Controversy over whether to use Broad Gauge or Standard Gauge in Mumbai Metro
Broad Gauge or Standard Gauge? That’s the current controversy haunting the Mumbai Metro Project. A group of senior railway officials have filed a PIL in the court opposing the state government’s plan to go ahead with standard gauge for Mumbai Metro. I didn’t read about this PIL in a newspaper and neither did I see it on television. Perhaps it has not been reported or if it has, I missed it. I got to know about it because one of the people who is party to the PIL told me about it.
The main difference between broad gauge and standard gauge is that we have broad gauge almost all over the country. Broad gauge rails are wider than the standard gauge ones. In India, the broad gauge is around 5.5 feet, but anything above 4 ft 8½ in (which is the standard gauge) can be termed as broad gauge.
If the Mumbai Metro Project uses the broad gauge track, it will mean using the existing infrastructure in India to make the coaches. There will be no need for imports, thus saving crores of rupees. Also the coaches which are used on broad gauge (3.66 metre wide) are bigger than the coaches on standard gauge (3.2 metres wide) and can carry heavier loads – in other words – more people. Apparently, one whole row of standing passengers extra in each coach!
So why is the government going in for standard gauge? Because it’s used widely in Europe and in America – that’s one reason. Apparently this means easy and quick availability of high quality coaches. Mumbai Metro officials have been quoted in The Hindu as saying:
The standard gauge is better as it allows a low turning radius of 90 to 140 metres as against 175 metres for broad gauge and this reduces the requirement of land when the Metro has to take a curving turn. Since world over almost all the major Metro systems are on this gauge, quality is ensured because of mass production. Moreover, adoption of standard gauge also ensures adoption of and up-gradation to latest technologies in rolling stock, suspension, braking traction and propulsion in future as well.
As I am not an railway engineer, it is very difficult for me to make any judgment on the technical aspects. But the other arguments of the metro officials seem weak to me:
It (wider coaches of broad gauge) means a higher expenditure on the platforms and the safety systems since the emergency evacuation measures require that a station be designed in such a way that three trainloads of passengers can be safely evacuated in less than six minutes. Also, in bigger coaches more expensive air-conditioners are required. In standard gauge coaches electricity costs will be saved… power consumption will be reduced to 50 units per km by using light stainless steel bodies…
True, but what about the capital cost of importing the coaches as opposed to making in-house ones? The photo on the right is one of an inhouse one:
Brig. P.V. Gole, who along with senior railway officials has filed the PIL against the state government spoke to me yesterday. He said that the cost of each imported coach is Rs 9 crore while the cost of an indigenous one is Rs 3 crore!! And what about the spare parts? Surely, these too will have to be imported?? “Our case is strong, we want this proposal to be discarded at this stage itself,’ is what Brig. Gole told me.
In fact a similar controversy had dogged Delhi metro. And at that time, the railways, who were insistent on broad gauge won the battle. Delhi got its broad gauge…but guess what. Someone else overturned the decision and now standard gauge coaches are being used in Delhi metro! It is technically feasible to use the smaller coaches even on broad gauge.
It is indeed difficult to understand why Delhi metro did this…is India incapable of meeting deadlines or is our country incapable of building coaches of a high quality? Or has some sort of cost calculation been done to prove that this is a cheaper option?
The answers to these questions are important as the controversy is not about which is better – broad gauge or standard gauge – it is a question of what is better suited to India. In any case, neither neither broad gauge nor standard gauge has been definitely proven to be superior or ideal. Each system has its faithful followers.
The government does have a solution to the smaller capacities of standard gauge coaches – they plan to add more coaches and increase the frequency of trains so that capacity is not reduced. But surely this can be done anyway, with broad gauge, and capacity can be increased further?
Interestingly, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Pune metros are all slated to adopt the standard gauge.
I do not have all the answers, but the fact is that railway engineers wanted broad gauge in Delhi and now they want it in Mumbai and this is significant.
Frankly all kinds of dark thoughts about the motivations of the politicians are flooding my mind. I may be wrong…but right now I really am not one of those people who believes that our politicians are squeaky clean. If I did, I might have believed that all this is being done for our own good, in national interest.
UPDATE: I just spoke to VKJ Rane, the ex-managing director of IRCON and he said that standard gauge is “not in national interest as it only caters to 25 years in the future.” And after 25 years, the government will again have to go in for standard gauge coaches as the rails will be standard gauge.
(The first picture is from the booklet on the Mumbai Metro Project, the second one is linked to the original, the third has been provided by Brig. Gole.)