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Calcutta - Pride in a Tube

For centuries Calcutta had set out the path for the rest of India to follow in just about every aspect of life. Over the past few decades the lead has been worn thin. But there are a few exceptions that remain without equal. Ability to come up with Nobel Laureates at regular intervals, for instance. Or its Metro Railway, voted by the Independent as cleaner and better running than tubes in London or Paris.

Over 11 million people today live within the confines of the Calcutta Metropolitan District. Its important as the gateway to the eastern and north-eastern parts of the country has resulted in inevitable increase in population. It accelerated after WW II, suffered a major influx during partition in 1947 and made a quantum jump in the 60’s to reach 7 million by 1971.

With urban growth as unplanned as it has been, the merger network of roads during the entire stretch of the first three five year plans had less than 8 km added arterially to it. While in modern cities road surface relative to total area is around 30%, for the city it is barely 4.2% way below even the national average. Also the upkeep of these roads ahs been very poor. Combined with an uncontrolled mix of incompatible forms of traffic and the menace of hawkers who continue to occupy the pavements and even parts of road, transport remains slow, crowded and dangerous.

An early as 1949, Dr. B.C.Roy, then Chief Minister of West Bengal, had, with foresight, requested a French team to consider the feasibility of an underground Rapid Transit System. Two lines, east-west and north-South, were recommended despite expected problems to be faced in working through prevalent soil structure. Between Ginwala Committee of 1947 and the Garbutt Report in 1966, various other studies recommended a Circular Railway, often with elevated tracks for lower expenses and easier construction for a north-south corridor.

A comprehensive study of the city’s transportation needs made by the Calcutta Metropolitan Planning Organization in 1967 suggested 2 high capacity, grade separated corridors. Based on this, a special metropolitan transport team of planning Commission recommended in 1969 a techno-economic study for system selection. Ministry of Railways, entrusted with this task, set up the MTP®. Under agreements between the governments of India and USSR, it received expert consultation from M/s. Technoexport of Moscow in end 70.

The Central Government accepted their advice of high priority to the 16.45 km Dum Dum-Tollygunge line and sanctioned the project in June 1972 at an estimated cost of Rs.1,400 million. There wee to be 17 stations-15 underground and one each at surface and elevated levels. There was an overall strategy to have five lanes aggregating 97.5 km by year 2000. Exactly the way tubes in London or New York have gradually grown into huge networks.

Actual construction began in 1973-74. But progress was poor initially. The 1974-75 oil crisis meant near doubling of project cost and consequent rethinking by the government temporarily put all work on hold. Even until 1977-78 funding remained paltry. When adequate finances finally became available, major hurdles were still faced in procurement of steel, cement and railway rakes. And also in innumerable court cases related mostly to acquisition of 178 acres from private parties, in indecision regarding prioritization of constructional phases, in improper drainage and in lack of necessary experience of contractors. All this lead to time and cost overruns.

Commuters had to wait two troublesome decades and the exchequer had to spend a whopping Rs.17,060 million on the projects.

In spite of all the odds, India’s first Asia’s fifth and the world’s 85th underground railway began commercial operations on 24th October, 1984. there was partial service between Esplanade and Bhowanipur, 3.4 km and five stations distant. The entire Esplanade-distant. The entire Esplanade Tollygunge (9.97 km) south section started operations from April 1986. Part operations in the Dum dum Shayambazar stretch began only in August 1994. through services of end to end travel in only 33 minutes became a reality on 27th September, 1995.

Many new technologies were adopted for the first time in this effort. The predominantly used cut & cover method of tunnel construction using diaphragm walls and sheet piles had to be modified in areas where diversions were not possible. Extensive decking allowing traffic to flow over cuts while work progressed below; shield tunneling using airlocks, ballastless tracks; third rail traction, continuous automatic train control; underground air-conditioning and ventilation systems and automatic ticket vending and checking systems, all made a first entry.

At present 142 trains consisting of 8 coaches with gross capacity of around 2,500 persons each, run from 0700 to 2200 hours every weekday at intervals of 10 minutes at peak times. In 1998-99 there was a total of 58 million passengers as compared to the 1.47 million in 1984-85 or 69.14 million in 1997-98. The distinctly noticeable fall in usage last year attributable in parts to the city’s central business district getting widely dispersed, the industrial/economic scenario being on a steady downswing and increase in ticket prices.

Beauty and safety have always been important to the Metro authorities beautifully relayed roads and done up gardens, designer interiors for each station, mobile art galleries within coaches have all given it a warm and wonderful touch.

Of late, however, there have been problems related to obsolescence and maintenance, specially of rolling stock. Given that the Metro is and will have to remain a highly subsidized effort, allocation from the railway budget over the past years have barely been enough to balance operating expenses.

That the present railway minister has a fair idea of the problems and has promised her full support in the days ahead, bodes well for the Metro. Specially with respect to the planned extension further south from Tollygunge to Garia. This part is expected to reach completion by year 2004.

A northerly extension of the Metro from Dum Dum to Barrackpore, also on elevated tracks, is being considered and RITES has been awarded the feasibility study at a cost of Rs.24.7 lacs. Proposal for a link to the airport (aerial distance 5.7 km) has been sent to the Board with request for the Rs.13.5 lacs needed for a feasibility study.

Incidentally, although in 1984 the need for circular railway, with elevated alignment between Majerhat and Princep Ghat, was also accepted, nothing has happened on it yet due to necessary land not being made available. If this comes through within the next few years as promised, pressure on the North Suburban section of Sealdah will stand greatly reduced with trains encircling the entire business district before going back via the direct Park Circus Ultadanga link. Working in tandem, it will reduce the ever growing pressure on the metro.

No word on Calcutta’s Metro can be complete without mention of contribution of its people who suffered silently when it was being made and manage to keep it very clean, systematic and comfortable. But most of all they take great pride in it as their own. As passengers and as employees.