The Inglorious Story Of Kolkata’s Metro Rail

Twelve years after Kolkata’s East-West (E-W) Metro project received its official sanction, a truncated 5 kilometre-long section of the line will be inaugurated by Union Railway Minister Piyush Goyal on (today) 13 February.

The entire 16.5 km from Sector V, Kolkata’s IT hub, to Howrah on the other side of the Hooghly will be operational only by the end of 2022. That is, if things go according to plan.

But right from the start, nothing has gone according to plan for Kolkata’s metro project. And that is not the tortured story of just the E-W Metro, but all other metro projects in the city, including the already operational North-South line, which is the country’s first Metro Rail.

Long delays in acquiring land and clearing encroachments from government lands, realigning routes, accidents, procedural delays and poor work culture have plagued Kolkata’s metro projects. None of them have progressed or are progressing as per their original timelines, leading to huge cost overruns.

The 16.5 km E-W Metro project was sanctioned in July 2008, and construction started in April 2009. The original project cost was Rs 4,900 crore and the E-W line was scheduled to get operational by mid-2014.

But even five-and-half years after the original deadline for completing the entire 16.5 km stretch has passed, only a truncated 5 km stretch will be inaugurated on Thursday (13 February). The cost of the entire project has gone up by 80 per cent to Rs 8,575 crore and is expected to go up further.

Construction work on the project came to a halt in 2012 and remained suspended until 2015 due to delays in acquiring land, clearing encroachments and route realignments. Work on a 365 metre stretch at Duttabad on the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass could not progress since 80 families refused to move.

Ultimately, Union Minister Babul Supriyo took up the matter with Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who got the families to move.

The project suffered a massive setback on 31 August last year when a tunnel boring machine hit an underground aquifer at Bowbazar. Many residential buildings caved it or became unsafe for habitation, and 700 residents of the area had to be shifted to hotels.

The initial 5 km stretch of E-W Metro — Kolkata’s biggest infrastructure project in decades —that will be inaugurated this week will be a loss-making one, admit Metro Rail officials.

“Not very many people are expected to take the metro from Sector V to Salt Lake Stadium, and then switch over to other modes of transport to complete their commutes to and from work. This stretch will not be financially viable and, hence, we need to extend services to Sealdah as soon as possible,” said a senior Metro Rail official.

Metro Rail officials promise that within the next three months, the service will be extended until Phoolbagan, the first underground station on this route.

Work on the Phoolbagan station, a kilometre away from the Salt Lake Stadium station, started in 2011 and was to have been completed by mid-2014, but delay on the part of the Bengal government in handing over land led to cost and time overruns.

“The Commissioner of Railway Safety (CRS) will be inspecting the Phoolbagan station soon and once we get the approval, things will start rolling,” said the Metro Rail official. Once the service is extended till Phoolbagan, it will become a little more viable, he added.

But only when the service is extended to Sealdah, a major transportation hub where trains from the northern and southern suburbs of the city and many long-distance passenger trains terminate, will the E-W Metro line become profitable.

A number of IT sector employees who live in the suburbs and even those staying in central and north Kolkata are expected to use the line.

However, the service to Sealdah cannot be extended till the underground tunnelling of the 2.45 km stretch from Sealdah to Esplanade is complete. The twin tunnels on this stretch would have been completed by the end of this year had the tunnel boring machine (named ‘Chundee’) not hit the underground aquifer last August.

One of the two tunnel boring machines is stuck underground and will have to be retrieved and repaired before it can be pressed into service again.

The tunneling work from Esplanade, which will be the interchange stations for the existing North-South, and the under-construction East-West and Joka-BBD Bagh lines, until Howrah Maidan, is complete.

After Esplanade, the E-W Metro will take passengers to Mahakaran (the central business district of the city) and then go under the Hooghly through 520 metre stretch (becoming India’s first underwater rail line) before hitting Howrah (another major rail and road transit hub) and then terminating at Howrah Maidan.

The E-W Metro line was originally planned for 14.67 km (8.9 km underground and 5.77 elevated). However, the Bengal government raised objections over the original route that was to have passed through some densely-inhabited areas, thus necessitating relocation and rehabilitation.

The route had to be realigned in June 2016, and its length increased to 16.55 km with another 1.91 km added to the underground section. That added to a long delay and major cost escalation.

Officials of the Kolkata Metro Rail Corporation (KMRC), which is tasked with constructing the E-W line, say that though they expect all works to be completed by end of 2022, there is no guarantee that the deadline will not be pushed back.

That’s because tunnelling at Bowbazar that saw the cave-in last year is very delicate and will have to be done very carefully. Experts from IIT Kharagpur and other agencies are providing technical expertise for this.

Ironically, the E-W Metro line was the first proposed urban mass rapid rail transit (MRRT) link of the country. The line was proposed by Major (Sir) Walter Erwing Crum, who was then the president of the Bengal Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Indian Imperial Legislative Council, at the Council’s session at Shimla in 1919.

The council appointed a committee which held 14 sittings, but could not come out with any concrete proposal. In 1921, the Railway Board appointed Harley Darlymple Hay, a noted engineer who was working with the London underground railway, to conduct a feasibility study for an East-West urban rail link for Calcutta.

Hay, busy restoring the London underground which suffered damage during the First World War, deputed his chief assistant to carry out the study. The project report was submitted the next year and the cost for an East-West link that would go under the Hooghly was pegged at 3.5 million sterling pounds with a timeline for completion of 4.5 years.

But the project remained on paper only till the then Bengal chief minister Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy came up with a fresh proposal in the early 1950s. A survey was carried out by a team of French experts, but nothing came out of it.

Urban transportation experts have, since the British days, underlined the need for a MRRT network for Kolkata due to its limited road space.

“Roads make for only 4.2 per cent of Kolkata’s surface area compared to 25 per cent in Delhi and 30 per cent in many other cities. Kolkata’s roads are choked and there is no scope for constructing more roads or widening existing ones. Hence the urgent need for MRRT for Kolkata,” said renowned urban planner Surendra Mohan Debnath.

The state government set up a special purpose vehicle called the Metropolitan Transport Project (MTP) in 1969. The MTP engaged Soviet and East German engineers to undertake a survey and prepare a master plan for a MRRT network for the city.

The experts prepared a master plan in 1971 suggesting five metro lines with a total route length of 97.5 km. The state government selected three — Dum Dum to Tollygunge, Salt Lake to Ramrajatala (Howrah) and Dakshineswar to Noapara —for construction.

The 16.45 km Dum Dum to Tollygunge line was sanctioned on 1 June 1972. The foundation stone was laid by former prime minister Indira Gandhi on 29 December 1972. Construction started in 1973, but right from the very beginning, the project was plagued by many problems.

For the first six years, adequate funds were not sanctioned for the project. A number of underground utilities had to be shifted and lack of coordination between the various agencies for this shifting led to undue delays.

A number of people and organisations filed petitions against the project on various grounds and got injunctions from courts. Vacating these injunctions took a long time.

Irregular supply of materials and a constant tussle between the Left Front government in the state and successive Congress governments at the Centre also added to the delays.

A 3.4 km section of this North-South (N-S) line, also known as Line 1, between Esplanade and Bhowanipore (now known as Netaji Bhawan) was commissioned on 24 October 1984. Another 2.15 km stretch between Dum Dum and Belgachia was commissioned on 12 November 1984.

The Esplanade to Bhowanipore section was extended another 4.24 km to Tollygunge on 29 April 1986. But services on the 2.15 km Dum Dum-Belgachia section were suspended from October 1992 due to paucity of users. Only after the 1.62 stretch from Belgachia to Shyambazar was ready was service resumed for the entire section from Dum Dum to Shyambazar on 13 August 1994.

The Tollygunge to Esplanade line was extended by 0.71 km to Chandni Chowk on 2 October 1994, and another 0.60 km to Central on 19 February 1995. The Dum Dum to Shyambazar line was also extended another 1.93 km until Girish Park simultaneously.

There remained a 1.80 km gap between Girish Park and Central stations, which was ultimately bridged and services along the entire Dum Dum to Tollygunge stretch could start from 27 September 1995.

It thus took 23 long years since Line 1 (Dum Dum to Tollygunge) was sanctioned for it to become fully operational. This holds the record for the slowest pace of construction of all existing metro lines in the country till date.

Line 1 was extended from Tollygunge (renamed as ‘Mahanayak Uttam Kumar’ by Mamata Banerjee when she was railways minister) to Kavi Nazrul in 2009 and then to Kavi Subhash (New Garia) in 2010. With that, the entire 27 km-long Line 1 covering 24 stations became operational.

In 2010, the Union Railway Ministry under Mamata Banerjee announced five new metro lines for Greater Kolkata:

  • Salt Lake Sector V to Howrah Maidan (the East-West Metro or line 2);
  • Joka to BBD Bagh (Line 3);
  • Noapara to Barasat via Biman Bandar, or airport (Line 4);
  • Baranagar to Barrackpore (Line 5);
  • New Garia (Kavi Subhash) to Biman Bandar (Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport) via Salt Lake Sector V (Line 6);
  • Extension of Line 1 from Dum Dum to Dakshineswar via Noapara.
  • An elevated section covering 5.5 km from Salt Lake Sector V to Teghoria (Haldiram) on VIP Road that will meet Line 6

The construction of the Noapara station with four platforms has been completed. This station will be an interchange one for passengers taking Line 4 (Noapara to Barasat via airport). The Esplanade station will be the interchange for lines 1, 2 and 3 and subways will be constructed to facilitate this interchange.

The Teghoria station will facilitate interchange between the elevated line directly from Salt lake Sector V and Line 6 coming from New Garia and Salt Lake Sector V, via New Town-Rajarhat to the airport.

Construction work for 16.72 km Line 3 (Joka to BBD Bagh) was sanctioned in 2010 at a projected cost of Rs 2,619 crore. But the route has been shortened and will now terminate at Esplanade.

Metro Rail officials told Swarajya that work has been suspended on many stretches since land has not been handed over by the state government. “There are many land acquisition problems and many encroachments that are proving very difficult to remove. These issues need to be resolved by the state government,” said a senior officer.

Work on Line 4 is also progressing at a snail’s pace, again due to land acquisition issues. Encroachments on railway land on some stretches of this proposed route is also proving difficult to remove.

Earlier, the line was to stretch over 16.876 km from Noapara to Barasat via the airport. But the Airports Authority of India raised objections to the construction of an elevated stretch so close to the airport.

Following this, the route has been drastically curtailed and Line 4 will start from Noapara and terminate at the airport. Line 6 (from New Garia to airport via Salt Lake Sector V will continue until Barasat since it will run underground for a long stretch in the vicinity of the airport.

An existing circular railway link from Dum Dum Cantonment station to the airport, which is inoperational now since it had no passengers, will be integrated with Line 4. This is proving to be a major technical challenge.

Line 4 will now run from Noapara to Dum Dum Cantonment and take a turn towards Jessore Road to terminate at the airport.

Line 5 from Baranagar to Barrackpore was sanctioned in the 2010-2011 Railway Budget and a provision of Rs 2,069 crore was made for it. But the construction could not commence since that would have affected huge underground pipelines along the Barrackpore Trunk Road that supply water to the entire Kolkata city.

Shifting the pipelines is not feasible, and though the project has not been officially abandoned, Metro Rail officials are trying to rework the alignment to make it run along the Kalyani Expressway.

“We are examining the viability of the project if the line is to run along the Kalyani Expressway. Since the areas along this expressway are sparsely habited, a realigned metro link along this road may not get many passengers and may, thus, not be very viable,” said the Metro Rail officer.

Construction works for 32 km-long Line 6 (New Garia to airport via Salt Lake Sector V) is progressing, though at a tardy pace. The construction work was inaugurated by the then Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee on 7 February 2011 and the line was to have been commissioned by 2017.

But shifting of underground utilities, water treatment plants and a power sub-station took a lot of time. Land could not be acquired by the state government and encroachment could not be removed for a long time.

Work on the project, whose cost was initially pegged at Rs 3,951.98 crore, could actually start only in early 2017. The underground station at the airport is nearing completion.

But senior officers of the Rail Vikas Nigam Limited which has been awarded the contract for the line say that no deadline can be given for completing construction of the entire 32 km stretch.

Kolkata Metro’s saga is thus one of interminable delays caused mainly due to seemingly intractable land acquisition issues and problems over removing encroachments, faulty planning, accidents and route realignments.