The lifeline of the metropolis

Print edition : January 02, 2004

At an underground Metro station. Kolkata's Metro is comparable to the underground railway systems in London and Paris in cleanliness and efficiency. - BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Kolkata's Metro rail service is one of its kind, be it for its pioneering role, the volume of traffic it handles or expansion plans.

INDIA is cruising fast on the urbanisation path. According to Census 2001, about 27 per cent of India's population of one billion resides in urban areas - almost equal to the population of the entire country at the time of Independence. What is more significant is that the rate of growth of this urban segment is much higher than the rate of growth of the entire population, which has fallen below 2 per cent. By the end of this decade, about 40 per cent of India's population may be urban.

The burgeoning population has added to the problems of urban traffic management. The Government of India had appointed a committee in 2002 to prepare an integrated urban transport policy but nothing has been heard of it since then. At one end of the urban traffic segment is the prosperous, car-owning citizenry; at the other are the pedestrians, many of whom are too poor to afford even a bus ride. There is also a group between these two, which relies on private transport. The basic objective of the urban transport policy is to wean away a vast segment of this intermediate group from private transport, mechanised or non-mechanised, to the fold of a well-organised public transport system. For an overpopulated and congested metropolis like Kolkata, the train or Metro offers the ideal solution to decongest the city. It can transport vast multitudes over long distances at peak hours at the minimum cost.

The Metro in Kolkata is a pioneer in a very real sense. It is not only the first Metro in the country, but proved the feasibility of working a rail system in a highly congested city. Its functioning has been very efficient and the cleanliness it exudes has prompted even The Independent of London to observe, "Calcutta's Metro is cleaner than the underground in London or Paris. It runs better too."

The history of Kolkata's Metro rail goes as far back as 1949, when the idea of setting up an underground railway system to solve the burgeoning traffic problem in the city was conceived by Chief Minister Dr. B.C. Roy. A preliminary survey was conducted by French experts, but the project remained in the conception stage for another two decades.

In Kolkata, roads account for only 4.2 per cent of the total surface area, as against 25 per cent in Delhi and 30 per cent in Mumbai. Hence a transport system that did not add to the existing traffic problems of the city has to be developed. The Metropolitan Transport Project (Railways) was therefore set up in 1969. Studies concluded that a Mass Rapid Transit System alone was the solution to the ever-increasing traffic problem. In 1971, a master plan was prepared for constructing five rapid transit lines. Priority was given to the busy north-south axis between Dum Dum and Tollygunge, covering a length of 16.45 kilometres. The project was sanctioned in June 1972, and the foundation stone was laid by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on December 29 the same year. Construction work started the following year.

The Metro construction, involving a lot of new technologies in the fields of civil, electrical, signalling and telecommunication engineering, was not only complex, but also quite new to the country. The basic mode of construction applied was `cut and cover' using diaphragm walls and sheet piles. Extensive decking was used to keep the traffic flowing smoothly over the cut, while construction work was in progress below.

The Kolkata Metro runs on a 750 volt DC system. The trains, each of which has eight coaches and a capacity of around 2,460, are manually driven.

After numerous impediments - including court injunctions, irregular supply of raw materials and even non-availability of funds until 1977-78 - the dream project was completed on October 24, 1984. The Calcutta Metro, India's first and Asia's fifth such rail system, started partial commercial operations, servicing five stations - spanning a distance of 3.4 km - from Esplanade in Central Kolkata to Bhowanipur in the south. A month later, a 2.15-km stretch was added to the Metro service - this time in north Kolkata, between Dum Dum and Belgachia. By April 1986, the Metro service was extended up to Tollygunge; it covered 11 stations and an overall distance of 9.79 km. By 1995, the service covered 16.45 km, touching 17 stations, each separated from the other by around one kilometre.

Great pains have been taken to ensure the safety of passengers. With regard to power supply, the Metro gets priority next only to Defence. However, in the rare case of a power failure, emergency lighting arrangements are in place to provide the minimum light requirements in the tunnels and at the stations. The trains are also provided with adequate fire-fighting measures; a trained fire-fighting squad is at the Railway's disposal. To prevent water from seeping into the tunnels and stations during heavy rains or flooding, the main entrances have been constructed at an elevation considerably higher than the highest recorded flood level, and pumps have been installed to remove water that might enter owing to seepage. Finally, in order to prevent accidents and collisions, a Continuous Automatic Train Control System is being introduced. There is Direct Radio communication facility between the driver and the control room, and for security purposes all stations are provided with closed circuit television cameras.

A unique feature of many of Kolkata's Metro stations is the artwork on display on the walls and pillars. There are pictures depicting nature and the special features of the area where the station is located. For example, the Maidan station, located in the green maidan areas where sporting activities take place, has pictures of people playing football, cricket and so on; the Rabindrasadan station is adorned with prints of Tagore's paintings and poetry.

In 1999-2000, an extension of the Metro services from Tollygunge to Garia (further into south Kolkata) was sanctioned at a project cost of Rs.907 crores. The section will be on an elevated structure and the alignment will run along the Tollygunge canal. This 8.7-km stretch will have six stations - Kudghat, Bansdroni, Naktala, Garia Bazaar, Pranabnagar and New Garia. The Tollygunge-Garia extension is expected to join the main Dum Dum-Tollygunge line.

The Metro Railway is also involved in the construction of the two extensions of the Circular Railway. The proposed extension of the Circular Railway line beyond Princep Ghat upto Majherhat station will allow suburban trains from the north to enter the heart of the city. The second extension of the Circular Rail is to the Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Airport at Dum Dum. The alignment takes off from the Dum Dum cantonment station and after running on the surface upto U.K. Dutta Road, it traverses on an elevated structure right up to the airport.

The State government is now contemplating the possibilities of connecting the eastern parts of the city to Howrah. West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee announced at a seminar in August organised jointly by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) and the Indian Chamber of Commerce, Kolkata, that "as an extension of the Metro railway network, the State government is seriously pursuing the proposal of an east-west line connecting Rajarhat in the east of Kolkata to Ramrajatala in Howrah in the west". This line is envisaged to pass through Sealdah and the Howrah station areas as well as BBD Bag in the busy central Kolkata. According to Bhattacharjee, certain Japanese concerns have shown interest in this project. The State government is also keen to introduce a light rail transit facility along major corridors like the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass and the Barrackpore Kalyani Expressway.

The tube traffic has been growing steadily since 1999 - proof of the convenience the Metro provides to the commuting public. In 1999-2000, the passenger count was around 557.83 lakhs; in 2000-2001 it was 706.05 lakhs; in the following two years it was 766.05 lakhs and 773.52 lakhs respectively. From April to October 2003, the number stood at around 520.65 lakhs. In order to gear itself up for reaching greater heights of efficiency, the Kolkata Metro has undertaken a survey, through the Rail India Technological and Economic Services (RITES), of the city's transport services, including its own. The objective is to increase the volume of traffic in the Metro.

The critics of the Metro, who are apprehensive of the recurring subsidy that its operation tends to entail, overlook the fact that the rail service makes huge savings in terms of fuel cost, improves environmental quality and minimises traffic congestion. Such social benefits far outweigh the commercial loss that the operations entail. It is also important to note that the Kolkata Metro is a part of the Indian Railways, unlike the Delhi Metro which is a joint venture of the Delhi government and the Centre. This is an advantage for the Kolkata Metro, as the Indian Railways, with their vast resources and highly skilled manpower, are in a position to absorb any shocks in the functioning of the Metro.

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