Bombay – I prefer it that way – this week, saw work on one of the biggest transport projects ever in the city, pick up speed. A 60-km elevated railway line running through Oval-Churchgate-Virar.
It will be placed over the existing rail corridor and will run air-conditioned trains. But due to restrictions of road bridges, the airport and existing buildings, most of the stretch of this Rs21,000-crore project will have to go underground. So it would be more of an underground rail corridor rather than an elevated one. And that sends a sense of déjà vu in Bombay’s transport history.
An underground railway for Bombay has been planned one every hundred years.
A proposal for each century, but none saw the light of the day. First, it came in the 1890s as it became almost an obsession with the British with the popularity of London Underground that was opened in the nineteenth century.
Then it came in the late 1920s for the first time in the 20th century, proposing to connect Churchgate and business districts with an underground railway by the Bombay Development Department. It was then revived in the ‘50s and ‘60s in free India with detailed proposals and work studies. There was even a demonstration on how the underground railway could be built without disturbing the other underground utilities – a miniature model of it can be found to this day at the BEST Museum at Anik near Sion.
Then, it was Union railway minister Lalu Prasad Yadav who first proposed it in the 21st century, first around 2008 which gained momentum this year with the railway ministry and the Maharashtra government looking at a fresh round of proposals, studies and, this time, even work agreements.
This is not to suggest that the new rail corridor will not work out as it has a record of failures, but just to recount the curious history of underground rail proposals in Bombay and how it repeats itself every century. One would agree that Bombay has to grow up to lessen its dependency on its lifeline – the suburban railway – and build multiple dependable alternative modes of rapid transit. This one can surely fill in the gap. But, in the process, we also seem to be adopting too many of them at one go and not focusing on any one of them, but that is another story.
As far as history is concerned, the trams that were scrapped in 1964 for being a hurdle on the roads are now being brought back – this time in the satellite cities. Another example that history does repeat itself – at least for transport in Bombay.