease and merged with the State Road Transport Corporation buses.
By Diwali, nearly 4,500 buses were crisscrossing Mumbai. Likewise, bus services across Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR)—Thane, Navi Mumbai, Kalyan-Dombivli—kept the cities inter-connected.
Though buses became Mumbai’s lifeline, they took more time than trains and cost more too. “Bus travel from Virar to the airport in Vile Parle took nearly three hours one way which meant five-six hours of travel every day. And it cost me ₹150 a day, roughly six-eight times of train travel. After a while, I started using my bike," said Ashwin H, an engineer. Commuters who had to cut across different districts, such as Kalyan-Dombivli to Bandra-Kurla Complex, had it tougher; changing buses meant spending up to six hours in commute one way and shelling out large sums.
As 2020 came to a close and trains were carrying only about two million commuters, BEST was ticketing 2.4 million a day. Its staff suffered—many contracted covid-19. “Our men have worked under the worst conditions, even sacrificed lives, to keep Mumbai going," said Shashank Rao, a transport union leader.
There is yet another reason Mumbaikars could live without complete train services: commutes declined sharply at the point of lockdown and are yet to resume to pre-covid levels, mainly due to the changed work culture. Formal and private sectors embraced remote work or work-from-home; government and semi-public offices functioned with only 30% staff in seat; informal sector jobs which were worst hit during the pandemic have not resumed in full flow; and, schools and colleges are yet to begin functioning from their campuses. Cumulatively, these reduced commuter crush loads on trains.
In just one instance, a multinational consulting firm with offices in five-six locations across Mumbai, each address employing hundreds, decided on remote work till next year. “We got a certain amount—I got ₹40,000—to set up workstations in our homes. We go to the office once a fortnight or less," said an executive in the firm. Finance, insurance, some sections of banking, media and allied sectors have all moved to work-from-home mode.
“Though Mumbai looks normal now with usual traffic jams and crowds in markets, it is only the visible part. The invisible part is its large informal sector that is yet to come back on rails," pointed out Ashok Datar, transport analyst and chairperson of Mumbai Environmental Social Network (MESN). “The bottom 50% of this city travels by trains. A large number of them are migrant workers and haven’t returned, another large section is sitting idle at home because work has not begun in full rhythm. Students and teachers are not travelling," he added.
Sections of the informal sector such as the city’s courier services and take-away restaurants resumed skeletal operations in October-November but their staff was not allowed to use trains. Many such informal and small businesses came to rely on buses or two-wheelers. Mumbai had registered a staggering 77% increase in two-wheelers between 2012 and 2018 to reach nearly 2.1 million; they have been out on the roads in the post-lockdown months.
Riders who would have parked at the nearest railway station to board trains have been using two-wheelers for their entire commute. Car owners use their vehicles. Traffic congestion is back on Mumbai’s streets. “This Mumbai is fractional normal," said Joshi, “If a small shift from trains to roads can cause congestion, imagine if the city’s economy goes full normal. We will be gridlocked."
Mumbai’s road length stayed constant at around 2,200 km in the last few decades but private cars and two-wheelers grew more than 100% in the last ten years alone. “There is no real alternative to trains because no other form of transport has the carrying capacity for a fully-functional Mumbai," he added.
A major shift in rail commuting has silently happened over the last decade and half: Mumbai’s commute is no longer only on the north-south axis that it used to be, it became more radial as newer business districts and commercial hubs emerged away from downtown.
Bandra-Kurla Complex, Andheri (both western and eastern sides of the station), to name only two, turned into Mumbai’s massive commercial-residential hubs including entertainment and software industries, small galas, startup spaces, and restaurants. Similarly, Vikhroli and Powai in eastern suburbs and Malad and Goregoan in western suburbs are now sought-after business addresses.
This changed the pattern of footfalls at railway stations—a reliable way to measure movement. Churchgate, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus, and Dadar used to have the highest footfalls earlier, other stations up north have stolen some of their limelight. Andheri is a good example. In the six years up to 2019, footfalls increased 54% and it was catering to 1.3 million people a day during peak hours.
Kurla, long dismissed as an unclean, lower-middle class suburb, saw 6 million footfalls a day in 2016 servicing BKC. The centre, as it were, is shifting from Mumbai’s south to its north.
The radial or east-west commutes across Mumbai cannot be serviced by trains that run largely north-south. These depend on the road network and calls for a reliable bus service or semi-public transport options. Some commuter load is likely to shift to the metro rail that is being built. It may reduce the load on the trains but there is unlikely to be a time that the metro becomes Mumbai’s lifeline, say experts.
This has to do with the cost of travel: train travel averages 20-25 paise a kilometre, bus is ₹1.20 and metro is pegged at roughly ₹3. “I don’t see a large number of commuters migrating to the metro. The trains will continue to rule," remarked Datar. The shifting pattern of work and commute shows an impact on property prices across Mumbai too. Office spaces and apartment prices jumped anywhere from 60-600% in the new hubs such as BKC, Andheri, Ghatkopar and so on in the last 15 years. Micro markets across the city such as Mazgaon, Tardeo, Andheri East (near airport), Malad Mindspace, Vikhroli, Kurla are witnessing a boom even in otherwise stagnant times, said international property consultants.
To track two areas: BKC went begging 15 years ago at ₹5,000 a sq ft; it now counts as Mumbai’s most-sought after property district with an average of ₹40,000 per sq ft. Andheri East property sold for barely ₹3,000 a sq ft in 2004 and now commands ₹25,000. “Earlier, properties near railway stations commanded the highest price. That’s changed—now properties near metro stations and new business districts have competitive prices," said an official of a property consultancy firm who requested anonymity.
The measure that did not see a drastic change has to do with trains—they have carried an average of 14-16 commuters per square metre in a place meant for six-eight commuters for the last 15 years.
Now, as Mumbai comes back to full throttle, it will have to look beyond trains to make commutes multi-modal. Rationalisation of road transport, making buses a vital primary mode, keeping the metro affordable and connecting it to existing transport nodes is essential.
Till then, trains will continue to be the preferred choice of the largest number of Mumbai’s commuters—with masks and hand sanitisers galore, marshals watching entrance-exit points, railway police ensuring that covid-19 restrictions are followed. The widely-shared photograph of the man who knelt in reverence at the footboard of a local on the day full services resumed says it all.
Smruti Koppikar is a Mumbai-based journalist, writer and urban chronicler.