Why Mumbai's new monorail seems to be built for real-estate developers rather than commuters

Even before Mumbai’s new monorail opens to commuters on Sunday, experts have reiterated that it is unlikely to significantly relieve the transport problems of the megacity of 12 million people. The monorail carriages can't carry large numbers of passengers, the stations are difficult to get to, and the project is too expensive to pay for itself, they say. In fact, the line would seem to be unnecessary because it travels through vast swathes of swamp land.

That, it would seem, is precisely the aim of the project. What the monorail does effectively is open up the empty eastern section of the congested metropolis to real-estate developers. In a seemingly unrelated move, the official in charge of this part of Mumbai passed an order at the beginning of January that could pave the way for homes and offices to be constructed on the 3,000 acres of tidal salt pans here. This is a contentious measure. Though the value of the salt produced here is negligible, environmentalists point out that these tracts are vital for allowing rainwater to drain.

In June 2013, access to this section of the city was vastly improved with the inauguration of the high-speed Eastern Freeway elevated road.  “One can see this as a push towards development on the eastern side,” said Madhav Pai, director of EMBARQ India, an organisation that studies urban transport. “As long as you’re prepared to take advantage of it, in rapidly growing economies, developing transport can lead to the development of land.”

As a transport solution, the monorail is much less useful than options like buses or trains, say Pai and other transport experts. The main problem with the monorail is its low capacity. Each air-conditioned monorail vehicle is capable of carrying 560 passengers. By contrast, each of Mumbai’s trains transports 5,000 to 6,000 people.

“It might be very nice to have an air-conditioned train that runs with closed doors, but it provides connectivity only to hundreds of people, not thousands,” said Ashok Datar, chairman of Mumbai Environmental Social Network research group.

In addition, the monorail is very expensive. This line is budgeted to cost Rs 2,460 crore, of which Rs 1,900 crore has already been spent on the first part. “Cost recovery will be difficult,” said Pai. “The final cost might never be recovered by ticket sales alone.”

No country except for Japan, which has a low population, uses the monorail as a mass transport solution.

The Mumbai Monorail Project is one of several rapid transit projects under the Maharashtra Metropolitan Region Development Authority. The project, which is being built by Larsen & Toubro and Scomi, is intended to serve as a feeder to Mumbai’s three suburban railway lines, the Western, Central and Harbour lines, which carry the vast majority of the city’s commuters. However, Line 1 doesn’t do this effectively. Its last stop at Jacob’s Circle will involve a seven-minute walk to the Mahalaxmi train station, along a narrow pavement.

There are five proposed monorail lines. Construction of the first line began in 2009. Line 1, marked in pink below, is supposed to connect Chembur in the eastern part of the city to Mahalaxmi, in the west. Only a part of Line 1, an 8.93 km stretch from Chembur to Wadala, will be opened on Sunday. When it is completed, the 19.17-km line will be the second-longest monorail in the world.

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For now, Mumbai’s suburban railway system is the primary mode of rapid travel in the city. It carries an astonishing 7.24 million people every day. However, the trains, which run mainly from north to south, are not able to serve the transport needs of those who want to travel from east to west, said Atul Rane, chief public relations officer of the Central Railway in Mumbai.

This is where projects like the metro and monorail come in. Metro One is an east-west transit corridor commissioned by the MMRDA as a public-private partnership with Reliance Infrastructure. The metro rail, also marked on the map above, has a higher capacity than the monorail, and aims to decongest the suburban rail, not feed into it.

But Rane believes that neither metro nor monorail can actually ease the load on the suburban trains. “While we welcome any alternative transport system that can ease the burden on our trains, none of these projects can actually match the capacity of the railway,” he said. The monorail, he says, will serve a maximum of 2,400 people per hour. The Harbour line train carry about 82,500 people every hour at peak traffic.

Though the first phase of Line 1 of the monorail will link relatively remote areas, experts say there were cheaper ways to do this. “It will serve people in those corridors, but in the larger context, bus transport is much more effective,” said Pai. He contends that a Bus Rapid Transport System, with dedicated high-speed corridors for buses, can achieve the same frequency and speed as a monorail at a much lower cost.

As the map below shows, many of the monorail stations do not have any bus stops nearby. This will force passengers to travel to their final destinations in more expensive modes of transport such as auto rickshaws. One of these stations, Bhakti Park, opens on a highway where there is no little chance of finding any form of other public transport. Another, Mysore Colony, is just outside a private gated community in the middle of factory land.

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“They are whistling in the dark,” said Datar. “There is absolutely no connectivity at those stations. Where will people go?” For all the monorail’s claims to ease crowding in the bus system, because of its lack of flexibility – the rails are immovable – it will necessarily require another form of public transport system for passengers to complete their journey from the monorail to their homes.

“Will people spend more money to travel from home to the monorail than from monorail to a train?” asked Datar. “No, it makes no sense for them to break the journey and therefore spend more.”

With low passenger capacity, poor connectivity at stations and an overall lack of cost efficiency, the monorail seems to have been a futile exercise. “It makes no sense to spend this amount [of money] on a system that will benefit so few,” said Datar. He added as an afterthought, “Of course, I would like to be proved wrong.”