What Ails The Mumbai Monorail And How Can We Fix It?

  • The monorail can be made more appealing with common ticketing systems and better connectivity besides livening it up by engaging private players in the business.
  • Srikanth RamakrishnanSunday, September 30, 2018 8:03 am IST
    The Mumbai Monorail during its initial trial run in 2013. (Kunal Patil/Hindustan Times via GettyImages)
    The Mumbai Monorail during its initial trial run in 2013. (Kunal Patil/Hindustan Times via GettyImages)

    Nine months after a fire gutted two coaches, causing India’s first monorail to shut down, services on the Mumbai Monorail finally resumed this month. However, it hasn’t been a smooth ride since then.

    Barely a day after the monorail resumed services on 1 September, services were almost disrupted when wires got entangled with the monorail’s cabling system, leading to the train being taken to the depot to be serviced. Further, the negative image the monorail acquired – mostly due to the fire and partly due to a hysteria after an image of two trains parked next to each other was taken out of context and splashed by the media as a collision – resulted in the system’s already dismal ridership to plummet. From carrying approximately 15,000 passengers a day prior to the fire, the network today carries only 10,000, which the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) says is because services have just resumed. However, many a loyalist has gone back to catching the monorail due to its cheaper fares and lesser commute time.

    What Ails The Monorail?

    There are two major reasons why the monorail is suffering – the route and the nature of the project.

    The more obvious reason of them is the route. The network currently starts at Chembur and ends at the depot at Wadala, thus not connecting areas which could get it high footfalls. This was the reason cited by the Chennai Metro Rail Corporation (CMRL) last year when the Centre hesitated to provide funds for expansion. True to its words, ridership on the Chennai Metro shot up significantly when it connected to the city’s main railway termini. Only 9 kilometres of the monorail is currently operational of the 20 km network, with the MMRDA deferring to open the remaining stretch until the rest of the trainsets arrive from Malaysia. MMRDA anticipates ridership to go up to at least 60,000 once the entire network is operational, at which point it will connect to all three lines of the city’s suburban rail and three lines of the city’s metro network.

    The second reason is the nature of the project because the Mumbai Monorail is India’s first monorail system, thus making it difficult to operate the way metro systems operate. The line is currently operated by Larsen and Toubro-Scomi Engineering (LTSE) because L&T built the system and Scomi supplied the rakes. However, LTSE decided to exit the venture a year ago after the three-year agreement ran out, but the MMRDA didn’t allow it as the corridor was not operational for nearly a year. Subsequently, the authority called for tenders to operate the system thrice, each time drawing very poor responses. After struggling to operate at Rs 3,131 per trip, LTSE has demanded Rs 18,000 per trip – the money MMRDA will pay them when the train completes a single journey – but the MMRDA has decided to pay Rs 10,000 instead. To add to the teething problems, this is the first overseas project for the Scomi SUTRA train.

    Following the fire, Scomi was to repair the gutted coaches while also supplying the remaining ones. However, last week, the MMRDA decided that it would scrap the agreement for the remaining coaches, partly due to Scomi’s financial troubles, and called for tenders for other suppliers, which itself is problematic. Further, the SUTRA trains were taken out of service last year from its first project, the KL Monorail in Kuala Lumpur owing to safety concerns.

    Unlike traditional metro projects that are highly standardised, monorail systems are nascent and thus of a proprietary nature. The Scomi SUTRA has a track width of 800 mm, while the Hitachi Monorail – which the MMRDA is aiming for – has three track widths ranging from 700 mm to 850 mm. While Hitachi’s standard capacity train has the same track width of 800 mm, it remains to be seen if it would work on the network. Unlike traditional rail systems, where tracks can be changed (if the viaduct allows it), altering the straddle beam – the beam on which the train travels – for a monorail is highly difficult because the beam is the viaduct and the track.

    What Is The Way Out For The Monorail?

    The primary concern for the monorail is the lack of revenues, mostly due to a lack of ridership. Operational costs come up to Rs 5 crore per month but revenues are in the range of Rs 30 lakh due to a lack of alternative revenue generation means. While numbers will certainly rise when the remainder of the corridor is thrown open, that itself remains questionable after the decision to re-tender.

    There are currently 10 trainsets available of which six are operational and four need repairs. MMRDA says it would not be practical to operationalise the entire corridor, as that would mean waiting times would go up, prompting users to opt for other modes of transport. Further, thanks to the re-tendering process, tenders have to first be called and then a letter of award (LoA) must be handed out. After this, the manufacturer would have to build the coaches and then supply them, a process that could take a significant amount of time. Scomi was awarded the order in 2008 and delivered its first rake in 2010.

    However, there are other methods by which the MMRDA can make the monorail more viable for commuters. For starters, it can integrate the ticketing system of the network with other modes of transport within the metropolitan region, something that has been on the authority’s mind for a while. Commuters in Mumbai have four separate smart cards, one each for the metro, monorail, suburban network and buses operated by the Brihanmumbai Electricity Supply and Transport (BEST) undertaking although this system is currently dysfunctional and undergoing an overhaul. The NITI Aayog recently mentioned bringing out a National Common Mobility Card (NCMC) and Mumbai should logically be the first city in the country to use it. Further, passengers on the metro can now buy tickets using their smartphones, and scan a QR code generated on the phones at the gates while entering the platforms. Tickets can be bought using several apps, with the most prominent of them being Paytm.

    In August this year, the MMRDA finally decided to monetise some of the vast real estate that the monorail has by inviting tenders for telecom players to set up transmission equipment along the piers. It can go further on this route, taking a cue from its sibling, the Reliance Infrastructure-led Mumbai Metro One Private Limited (MMOPL).

    MMOPL’s operations of the Mumbai Metro can be considered a benchmark of sorts when it comes to capitalisation of all assets available. Space for commercial establishments, mostly eateries has been awarded at the concourse level at each station, while the metro’s pillars across the route are used for advertisements. MMOPL also auctioned off naming rights for several metro stations, earning them more revenue.

    Further, MMOPL has advertisement packages of every kind imaginable on a metro rail. There are full body ads on the outside of coaches, inside them, on grab handles in the train, on digital screens across the platform and concourse level at stations, on screens between the tracks, inside the trains and also audio advertisements that are played along with the announcements inside the train. Surely, the monorail can implement some of these revenue augmenting measures from the metro’s playbook.

    The metro has also gone ahead with installing solar panels atop stations and its depot to power non-train needs, and generates 2.29 MW of power that takes care of 30 per cent of stations’ requirements.

    The options laid out in front of the MMRDA are aplenty. If Mumbai wants more people to take the monorail, it needs the system to be more approachable, with common ticketing systems, better connectivity in terms of feeder buses, and replace the look of a desolate, abandoned house by inviting private players to lease space and conduct business.

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