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A City’s Lifeline – Circular Railway

The inauguration last December of a beautifully landscaped on-riverfront Millennium Park, bang in the central business district, was indicative of growing corporate citizenship in Kolkata’s slow-but-finally-happening efforts at changing its face. Part of a very ambitious plan to beautify the entire stretch along the revered river Ganges in line with the Thames Project, it will make every commuter’s ride on the Railway, a refreshingly relaxing one.

Approximately 15 million people to-day live within Calcutta Metropoli-tan District’s 1380 square kilome-tre expanse. While in most modern cities, the road surface area relative to the total area is around 30 percent, here it is barely 4.2 percent, way below even the national average. With unplanned urban growth, this meagre network of roads falls far short of requirements. Also upkeep of these roads has traditionally been very poor. Combined with an uncontrolled mix of incompatible forms of traffic and the menace of hawkers — who continue to occupy pavements and even parts of road under political patronage — transport remains slow, crowded and dangerous.

Insightful planners had, as early as in 1947, explored the possibility of utilising the oval-shaped railway tracks that girdle the city by linking them to form a Circular Railway. The idea was first looked into by the Ginwala Committee, which recommended a surface railway from Dum Dum, on the north-Sealdah section up to Chitpur (used as a goods yard), elevated tracks from Chitpur to Majerhat over Calcutta Port Trust’s existing lines parallel to the river, and surface railway again from Majerhat to Dum Dum along Eastern Railway’s Budge Budge lines via Kankurgachi Chord connector between Sealdah’s north and south divisions. Various committees that followed until the Garbutt Report of 1966, supported the idea in many forms (often with elevated tracks), incurring lower expenses and easier construction, in addition to a straight north-south corridor for better results. Finally, a comprehensive study of the city’s transportation needs made by Metropolitan Transport Project (Railways) in 1969 suggested a suburban dispersal line from Dum Dum to Princep Ghat following the existing alignment mentioned above but entirely on elevated tracks. However, the proposal was categorically dismissed by Soviet consultants, M/s Technoexport with the concurrence of the Government as quite unnecessary, only adding to the crowding problem in the central business district. Consequently, despite the North-south Rapid Transit Metro Project getting sanctioned in 1972, the circular railway concept was finally accepted by the Government only in 1984 — the year metro’s initial truncated services actually came into operation once it was clear that the full completion of the metro would fall way behind schedule and demand.

Although Parliament voted in 1984 on a Rs 75.36 crore estimate (later revised to Rs 86.11 crore) for this four-and-a-half year project broken into four phases, only the first two (6.95 kilometre Baghbazar-Princep Ghat and six-kilometre Baghbazar-Dum Dum) sections got completed by June 1990 incurring a cost of Rs 35 crore based on an initial estimate of Rs 21.69 crore. Of which, Rs seven crore was paid to the Calcutta Port Trust (CPT) for outright transfer of 17 acres of land with existing tracks. Since then, it has existed as a 12.95 kilometre-long single broad-gauge line operating only nine pairs of daily trains on diesel traction with 10 conventional second-class coaches each. And eight stations in between terminal ones at Dum Dum Junction and Princep Ghat.

Nearly a decade of neglect by succes-sive railway ministries (between 1994 and 1998, only Rs 93 lakh were allocated for the project) unfortunately compelled a truncated line — restricted by the hours of service, slow speeds due as much to weak track and signalling systems as to squatters along tracks, lack of adequate road overbridges and pedestrian underpasses at various crossings — to remain as an incomplete and thereby inefficient loop.

In 1998, a change of guard at the Centre got things going again. RITES submitted a techno-economic feasibility report on the much-delayed extension from Princep Ghat to Majerhat (phase III of the original schedule) under existing traction, signalling, telecommunication and train operation systems. The report estimated a cost of around Rs 81.44 crore against an initial expenditure of Rs nine crore only. And in 1999, the estimated cost on doubling and electrification of the line for the entire stretch of 18.29 kilometres between Dum Dum and Majerhat was Rs 150.06 crore spread over four years against the earlier amount of Rs 55.42 crore for phase IV in the original plan. This will finally allow all suburban trains with EMU rakes from both north and south Sealdah divisions to serve the city directly by encircling it in (counter) clockwise directions.

Funds too became increasingly available, a total of Rs 95 crore already allocated for the period 1998-2002. However, the figure of Rs 33 crore going to CPT as rental for 90 years’ lease on the 15 acres needed additionally for the extension along with simultaneous electrification in the southern end is now expected to rise to Rs 102 crore by the expected time of project completion — June 2003. The project will involve setting up of four new stations (elevated structure for the Khiderpore one within the ‘custom bonded’ area of CPT docks), closing down of Princep Ghat Station and integration at Majerhat with the Eastern Railway’s main section.

Equally happening is the work on the later-added extension in the northern end from Dum Dum Junction via Dum Dum Cantonment Station across Jessore Road to a terminal only 150 meters from and parallel to the international and domestic buildings of Calcutta’s Netaji Subhas Airport. This section (expected to complete in August 2003), budgeted at Rs 62 crore is likely to end up another Rs 10 crore more due to increasing land acquisition costs. Also partly elevated, it makes clever use of existing but not-in-use-now railway lines, and is certain to make the system very popular.

Electrification of the Dum Dum/Princep Ghat Section too is going on full swing (cost Rs. 15 crore and expected to complete by June 2001). In addition to lengthening of platforms to 275 meters and setting up of ‘height gauges’ for vehicular clearance, it will enable EMU rakes of 12 coaches each to do the entire loop from airport to airport, even on a single line. While doubling of tracks isn’t on anyone’s mind right now, it bears mention that despite provision for the same being made in all extensions, the need for additional space along tracks in the existing section (after removal of squatters) may prove a delaying bone of contention with CPT and the state once again in future.

Completion of the Circular Railway in its entirety in tandem with extension of the Metro further south to Garia by 2004 will provide this beleaguered city a transportation network, capable of handling the pressures of a rapidly burgeoning population, both within the city limits and beyond, for decades to come.

Completion of Circular Railway in its entirety along with extension of the Metro further south to Garia will provide the much-needed transportation network to Kolkata.