Saturday, December 9, 2023

Rail Mass Transit Corridors: Surface vs Elevated vs Underground

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Cities are employment powerhouses. In fact, cities exist only so long as they continue to have employment for their young. As the jobs die, so does the city.

Distances in cities are large. Zoning is done, and that is essential also for a healthy family life, therefore residential areas where people live and commercial and business districts where they work are always apart.

Therefore, commuting is a necessary part of city life.

Commuting by road, by its very nature, is time consuming and is also constrained by capacity.

Therefore all big cities of the world have mass rail transits. Most have a mix of them: surface, elevated, and underground.

Rail transit systems are matchless when it comes to speed, comfort and capacity, and therefore are hugely popular.

Of the three alternatives, surface corridor (a corridor is at least a double line railway track, with independent traffic in each direction. A city like Mumbai may have even four, six, or eight line corridor also.) consisting of two lines costs about Rs 40 crore per km, elevated corridor costs about Rs 200 crore per km, and underground corridor costs about Rs 500 crore per km.

The choice among the three alternatives: surface or elevated or underground is seldom decided on economic criterion. Mostly it is governed by the fact that in existing cities, having a new surface corridor is next to impossible, and in the old city areas even elevated corridors are not preferred because of aesthetics/heritage issues.

But how prosperous a society becomes depends upon how judiciously and wisely it uses its most precious resource: Capital.

In this case prima facie our choices are few.

But actually they are not.

In most Indian cities, Indian Railway long distance train corridors mostly pass through the hearts of the cities. But it is in very few cities that they are also used for running of commuter trains also.

With the level of economic development that we have. that is with limited availability of Capital, it is imperative that we use this asset – the existing surface corridors of Indian Railway – to its fullest capacity.

Therefore, as a policy, we must use existing Indian Railway corridors in all cities where they are available for running of commuter trains also.

Where exiting corridors of Indian Railway are running to full capacity, the double line corridor should be quadrupled, four line corridor should have 5th and 6th line also and so on.

To illustrate the point further, we take the example of Delhi.

  1. All corridors leading to Delhi must be made at least double line, if they are not, up to a distance of 100 km from Delhi, and electrified.
  2. The routes that are double line but chokefull must be quadrupled for the same distance, and electrified.
  3. The routes that are four line, must have 5th and 6th line also.
  4. At Busy stations like New Delhi, Delhi and Nizamuddin, the corridor dedicated to suburban trains may be elevated so that long distance train operations are not affected.
  5. EMU commuter trains should be run on all these corridors.


The whole region around Delhi will have a very reliable and fast commuter system, at a very low cost. Delhi will not have housing problem. People will not have to move to Delhi to live in cramped but costly accommodation. Roads leading into Delhi will all get decongested. Even roads within Delhi will get decongested.

At present, in India, decisions to have surface/elevated/underground corridors are also governed by one overriding criterion: which agency is doing the funding.

Indian Railway refuses to invest in developing existing corridors as commuter corridors also as that is not its mandate, and it doesn’t have fund even for adding capacity to its long distance corridors. And Urban Development ministry and State governments, if they are doing the funding, want to have brand new Metro corridors, because in doing so, bribes will flow to them, and no agency ever wants to forgo avenues of bribes.

But constructing Metro corridors without first exhausting capacity of surface corridors of Indian Railway is humongous waste of public money, locking of the most precious resource of the society – Capital – into something that could have been accomplished at fifth or even one tenth of the cost of a Metro corridor.

There is a need to review whole investment policy of mass rail transit systems in India. Surface corridors must always be first exhausted before going for new Metro corridors. Ultimately, Capital belongs to the society, and it should not go where decision makers would earn bribes, but where it would give the maximum return for each rupee invested.


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