“Mumbai is upgrading,” claim the large signboards across Mumbai’s arterial roads. For the past two years, these blue and green signs have been plastered all over the city’s metro construction sites, promising new, multi-crore solutions to the city’s public transport woes. But in a corner of eastern Mumbai, the edifice of another expensive transport promise has been gathering dust for the past eight months.

In November, the Maharashtra government shut down the controversial Mumbai monorail service after the safety of commuters was endangered by a series of mishaps and technical glitches – including a fire in one of the trains.

The single-track elevated train service – India’s first monorail – had been operating on a short 8.9-km stretch between Wadala and Chembur since 2014. Building this stretch of the monorail cost the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority Rs 1,100 crore, and it expected a ridership of at least 1.5 lakh commuters a day. Instead, in the three years of its operations, average daily ridership was just 19,000, and the monorail trains ran at a loss of nearly Rs 3 lakh a day.

The Wadala-Chembur stretch was just half of the length the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority envisioned for the ambitious Mumbai monorail. Phase 2 of the project – a line connecting Wadala and Jacob Circle in South Mumbai – is almost complete, and aims to connect the city’s eastern suburbs to its commercial districts through a direct 40-minute ride. Since 2010, the deadline for completing this second phase was extended at least 15 times, and construction costs have escalated well beyond the initial estimates of Rs 2,000 crore. Now, the shutdown of the Wadala-Chembur services has jeopardised the operations of both sections of the monorail line.

After spending more than Rs 3,000 crore of public money on the project so far and amassing several crores of rupees as losses, what is to become of the monorail tracks that snake through 19.5 km of the city?

The Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority claims the monorail will be functional by 2019. But it has not yet settled disputes with former operators Larsen & Toubro and Scomi Engineering and is still struggling to find a new operator to run the complete line.

Meanwhile, transport experts and disgruntled citizens are hoping for creative solutions to salvage the monorail, so that the public money spent on it is not flushed down the drain.

Public transport or toy?

The monorail, according to transport experts, is not a popular mode of mass public transport around the world. Unlike metro trains that run on two tracks and have greater commuter capacity, monorails operate on a single track and are meant for lighter loads. Monorails are used for public transport in Sydney, Sao Paulo, Kuala Lumpur, parts of Japan and just a handful of other cities around the world. Monorail technologies have more commonly been used for building joyrides in amusement parks.

“Technical experts know that internationally, the monorail has not really worked,” said Madhav Pai, the cities director at World Resources Institute India, a transport and environment research organisation. “Apart from a few commercial applications, monorails are found mainly in theme parks. So what we have in Mumbai is a toy.”

The Mumbai monorail project was approved in 2008 and built by Scomi Engineering – a Malaysian company that is trying to promote monorails around the world – in partnership with infrastructure company Larsen & Toubro. It took six years, multiple delays and cost escalations for the operators to finally launch monorail services on the 19-minute route from Wadala to Chembur, with seven stations in all.

Almost immediately, the problems that transport experts had warned about became apparent. The stretch from Wadala to Chembur, on the east of Mumbai, is not too densely populated, mainly comprising oil and petroleum factories alongside Mumbai’s fast-disappearing wetlands. At the Chembur end, the monorail station is not far from the Chembur local train station, but the other stations on the short monorail route do not have adequate feeder services – buses, autos or taxis – to ferry monorail commuters to their destinations. For women, the emptiness of the roads outside the stations became a safety risk.

“Most of the monorail stations are not even located close to the more populated housing colonies,” said Rajendra Salgaonkar, a labour union leader who lives in an affordable housing colony in between two monorail stations on the Wadala-Chembur route. “All the monorail stops seem to be in non-residential areas, in places where luxury real estate is now coming up.”

Union leader Rajendra Salgaonkar outside a portion of the monorail edifice near Chembur. Photo: Aarefa Johari

A safety hazard

Despite the problems with the monorail route and the location of its stations, residents in eastern Mumbai did use its services to shuttle between Wadala and Chembur.

“The monorail would take just Rs 9 and around 12 minutes to take me from my neighbourhood in Mahul to Chembur,” said a real estate agent who did not wish to be identified. “Without the monorail, it takes at least 30 minutes to cover the same distance by bus, and autos are much more expensive.”

The main concern for regular commuters was always safety. In the three years of its operations, monorail services were disrupted several times because of technical snags. The glitches included power failures, machinery dysfunctions, tyre bursts and, in November, a fire that damaged several coaches of an empty train while it was on a test run. Before that, in March 2015, a power failure left 11 commuters stranded in a monorail coach for three hours before they were rescued by fire-fighters.

“There were also times when the doors of the compartment would open automatically because of the train’s high speed,” said the real estate agent from Mahul. “This was dangerous, because many school children would use the monorail.”

In December, a month after monorail services were halted, a report by the state government-appointed Public Accounts Committee declared the monorail was a “waste of public money” because of its failure to decongest existing transport networks. In light of this report and the many safety risks posed by the monorail, the state government has now sought a response from the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority before allowing it to resume monorail operations.

Unfinished business

At the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority office in Mumbai, additional metropolitan commissioner Sanjay Khandare refused to talk about the responses that his office has submitted to the state government regarding safety and other problems in monorail operations. Plans to revive train services between Wadala and Chembur remain stalled, because of ongoing differences between the development authority and the monorail operators Scomi Engineering and Larsen & Toubro.

The operators had a three-year contract with the authority to run and maintain the monorail services. This ended in mid-2017. The contract is yet to be renewed, but Scomi wants the authority to compensate it for the Rs 1,200 crore of its own money that it allegedly spent to run the monorail for the past three years. Scomi Engineering did not respond to Scroll.in’s emails and phone calls, but in an interview with Mumbai Mirror that was published on July 9, a representative of Scomi claimed it is yet to bill the authority Rs 260 crore.

Scomi and the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority are attempting to resolve these differences over finances with the help of an independent arbitration team. “The arbitration has been going on for the past year,” said Khandare. “I cannot say how much longer it will take.” He did not disclose any more details about the progress of the arbitration.

In the midst of the dispute, however, many lower-level monorail employees have not received their salaries or benefits for November. “At least 265 members of my union are registered workers with Scomi, and they are still fighting to get paid,” said Salgaonkar, the general secretary of the Hindustan Mathadi Transport & Genaral Kamgar Sena. “Scomi and MMRDA [Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority] have been passing the buck to each other.”

When asked about this, the development authority brushed aside concerns about staff payments. “That is Scomi’s issue,” said Khandare. “Right now, they are not operating the trains so they are not eligible for payments from our side.”

What now?

With a conflicted past and an uncertain present, what should the future of the Mumbai monorail look like?

The Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority is hoping to get the complete 19.5-km monorail line up and running by 2019. In May, it floated tenders to appoint a new operator for the Jacob Circle-Wadala-Chembur services. While it refused to divulge details about the tender process, news reports claimed that even the lowest bidder quoted a figure of Rs 2,000 crore to run the monorail line – twice the amount the development authority has budgeted.

According to transport experts like Madhav Pai, the monorail needs to be seen as an experiment that went wrong, and should not be pursued anymore. “There is no point in paying Rs 2,000 crore more to operate these services for another 10 years,” said Pai, who advocates for an alternative, creative use of the elevated monorail tracks built from Jacob Circle to Chembur. “Maybe they should put slabs over the tracks and turn the elevated line into a High Line park of some kind,” he said, referencing New York’s well-known park that was built on a defunct elevated rail line.

Other transport analysts, like Ashok Datar from the Mumbai Environmental Social Network, believe it is too soon to give up on the monorail project yet.

“The monorail in Mumbai was a poor plan, badly executed, but having spent Rs 3,000 crore already, the authorities must do everything they can to revive it,” said Datar, who claims that one solution would have been to extend the monorail line further north from Chembur up to either Ghatkopar or Kurla, thereby allowing commuters better connectivity to local trains on the Central line.

At the southern end of the route, urban planner Pankaj Joshi, suggests the monorail could be extended right up to Worli at the western tip of Mumbai, instead of stopping at Jacob Circle, which is at the centre of the island city. “This way it will serve a definite purpose,” said Joshi, director of the Urban Design Research Institute, an urban policy think tank in Mumbai. “We cannot allow this piece of infrastructure connectivity to go to waste. We just need to ensure that this mistake is not repeated in any other part of India.”