Railway network in Bengaluru is under-utilised. Pic: Shree D N

Anyone who has been following the campaign for suburban rails in Bengaluru would know that Government of Karnataka’s (GOK) proposal for implementing a suburban rail system in Bengaluru is pending since 2013. Meanwhile, recently, Indian Railways has circulated a draft policy on Suburban Rail System to all the state governments.

In last three years, we have seen three railway ministers, out of which two were from Karnataka - Mallikarjun Kharge and D V Sadananda Gowda. Including the present railway minister,  Suresh Prabhu, all had agreed that suburban rail is an important project for solving some of the Bengaluru traffic issues.

Suburban rail dreams never realised

In February 2016, during Global Investors’ Meet in Bengaluru, Suresh Prabhu had promised that his ministry will work with GOK to start the Suburban Rail system in Bengaluru. In couple of months, GOK will be hosting the Global Investment Meet (GIM) again and there is nothing in horizon to suggest that promises made in the last GIM have been fulfilled. There is not even a semblance of an intent leave alone the actual work.

In this backdrop, this draft policy from Indian Railway’s is almost a final nail in the coffin. Let me dwell on this bit to give you the contradicting clauses in the policy.

The draft policy starts with a preamble:

“Sec 3 …The Railway Budget Speech for 2016-17, stated the following regarding suburban travel: “We intend to undertake a major programme to build an integrated suburban ecosystem of IR by launching a new investment framework. IR would share equity contribution with the State Governments and ensure cost neutrality on operations.”

Sec 4…In pursuance of the above and to address the demand of State Governments for suburban systems, Indian Railways intends to build integrated suburban systems by launching new investment framework in participation with the State Governments and to ensure cost neutrality on operations…”

Then the policy states its objective:

“Sec 6…The basic objective of this policy on suburban rail systems is to eliminate the conflict between the long distance intercity transport / freight transport and suburban transport and build a financially sustainable model with participation of stakeholders so that it can be replicated in more and more cities. This model will involve participation of both the Central and State Governments and the systems that are subsequently set up may ultimately serve as nodal centres for integrated multimodal transport...”

Look at the preamble and objective; there is hardly anything that we could object to. In fact, we all will support the Indian Railway’s drive to support the suburban rail system to help the state governments overcome the rapid urbanization and resulting traffic congestion challenges in their respective economic hubs and cities.

The devil is in the details

But the devil is in the details. Even I fumbled at the first read in grasping the actual gist of this policy. The very next clause after the Objective lays bare the unacceptable position of the railways. Section 7 of this policy states,

“…Projects which are necessarily required to be integrated with the existing Railway system for operational purpose shall be considered by IR depending upon technical, financial and operational feasibility. In other cases, State Governments should take up independent rail-based suburban projects under Metro Acts in line with National Urban Transport Policy. Since running suburban services on existing tracks adversely affects the capacity of freight trains and long distance trains, it would not be possible for Railways to use existing infrastructure for the purpose of suburban services.Exclusive tracks for suburban services shall be considered by IR…”

The highlighted text negates all the noble intentions this policy has, in order to promote suburban rail system as laid down in Section 3, 4 and 6. In fact it is killing the very concept of suburban rail system. The simple meaning of this clause is that, state government should build the tracks exclusively for running suburban rail services. Indian Railways will not entertain any proposal to run suburban train services on its existing infrastructure.

After the Section 7, rest of the clauses in this policy becomes infructuous. In this context, here are the questions that are worth asking to Indian Railways.

  1. If state government has to lay the tracks on its own to run suburban rail services, then is there a need to get Railways permissions and approvals?

  2. If state government is responsible for all the finances it needs, why should it have railways as a stakeholder in the SPV?

Indian Railways, by barring the state governments from utilising the existing railway infrastructure, is clearly pushing them to opt for metro-like solutions which are both cost-exorbitant and time consuming. By this clause, railways doesn’t appear to be helping the state governments to build suburban rail systems in their respective states.

There is no rationale for this decision of the railways. Railways is open to private parties to run passenger trains, run freight trains but not willing to allow for running suburban rail services. There can’t be a more compelling reason to say that this is an anti-people policy.

If this draft policy is given the final approval, it will signal the end of new suburban rail projects in the country. It will be a unique example of a policy in the world, i.e. policy which aims to promote ‘Suburban Rail System’ in the country is actually carrying a death sentence for it. This draft policy is anti-people, anti-development and irrational, and needs to be rejected.

Read: Indian Railway's Suburban Rail System Policy