Suresh Prabhu to sign MoU with Karnataka on Monday for Bangalore Suburban Rail

The long-pending demand for a suburban train system in Bengaluru will take baby steps with the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding between the State Government and the Ministry of Railways on Monday. However, differences over funding pattern may delay Bengaluru suburban rail project

BANGALORE: The much-delayed suburban rail project for Bengaluru has finally reached a decisive stage. The state government and Railways are expected to strike a cost-sharing deal next week to build the necessary infrastructure. Also on the agenda is a special project vehicle, likely to be named as the Bengaluru Railway Infrastructure Development Corporation.

Railways Minister, Suresh Prabhu, who is launching a slew of railway-related projects in the city during his visit, is expected to release the MoU which will set up a Special Purpose Vehicle. “This will be under the State Urban Development Department, which can then decide projects to be undertaken to set up a suburban rail system,” said Sanjiv Agarwal, Divisional Railway Manager, Bangalore Division of the South Western Railway here on Saturday.

Mr. Prabhu is also scheduled to signal the start of the Rs.130 crore project for the expansion of the Baiyappanahalli Railway Station, which would make it the third terminal in the city. With the two current terminals at KSR Railway Station (Bengaluru City) and Yeshvanthpur reaching saturation point, the new coaching terminal would help in decongesting the railway infrastructure.

Meanwhile, the Bangalore Division said proposals had been sent to the Centre for projects that would increase the line capacity of lines across the city. These include, a Rs. 480 crore project to double the line between Banaswadi to Hosur; Rs. 200-crore line doubling between Lottegollahalli to Baiyappanahalli; reviving the nearly-decade-old proposal to add an additional line between KSR Railway Station and the IT hub of Whitefield.

However, Bengaluru Central MP PC Mohan told that the state government wasn’t keen on taking ownership of the project. “The railways is responsible for operating freight trains, and long distance passenger trains. Suburban rail network is a state subject. But, the Karnataka government is not taking any initiative to set the ball rolling,” Mohan said.

Pointing out that the state was willing to spend Rs 2,100 crore on the steel flyover that would connect a small stretch, Mohan added: “The RITES study reveals that the suburban rail network can provide transportation to 25 lakh people daily. A flyover is a short-term fix. Suburban railway is a more sustainable solution.”

Mohan said that George was constantly maintaining that the state government must not spend its money for the suburban rail network. “Bengaluru South MP and Union minister Ananth Kumar also suggested to Siddaramaiah that the state cabinet ministers should meet their central counterparts and lobby strongly for the project. But they seem uninterested,” Mohan added.

Meanwhile, officials in the South Western Railway told on Saturday that the joint venture between the two stakeholders is going to be on the formation of a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) to execute the suburban rail project.

“The joint venture is the first step to set up a body that will add projects needed to develop the suburban rail infrastructure and work on the lines of the urban development department of state government. The draft policy is on funding of the project which can be discussed later,” said SS Soin, additional general manager of SWR.

Rs 360 crore spent on replacing diesel coaches

The Karnataka government has agreed to replace 15 pairs of diesel multiple unit (DEMU) rakes with mainline electric multiple unit (MEMU) coaches, at the cost of Rs 360 crore, in what is the first step towards improving suburban rail connectivity in the city.

South Western Railway (SWR) has also augmented one train from Krantivira Sangolli Rayanna station (KSR) that will have three services to Whitefield during the morning peak hours. It has also introduced a rail bus – a small bus-like coach from Yeshwantpur to Nelamangala. SWR will also run long-distance trains from Mandya and Ramanagara, which will be linked to the Kengeri Metro Station, which will be developed in the second phase of the Namma Metro.

Land acquisition remains an issue in state

While the state is seeing railway projects worth Rs. 28,000 crore under process, land acquisition remains a major concern, said Ashok Gupta, Chief Administration Officer (Construction).

Of the 21,000 acres of land to be acquired by the state government for various railway works — primarily commissioning of new lines — just around 20 per cent of the land has so far been acquired. Nearly 771 km of new lines have been stalled, including key stretches of the Whitefield to Kolar new line, 200-km from Tumakuru to Chitradurga; and Chikmagalur to Saklespur.

“For the past two years, land acquisition had stopped because of Rules of the new land acquisition act was yet to be notified. It was done only last year, and we expect optimistically that the first acquisitions will start in 1.5 years time. We have had discussions with the state government to bring out guidelines to expedite processes such as Social Impact Assessment,” he said.

But Citizens for Bengaluru (CfB), a collective spearheading the commuter rail campaign, has a key demand: Let there be a proper strategy, so that the suburban rail network connects the top 10 economic hubs in and around the city including Electronics City, Whitefield, Sarjapur Road, Malur, Bidadi and Devanahalli. Another demand is to allocate budget for each of these links spread over the next two years.

These demands will be placed before Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu right after he kicks off the new MEMU train from Ramanagaram to Whitefield on Monday. CfB also wants the Railways to work with the state government with clear timeframes to commission these links.

Letter to minister

A letter addressed to the minister, signed by over 21,000 citizens, reiterates the city’s three-decades old demand for a suburban train system. “Unfortunately, due to lack of strong political will, it never materialised. A full-fledged suburban train system can take out 50% of cars and motrocycles off the streets and have a tremendous positive impact on us and our children,” it reads.

Recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had inaugurated projects worth Rs 45,000 crore for the suburban railways in Mumbai. The letter makes a stinging reference to this, juxtaposing Bengaluru’s long-pending demand. It says, “We know that your special love for Mumbai has resulted in a generous sanction of thousands of crores for expanding Mumbai suburban rail. We request a place in your heart for Bengaluru and some space in the budget for our commuter rail.”

MoU implications

If Suresh Prabhu inks a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the state government, it could hasten the creation of the necessary infrastructure. The Centre’s draft Suburban Rail policy had put the onus of acquiring land on the respective governments. In its 2012 report, consultancy firm RITES had indicated the state’s key role in creation of the required infrastructure.

A special purpose vehicle is expected to enable local railway officials to work closely with the state government on the suburban rail project. The state is also likely to fund the cost of rakes and automatic signalling between Baiyappanahalli and Whitefield. An upgrade of the MEMU maintenance shed in Banaswadi is also on the agenda.