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Mumbai Metro Line 2B: To Be Elevated or Underground?

Posted by
on July 05, 2017 at 01:48 PM

The City of Dreams, Mumbai meri jaan, the city that some of the most aspirational and energetic of us Indians call home is finally set to have the conduit that would ferry its millions to their dreams – the Mumbai Metro! Yes, we already had a suburban railway service that has been doing the job since more than 160 years (the oldest railway network in Asia) with superlative efficiency that has almost achieved unsurpassable notoriety (the most crowded train service in the world)! The obvious need to augment this infrastructure in terms of both, capacity and expansion to achieve more rounded connectivity as against the present north-south link provided by the existing system, prompted the seeding of the Mumbai Metro rail service under the aegis of the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRC). Out of the seven lines planned, line 1 is completed and operational since the beginning of June, lines 2A and 7 are under construction, the tender for line 4 is open and the contract for line 2B has been awarded and work is all set to begin. 

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But, at this point comes the twist in the story that begins to dog this long awaited development, i.e. the controversies that surround line 2B that refuse to be resolved. Line 2B has been planned as an elevated corridor that runs for 23.643 km from D. N. Nagar in the western suburbs to Mandale near the far eastern harbour, looping around Khar, Bandra, Kurla and others on the way. In addition to the fact that this line’s routing underwent significant changes after it was first announced due to various factors, residents of the suburbs in its circuit are protesting its elevated plan to be replaced in part by an underground line on the grounds of these suburbs being very congested urban areas.

Surely, Santacruz, Bandra, Khar, Kurla and most of the suburbs covered by line 2B are very densely populated and built up localities as the citizens point out, on par with South Mumbai if not even more so, making it very difficult to imagine any intervention here, even an infrastructural one . And also to be factored in is the residential nature of these suburbs as opposed to South Mumbai which, being a business district, empties out almost entirely during the night. The infamous traffic snarls on the eastern and western express highways and on S.V. Road, which are some of the widest roads planned to carry the elevated metro line, are the stuff of Mumbaikars’ nightmares and may only get worse with the Metro line piers occupying part of the carriageway. A close scrutiny of the detailed plan by these citizens has allegedly revealed points where the elevated line could be running as close as 4 metres away from residential buildings. 

On the basis of all these factors and after a detailed study of plans for line 2B, citizens of these suburbs have come out strongly in protest against the implementation of the current plan for line 2B under the banner of ‘Save Our Suburbs’. Furthermore, led by architect Nitin Killawala and other prominent citizens, they have drafted an alternative proposal for the same route, that was presented at a meeting on the 11th of June, under which a 4.5 km stretch from D.N. Nagar to Santacruz, a 750 m spur line from Santacruz bus depot to the Airport station and another 7.5 km line from Santacruz to Mahim should run underground instead of being elevated. 

This plan, they contend, would result in reduced congestion on ground while providing better connectivity to northern suburbs with important junctions, while a completely elevated route would add to congestion during construction as well as in the projected long years of service resulting in counter-productivity to the purpose of augmenting transport services. After all, they argue, underground subway building is a technology that has been around for more than a hundred years, even Indian cities like Delhi and Kolkata already have it and Mumbai Metro line 3 routing from South Mumbai up to the airport has been allotted an underground line, so why not line 2B?

While the governing authorities like the MMRDA have given these plaints a patient hearing and have also agreed to re-examine both the plans, they obviously have significant counters as well. With a construction cost of a tunnelled underground subway being five times that of its elevated counterpart and running/ maintenance costs also running up to two and a half times, the proposition becomes difficult to uphold. Even as the Bandra West BJP MP Ashish Shelar has articulated the government’s willingness to consider the people’s inputs and suggestions, the final plan will obviously be decided by the MMRC.

Line 2B has been riddled with issues right from the beginning of the plan, and continual problems do not allow for any deadline to be set for its completion. While the original plan for this line was along a straight north-south route i.e. Charkhop –Bandra -Colaba, it was later revised to turn eastwards at Bandra towards Kurla and run beyond Mankhurd. This has now been objected to by none other than the country’s ‘Metro Man’ E. Sreedharan who points out that the original route was more viable. There were also issues with clearance for car depots at Charkop and Mankhurd CRZs from the Ministry for Environment and Forests (MoEF), but a present status report shows a plan for a dedicated car depot at Mandale. There are also the matters of a pending NOC from the Juhu aerodrome which this elevated line will closely skirt and clearing the height above the existing Kurla station in addition to proximity to Nanavati Hospital. Lastly, though the initial tender for this line was granted to R-Infra years ago, it was opened for re-tendering last month after which technical inspections are still in progress.

From experiences the world over it has been learnt that the construction and operation of elevated corridors is more likely to cause disruptions and accidents than that of underground subways. With so many issues piling up against the elevated route option for line 2B, it is difficult to seek grounds for it without an element of bureaucratic obstinacy. Though one does also wonder why such a proposal should limit itself to line 2B alone when a significant part of most other suburbs of Mumbai are equally crowded, too? The argument about expense is difficult to buy given the propensity of Mumbai to generate, rather spare, and allocate even grander budgets for fanciful projects like statues at sea. A politician once famously declared that he would turn Mumbai into Shanghai, a city whose metro is the world’s largest rapid transit system by route length that totals to 588 km and has been neatly woven into the fabric of a congested existing city just in the last three decades. The latest metro news comes from NYC, where the underground subway is already dilapidating and citizens offering ideas to help revitalise it will be rewarded with a million bucks by the government! So, whither Mumbai?

From a global viewpoint, notwithstanding the problems associated with burying services underground, any elevated line for any purpose, be it metros, monorails, flyovers or foot-over-bridges, have become passé, something no one wants to have in cities anymore. After a few generations have indulged in creating transport lines high up there, urban designers and citizens alike are reacting to elevated proposals in the extreme negative. India, which did not have too many such elevated urban features, has started building these now when the world has moved on. 

Well, in any case, even if the Mumbai Metro does settle for an elevated line 2B finally, the least we can hope for would be a people friendly, aesthetically pleasing and environmentally least impactful rail-line, for which the old Stadtbahn in Berlin serves as a wonderful example. An elevated urban railway built in 1882 that strings through the city on a wall supported on brick archways, the sights and sounds of the Stadtbahn never once interfere with the beauty of the city. So well integrated is it with its various neighbourhoods through its course that it only adds value to each of them in multiple ways. Yes, only an integrated approach to transportation planning, that takes into account not only the net contribution of all modes but also of the human aspects of the city’s neighbourhoods through which it passes, can truly impact a profitable change.

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