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Mumbai’s Monorail: Breakthrough or Blunder?

Engineers recently completed a much-anticipated trial run of India’s first monorail car in Mumbai. The trial was an early test of the Mumbai Monorail Project, an initiative of the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority aimed at increasing mobility and reducing congestion through sustainable, high-quality mass transit.  The monorail’s proposed route is 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) long and runs between Jacob Circle and Chembur, a suburban neighborhood in eastern Mumbai that is considered an important transportation hub for travelers to Pune.

Scomi, an oil and gas service provider based in Malaysia, and its consortium partner Larsen & Toubro, India’s largest engineering and construction conglomerate, secured $545 million for the project in November 2008 and are expected to complete the project by 2011.  They are tasked with delivering 60 cars to make 15 four-car trains.  Each four-coach monorail is expected to be able to accommodate about 600 passengers, carrying a total of nearly 300,000 commuters daily.

While some have touted this flashy, big-ticket project as the transportation mode of Mumbai’s future, others aren’t convinced that a monorail is the best choice for the city.  Eric Britton, editor of the blog World Streets, recently expressed his doubt of the monorail as a serious sustainable transportation option, particularly in developing countries.  He provides a host of reasons for his skepticism, including:

  • Monorails are extremely costly and saddle cities with debt (Britton points out that as Mumbai welcomed its first test car, the Las Vegas Monorail Company was filing for bankruptcy)
  • Monorails have limited capacity per dollar spent
  • Since monorails are, by design, grade-separated systems, they do not provide easy connections with destinations or other modes of transportation
  • Because monorail systems are commonly elevated, they ignore, and thus contribute to the degradation of, street life (read our previous post on TheCityFix about a similar problem with Mumbai’s proposed “skywalks.”)
  • Monorails can be a visual intrusion on the cityscape

As Britton also mentions, the jury seems to still be out on the environmental benefits of monorails as compared to other public transit alternatives, and many experts question their “clean” reputation.  Proponents of the Mumbai Monorail Project claim that it will prevent 200 tons of carbon dioxide emissions daily.  Monorail advocates echo these sentiments.  The Monorail Society, a non-profit organization promoting the transport mode, cites the emissions reductions achieved by the Las Vegas monorail.  In 2007, they say, it aided in the removal of an estimated 3.2 million vehicle miles from Southern Nevada’s major roadways and reduced emissions by more than 58 tons of carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides.  But Britton suggests that the total emissions of monorail projects, including construction and the systems’ eventual electricity usage, add up to a considerable carbon footprint. For all rail projects, a system is only as “clean” as the power grid that supplies the electricity.

What do you think?  Are monorails the way of the future, as they are in cities like ChongqingTokyo and Kuala Lumpur? Are they the right choice for Mumbai?  As food for thought, check out The Transport Politic’s piece on the Disney World monorail, the ninth most heavily-used rapid transit system in the U.S.  And of course, for the monorail debate in a nutshell, you can always watch the famed Simpsons monorail episode.

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  • srini1990

    Better zoning and help for ppl on the city streets is needed. All these attempts to fix Mumbai needs to start with more public initiative. I’d be wary of the local propaganda you are getting though.

  • srini1990

    being from India myself I am not sure how this remotely addresses the immediate problems faced in Mumbai.

  • mandar mallappanavar

    I do agree with Radhika. I am myself a Mumbaiite and know the horrors of travelling in the local trains. I am currently writing a dissertation which proposes some guidelines for development of Suburban rail Stations and their precincts in Mumbai. I found very little literature explaining the issues faced by people using these key station buildings. I seriously want to volunteer any effort which involves mapping of these stations and proposing an integrated planning for them. The existing suburban rail services enjoya high ridership because all the suburbs are planned around the station areas but the ballooning of population, rise in the incomes levels, plus the governments bias for private transportation in last few decades has made these suburbs grow by leaps and bounds. It is now very important that systems like monorails or trams be used to provide alternative transport modes. I do have some criticism to their developments is because the stations planned are required to be physically integrated with their adjacent buildings, buildings which allow access to the stations and also house various functions such banks, gymnasiums, shopping malls, educational institutes, etc. Unless or until these stations wont get integrated with the built environment around them, the services wont attract many users and the new rail corridors wont see much development. The example of DLR stations at Canary Wharf in London can be great examples to integrate a light rail system into the city’s fabric.

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  • Radhika

    Megan, I beg to differ from your views. Being a Mumbaikar (a resident if Mumbai) for the past 24 years, I think that the monorail project is by far evidently, an admirable move made by the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), keeping in mind the demand for an alternate travel option and a comfortable travel experience for over 3 lakhs of daily commuters who struggle everyday to commute long distances which aren’t most appropriately connected across various routes in Mumbai. You should have been present on day of the trial run of the monorail to sense the excitement and eagerness of thousands of Mumbaikars like me who had gathered at the site to witness the first step of implementation of the monorail which we are eagerly awaiting.

    I can’t quite comment on the need and viability of monorail in other cities. But since I know the city where I live and understand the needs of the common man in Mumbai, I strongly believe that monorail will surely make a significant difference in the lives of Mumbaikars. I don’t think it is appropriate for you or anyone else to sit in another country and gauge the need and demand of a transportation system in Mumbai because I highly doubt If you are aware of the real issues of a Mumbai resident when it comes to public transportation.

    There are serious issues that basic infrastructure or lack of one has bought in the lives of a resident of Mumbai -the increasing population, influx of citizens migrating from other parts of the country, rising travel demand and narrow road networks running through congested structures, and pavements completely blocked by hawkers. There is maximum utilization of the existing modes of travel already ‘bursting through its seams’.

    I don’t find it a pleasant sight to watch thousands of people travelling UNSAFELY in choc-o-block public transport systems, hanging on a thin iron railing in local trains or hanging outside of the buses. The Suburban Railways, which will be soon supported by the metro rail and the monorail, carry more than six million commuters on a daily basis and constitutes more than half of the total daily passenger capacity of the Indian Railways itself. So you can clearly imagine the demand and supply gap for alternate transportation option in a congested, ‘always on the move’, densely populated city like Mumbai.

    There is an inevitable need for a new form of travel which, occupies less land space, which is quick in construction as well as one which reduces travel time for commuters. We citizens of Mumbai spend a large amount of our time traveling. Either caught in traffic jams due to a mounting number of vehicles on the road or chasing and changing crowded local trains at various stations. I firmly believe that the monorail serving as a public transport system will be able to cut off a decent amount of the traffic in the proposed route apart from also providing a better connectivity in the route as the monorail would act as a feeder to suburban and metro system. And last but not the least – the air-conditioned monorail coaches will certainly make our travel experience more comfortable.

  • Murray Bodin

    Any fixed rail system is, by definition, fixed. It only goes where the designers want, not where people have to go to. A bus system, based on bus lanes, is flexible, can be changed as riders needs change. New York City is using one traffic lane for Buses Only when it is needed. Lanes can be controlled by cameras and computers, to keep them free of unneeded traffic.

    Flexibility is the key.

  • sher tuan

    why question a solution thats keeping to its promise of delivery compared all the others who are but a hole in the ground.we who travel in dusrty hot sweaty buses are looking forward to quick solution. You sit in washington and make apna comments kia? for waht ? you have vested inmterests? green? get your facts right about ice melting in himalaya before you come and stop our progress ya! you built coal burning railroads all over your land , have good comfortable buses and roads and want to comment here , about mumbai. who is this expert? britton? has he run a city or mange a transportation syatem in india? came ya, keep your lofty dreams to yourself and let us have our dreams of moving quickly in comfaort be real.

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  • Blakley

    Monorails are nothing more than light rail on a stick. They achieve no more or less in carbon reduction than any other “light” transit system. They can’t at all easily switch between tracks, and certainly not with passengers on onboard, making them extremely inflexible. This limits them to purely linear alignments as in the four miles they run in Las Vegas where they only service seven stations.

    Their failure in Las Vegas was due to wildly inflated costs, but also the inflexibility of their guideways which could not be built close enough to the hotel stations, hence they’re hundreds of meters away and not at all convenient, especially in desert heat.