Mass Rapid Transit System for Thane:

 Viable Solution for Indian Cities?

Sulakshana Mahajan

Rachana Sansad’s Institute for Environmental Architecture, Mumbai



Industrial revolution paved way for great development in the means of transportation in the nineteenth and twentieth century. Mass urban transportation needs in the western countries gave rise to rail and road based systems in the earlier phase. While the automobile emerged as the dominant mode in the later half of twentieth century.  Development countries such as India are struggling to find suitable solutions to for their urban transportation needs of mega cities.  Except the prime cities of Mumbai and Kolkata no other city in India has a well-developed rail based mass transportation service that can cater to the needs of a large number of commuters. In spite of the availability of suburban train services in Mumbai and Kolkata, transportation is inadequate compared to the actual demand. Even in the capital city of Delhi rail based mass transport system is partially commissioned only in 2003.

In the year 2001 Census have recorded  29 metro cities in India, which have more than a million people staying in each of them. Most of these have grown rapidly in the last fifty years and none have been successful in providing effective mass transportation infrastructure and transportation services. There are many reasons for this failure: lack of planning, lack of finances, and inaction on planning recommendations or delays in implementation wherever schemes are planned. Most solutions suggested for the mass urban transportation in cities tend to emulate some technical issues without adequate attention to Indian city characteristics. As a result most cities experience chaotic, inadequate, overcrowded, unsafe transportation conditions. Most city dwellers depend upon road based transport consisting of diesel buses, auto rickshaws and taxis as well as private two-wheelers and automobiles. Multiple types of vehicles combined with pedestrians, cyclist and street vendors cause congestion of roads and pollute the environment. Lack of transportation discipline among all kinds of commuters is a common ailment of all the Indian cities.

The Thane Municipal Corporation (TMC) has come up with a Mass Rapid Transit System (MRTS) project proposal is planned and is under serious consideration. The proposal prepared by Maharashtra Road Development Corporation (MSRDC) on behalf of TMC in December 2002 is expected to cater to its present and future transportation needs. This proposal is being touted as one of the first initiatives in the urban transportation sector in India. MRTS is promoted as the most suitable and appropriate technological scheme for Thane. Since 1991 economic reforms have opened up infrastructure sector for private sector participation. Various methods of public and private sector partnerships are devised to enhance private sector role in financing, constructing and operating such projects. The MRTS project of Thane envisages such public private partnership.

The Thane MRTS proposal has therefore received a lot of publicity in the media and has thrown up a number of debates. The authorities are keen to implement the proposal. The proposal is now made available to the public for their comments and objections. Taking advantage of this opportunity many people and experts from various fields are evaluating the proposal from different perspectives.

This paper examines the transportation issues of Thane in light of the proposed MRTS  from an urban planning perspective. Systems such as the proposed MRTS in Thane were commonly designed and commissioned in many Western countries in the second half of nineteenth and early twentieth century[1]. Metro system in London, New York, Raised rail system known as Loop in Chicago are some of the well known examples. These large transport systems were supported through public funds, government subsidies and venture capital. In the case of MRTS, the project is also proposed to be funded through private and public funds and a government subsidy.

Capital-intensive transportation systems such as MRTS are typically known as Large Technical Systems[2] (LTS). They are expensive to create and expensive to maintain. Such systems were created in the rapid growth periods in Western countries similar to the present urban trends witnessed in India. However in the subsequent period of economic stagnation and decline of those cities[3], such systems have often become a burden on cities. In most of the cities, these systems have been financially sustained by restricting other means of transport. Some of them have been running at great losses due to various reasons and are sustaining on substantial government support[4]. Most of these systems were erected before introduction of motorised vehicles and came under great strain when car became the dominant mode of transportation supported by road networks.

New Information and Communication Technologies[5] (ICT) are posing questions to the conventional methods of planning and challenging the wisdom of designing large-scale urban infrastructure systems. The enfolding capacities of ICT are expected to influence the patterns of urban growth and development in every country. Cities in western countries are rapidly transforming under the impact of ICT. In the near future the ICT revolution is also expected to affect cities of developing countries such as India . Along with this, ICT is bringing new insights, new methods and facilitating new and innovative solutions in the field of urban transportation. At such a critical time it is essential to ask if the MRTS system as proposed in Thane is the right choice.  The aim of this paper is to explore the issue of appropriate technology for the present and future transportation needs of Thane. As a case study, it is hoped that this exercise would be useful for other Indian cities. The following questions are addressed through this paper:

·         Whether the proposed MRTS scheme provides an appropriate design solution to the transportation problems of Thane city in the present context?

·         If not what alternative strategy could be suggested to make the system appropriate?

·         What can urban planners learn from the MRTS example?


Mumbai had been the most important metropolitan city in India throughout the twentieth century. Mumbai’s glorious history, its growth and development owes a lot to the British colonial rule in India. After independence Mumbai continued to attract thousands of people from different regions in India. As the physical space of Mumbai and its suburbs was gradually filled, a large number of industries and housing started spilling over into the surrounding suburbs and smaller cities in the region such as Thane, Kalyan, Virar, Vasai. This process accelerated in the 1970s even though traditional industries such as textile in Mumbai started showing signs of aging, stagnation and decline. During this period restrictive government policies did not allow the aging industries and housing in Mumbai to innovate and regenerate. On the other hand the government actively promoted decentralization of industries in the surrounding cities and rural areas of the Thane District spurring growth of cities on a large scale.  Thane, Bhivandi-Kalyan, and Mira Bhayandar, located on the eastern and western highways as well as Central and Western railway corridors emanating from Mumbai witnessed the maximum growth after 1970s. 

Thane: city to metropolis

Thane became an important industrial city in late 1960s.  It had many advantages, the chief one being its proximity to Mumbai. Thane had good road and rail links to Mumbai and the rest of Maharashtra. Thane had large tracks of agricultural lands available for urban expansion. Working people living in Mumbai could easily travel to Thane for work due to the suburban train service. Once the initial industrial activity was well grounded in 60s people were attracted to settle here. As a result, the population of Thane doubled between 1971-81. from 2.07 lakh to 4.32 lakh.  Once again it almost doubled to 8.03 lakh in 1991. Thane was home for 12.62 lakh people in 2001[6].

The growth of Thane in the 80s prompted planners and city administration for pre-emptive actions. It became essential to think ahead and plan for urban development and urban services. Transportation was one of the most important urban issues. In 1982, the administrative status of Thane was changed.  Thane became a municipal corporation[7]. This allowed it to plan for its own transportation system. At the same time Thane boundary was enlarged and surrounding villages were merged in the corporation area[8].

Planning for a transportation system was a specialized job and few planning agencies existed then in India. RITES, a public sector transportation consultation corporation attached to the railway ministry of India came up with a land based Light Rail System (LRS) as the most suitable mode of transportation in 1987[9]. RITES recommended that Thane Municipal Corporation (TMC) should reserve a stretch of land for LRS in its Development Plan (DP) for the city. Such corridor was reserved in the development plan. However no further action was taken in this matter until 1994. In that year City Industrial Development Corporation (Cidco), another public sector corporation promoted by the State of Maharashtra was asked to conduct detailed study of the city’s traffic needs and to make specific recommendations on the LRS scheme. Cidco, after conducting the initial traffic surveys came up with specific recommendations on the LRS route.  It also recommended specifications for the Mass Capacity Rapid Transport System (MCRTS) for Thane. The system was land based and generally followed the route guidelines recommended in the RITES report. Cidco planners had prepared detailed cost estimates for the system including route length and alignment, stations and train configuration as mentioned below.

Total route length of the Phase I

13.30 km

Total route length for Phase II

7.70 km

Number of stations on Phase I


Total estimated cost of the project

Rs.196 crore

Phase I cost was estimated

Rs.108 crore

Until 1999 no action was taken on this report. In the meantime, Thane had been suffering from road congestion due to multitudes of means of transport and a growing number of vehicles and pedestrians on the streets. As per M/S CIRT, Pune study for Thane bus transport system in 1987 envisaged that a total fleet of 560 buses would be needed to cater to the mass transit requirements of the then projected population of 14.5 lakhs in year 2001[10] as an alternative to LRS system. Since the LRS was not pursued, Thane Corporation started its own bus service. The number of buses in Thane city are 1500 as per the MRTS study conducted in 2002. [11]

5. In the same period a large number of auto rickshaws and private vehicles proliferated Thane (displacing horse driven Tongas) and started choking the narrow streets.  A large number of shops encroached on the street and footpath spaces reducing the effective road space. Areas within 3 km radius from the Thane station suffered extreme congestion between 1985- 1995.(Map 1) The problem was further compounded as a large number of old buildings were replaced by authorized (and unauthorised) tall and medium height structures. Due to the general lack of efficient public transport, areas near the railway station became dense. The TMC political class permitted such high densities showing little respect for the provisions of city development plan. Thus in the mid 90s Thane projected an image of an Indian city at its worst.

Towards the end of the millennium Thane was transformed dramatically due to single-handed heroic efforts of Mr. T. Chandrashekhar. He managed to He managedHtransform the image of Thane city and its streets in less than 4 years by removing unauthorised structures, encroachments and making road space available for flow of traffic. So much so that in the year 2000 Thane won the HUDCO sponsored best city of India award.

Mass Rapid Transport System (MRTS) for Thane.

The need for action on mass transit system is indicated in the position paper of the MRTS report. In view of urgency to improve urban infrastructure Government of Maharashtra has appointed MSRDC [12] as the facilitator Nodal Agency to undertake necessary studies and possible implementation of the projects in public private partnership. Thus MSRDC in April 2000 appointed consortium of consultants to plan the project. Financial support for the study is provided by the Ministry of Urban Development (MUD). The consultants have submitted the detailed project proposal to MSRDC and TMC in Dec.2002.

The proposal has suggested a number of changes in the original route alignment, its profile as well as train configuration. As a result the estimated project cost has been revised upward from the original Rs. 196 crore in 1994 to about Rs. 850 crore for the first phase (at the year 2000 prices). The major features of the new scheme are

·         The MRTS is planned with two tracks as an elevated system. Average elevation of the system is 9 m. above ground level.

·         Total proposed length of the route is 22 km. out of which 16 km length is to be completed in Phase I by year 2006.

·         A total of 11 stations are proposed on the route, which also have been elevated at an average height of 9.00 m.

·         The number of coaches has been increased from 2 to 4 per rake.

·         As per the new alignment the proposed route is circular in nature and partially passes through the very crowded Thane station locality and Gokhale road.

·         The large open space opposite to Thane (west) station is getting covered under the route and the new station. 


The RITES report, which in the first place had suggested land based LRS for Thane had underlined the common threat experienced in providing rapid transit systems in cities. In its preface it was noted that “ …if the first step is not taken in time, and valuable opportunity for reserving the right of way is lost, there is a possibility that this ideal fades away because of practical limitations like the difficulty in procurement of land, properties etc. Later, what can be constructed as an “at surface” system with foresight has necessarily to be taken as a costly elevated structure or alternatively as a costlier underground system if not thought earlier.”

Hence before undertaking the evaluation of the present elevated ring rail project (as it is popularly called in the media) one has to accept that the MRTS proposal has been promoted against the backdrop of persistent inaction and negligent attitude of the TMC on the matter as well as introduction of TMT buses in the same period. A crucial period of 15 years, when Thane was growing rapidly, was lost due to inaction and apathy. In this period the transportation needs were somehow fulfilled at great cost to the residents and the city environment through buses, autos and private vehicles.

It must also be noted that during this period a number of flyovers were constructed on the important Eastern Express Highway in the Thane city section by the PWD and MSRDC without giving thought to the proposal of LRS route alignment designated by Cidco. Also, a large number of services were laid in the form of under ground/ overhead water pipes, electrical HT and LT lines, drainage system, and telecommunication network throughout many city areas. A petroleum pipeline, which could be a safety hazard during, as well as completion of rail system was laid along the Eastern Express Highway where new rail system is proposed. As a result, it has become inevitable for MRTS to be constructed on expensive elevated tracks. The MRTS therefore has to be evaluated against this background. 

Question 1: Whether the proposed MRTS scheme of Thane is an appropriate design solution for the transportation problems of the city?

To answer this question, six issues crucial to the project are identified for close scrutiny. These are the issues that must be dealt with for any project to succeed. Neglect of even one of them could endanger the project and more than one could bring disaster. These issues are commonly identified by experts from Western countries who have studied large-scale projects of different kinds over a long period. The project could be from any field of infrastructure such as mass transport, irrigation or energy. These five general factors are crucial to all. They are: market, design and context, financing, entrepreneurship and time[13]. It would be useful to judge the Thane MRTS project against these critical issues. .


Is there sufficient market demand (present and future) for the MRTS service?

The project report has dealt with this question at length to establish the need for the MRTS upto year 2031. Market demand for MRTS is worked out by estimation of commuter numbers upto 2031. Viability of the project is related to the growth of demand due to population growth of Thane. The future demand is estimated from the present base numbers of population, its socio-economic characteristics, settlement pattern and zoning, available means of transport as well as its cost. Thus the success of the project is critically related to the estimates of growth of population and related need of transportation services in Thane city. The exercise is based on computation of demand through mathematical modelling techniques using available data and patterns of growth. Following projections are worked out in the project report.

1.       Population growth for next three decades up to 2031.

2.       Growth in total demand for transportation services is estimating worked out. From that base share of MRTS customers in relation to other means of transport such as bus, auto rickshaws and private vehicles is worked out.

Market estimation is crucial as underestimation of market can lead to failure due to inadequate provision in services and overburdening of the system affecting commuter satisfaction. On the other hand overestimated market can lead to under utilization of services and financial burden on the operators and losses leading to deterioration of services. In case of Thane MRTS it is observed that the market for MRTS is grossly overestimated.

Sources of market overestimation

Overestimation of population growth

Population growth of Thane is related to trends in migration of people within Mumbai as well as influx from outside regions. After initial growth in the 1970s and 80s, the population growth rate of Thane as well as Mumbai has dropped. The decline in growth rate is more profound in case of Mumbai. Decennial growth rate of Mumbai region recorded in 1991 and 2001 was 33.69 and 29.94.  Highest growth rates for Thane were recorded in two decades between 1951-71. (107 % and 110%) Thereafter the decennial growth rate has been 87 % (1981-91) and 56 % (1991-2001). Population recorded in 2001 was 12.62 lakhs while actual projection made in the Development Plan prepared in 1887 was 14.4 lakhs. It is clear that the city is no longer growing as fast as was expected in the 80s[14].

This data does not get reflected in the project consultants report. This data does not get reflected in the project report, which was available in August 2001. Instead population data from 1991 census is used while estimating the population growth. If the actual population figure of 12.62 lakhs for year 2001 is used instead of estimated figure of 16.93 lakhs (as in Table 6.7 of the Vol I of the report) and maintaining the growth of rate as per report, the population estimate for 2031 works out to about 22 lakhs against projected 30 lakhs.  As a result population projection for future three decades is overestimated by at least 23 %.

Overestimated commuter number for MRTS

Since estimates about commuter trips and its assignment to MRTS  is closely linked to the growth of population it is obvious that estimated passenger number calculated from base population figures is overestimated as well an needs to be revised.

Overestimation due to inclusion of sectors irrelevant for MRTS

Another major factor overlooked by in the project is the specific geography of Thane. Kalwa-Mumbra and Diva villages are located on the eastern side of the central railway corridor. Geographically these are separated from the main western part of Thane where MRTS is planned. The Cidco planners had rightly omitted these localities from the definition of study area for MRTS. It is clearly seen from the city map that population residing in these areas would not generate passenger trips for the MRTS system. Thus population from these sectors should have been deleted for the estimation. Similarly as the proposed route does not pass through the eastern part of Thane namely Kopri such population residing in this zone should have been deleted for estimation.  

Over estimation due to inclusion of population near Thane Station

Thane station is at the heart of the proposed transportation scheme. However a large number of people reside within 1.5 km distance from Thane station and would not use the MRTS for their travel needs on daily basis. Such residential population would not contribute to MRTS market. All these factors and realities should have been considered by planners while estimating the market. Whole of Thane east area falls within this category and population of sector I numbering 73000 in 1991 needs to be deleted before calculating the passenger numbers.

Overestimation due to Gravity model

The report has used Gravity model for estimating passenger demand. It is an outdated model. The use of gravity model has come under severe criticism of transportation planners from Western countries. “Such models as the gravity model--- the basis of countless transport and infrastructure plans in the post war years – followed Newton in treating space as absolute, essential objects. It reduced the complex social world to overarching geometric and morphological laws. And it relied on technological determinism of the simplest kind in extrapolating and forecasting the future…There are important shifts towards complexity theories and probabilistic modelling within such approaches, regional science, and whole edifice of econometric infrastructure modelling based on it…” (Quoted from Graham and Marvin 2001, page 106  from Technology Fore-sight Panel on Transport 1995, 59 quoted in Marshall)

A more contemporary statistical model based on Time series should have been used in place of old model by the consultants. Probabilistic estimates such as prepared by Cidco planners appear to be more realistic while the projection of passenger numbers appears to be overestimated in the MRTS report. 

            Serious omissions such as these cast doubts on the abilities and motives of the consultants as well as administration. It has been a common experience that statistical methods used in the population or traffic projections seldom match the actual growth of Traffic[15]. Besides it is now a well recognized fact that a large number of complex factors such as birth rates, death rates, migration, demographic profile of city, economic class composition and characteristics of population, employment opportunities, availability of other urban services as well as perceptions and changing expectations of people about city make the predictions about market very difficult.

Location and Design

Alignment of MRTS along Station area and Gokhale road

As a general rule considerations of successful designs are those that fit well in the context as well as increase the value of the context. In the twentieth century designers of urban services placed a lot of emphasis on standardized designs. One design fit all became the motto and many failures of design are ascribed to this common practice. In the later decades, the design emphasis has shifted to custom design due to multiple failures of standard design practice in variety of urban contexts. Understanding the context of design needs understanding society, economy and culture of the people, which is rather difficult for technocrats and hence of ten neglected as in case of MRTS.

If one is to judge the appropriateness of the MRTS design and technology proposed for Thane, one should concentrate on the most critical geographic areas as a test for understanding the context. Two such areas can easily be identified in the MRTS. One is the crowded west side of the Thane station and another is Gokhale road alignment. The MRTS technology may be suitable for long distance commuters but in the context of these two areas it would be an invitation for disaster.

When judging the appropriateness of a design, all the stakeholders affected by the design become an important and integral part of the context even though they might not be users of the designed system. In this case, pedestrians, shop owners and residents using the space of railway station and Gokhale road are the most important stakeholders. If one were to consider in terms of absolute numbers, the pedestrians form the single largest users of roads and public space near the Thane station. Pedestrians account for almost 50 % of trips in Thane. Above two geographical spaces are more important to pedestrians than the future MRTS customers travelling from a distance. A good design does not punish one section of a society while thinking of another. Present users of urban spaces cannot be punished for future unknown commuters. But MRTS project is exactly doing this.

Incidentally, the Gokhale road and station area was augmented, made workable and a bit comfortable for users during the road widening phase carried out by T.Chandrashekhar with great difficulty. This was accomplished only in the last decade at great public cost. Besides the proposed alignment of the MRTS system would completely destabilise all the public services such as water and sewage lines, storm water drains, footpaths and vehicle lanes. The private investments made by a number of small, medium and large shop owners and commercial establishments would be destroyed. The MRTS proposal would completely destroy the thriving market. Besides the estimated three years of construction activity would cause damage and cause unimaginable hardships to people and properties. The planners seem to have neglected this important aspect. 

The elevated MRTS is going to create claustrophobic effect. Aesthetically this would render this space ugly and unsafe. (Refer the sections and drawings attached herewith)

There is another great threat inherent in the design of MRTS. The project design is such that partial completion and or incremental commissioning of the project are impossible. In case of delay for any unforeseen reasons, there is a threat to the investment made in construction as well as by the users of city space. As the largest part of the estimate is related to the civil construction (50 %) all the investment would be of no value until all the civil work is complete. If for any reason the project is cancelled no part could be salvaged nor could be used

If we consider past experience as a guide to the future, there are no successful large-scale transport projects in India to mention except the Konkan railway. Also, Konkan Railway is not an urban infrastructure project but a project of regional and national importance. No city in India has erected such a massive technical system in the past 50 years. The example of underground metro in Kolkata is not at all encouraging and it is too early to refer to the New Delhi metro system. Besides Thane is not at all comparable to large metropolises in size, importance and economy[16]. Thane is just 10% of Mumbai as far as population is concerned. Some of Mumbai suburbs such as Andheri or Ghatkopar have more people staying in them than Thane and no rail system is even considered in the crowded conditions.

Other design issues

The MRTS scheme is also going to affect the environmentally sensitive mangroves and creek areas. Besides these there could be a number of threats such as fire and safety of buildings, property and lives on crowded sections. No comments have yet been offered by the Fire department of the TMC. These issues would come to the fore sooner or later. It is a serious oversight on part of the designers.

Elevated profile of the complete rail system is another contentious issue. Closely spaced road intersections, one at every 1.5 km on an average, is the only reason mentioned for selecting the elevated profile for the transit system. However on close scrutiny it is revealed that only three major crossings would justify the raised profile namely Kalwa road, new Bhivandi by pass and old Agra road. All other roads carry very light traffic and rail system can be very well run at the ground level. Such systems are common in many Western countries where road and rail systems share same road space and follow same traffic rules. Most of the rail track follows the ample open space of the easter express high way and Ghodbunder road.

Financial aspects of MRTS

The MSRDC projects are constructed through financial support from the state government and private financial institutions. Financial viability of such projects can only be ascertained after completion of projects.  Time delays, cost overruns, unforeseen events are common problems of such projects. Less than expected revenues after completion often lead to financial burdens on public bodies. Many projects such as Mumbai-Pune high way, Mumbai flyovers completed by MSRDC in recent past are plagued by such problems. Most public and urban services in our cities are heavily subsidised and have been putting strain on city administrations and state government. Recently this policy has come under great strain. Financial discipline is now rightly seen as the most valuable factor.

To overcome financial constraints on initial capital, private sector investment as well as participation is sought through various measures such as Build Operate and Transfer (BOT) or Build, Operate, Own and Transfer  (BOOT). However the risks involved in infrastructure projects such as MRTS deter investors. It is clear from the executive summary of project report that this MRTS project is financially not viable without a large financial institutional investment and annual contributions from TMC or MMRDA[17].

The project envisages formation of Maharashtra Urban transport corporation (MUTC) with MMRDA, MSRTC and TMC as well as other city corporation and other financial institutions to fund such projects. Even if such organization is set up for generating funds for projects. Even if funds are generated the ultimate burden is going to fall on the city residents for repayment.  Therefore financial capacity of cities to contribute initial funds as well as repay the debts should be the criteria for undertaking such ventures.


Why this is an important issue?

It is one of the generally neglected issues in most project designs and planning. This factor is often little understood, and hence neglected in most of the public sector projects of this scale. However dynamic civic officers such as Mr.T Chandrashekhar (who implemented road development projects in Thane, Nagpur) or Mr. Sridharan (who translated the dream of Konakan railway in reality) amply prove the importance of entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs conceive projects, often when others are unaware that there are any opportunities available. They assemble and coordinate the various players who will execute whatever needs to be done. Public projects often fail because public officials ignore the role of entrepreneurship and consider projects in purely administrative terms.

A large amount of success of the MRTS project would depend upon finding such people either from public or from private sector. In fact such a project would need entrepreneurship to win support from both the public and private sector, as well as support from the Thane residents at whatever scale the project is implemented. Public trust and cooperation in entrepreneurship is not readily available and needs to be ascertained from the planning stage. This fact is completely missing from the project plan. 


 Is the time right for the implementation of the MRTS project?

RITES consultants had made the original proposal in 1987. 15 years of valuable time was lost. In the meantime, the city of Thane - its population, social and demographic composition, settlement pattern, physical form, environment and economy - have been completely transformed. Not that all changes were positive. Along with this transportation needs and perceptions about city have changed significantly.

In these 15 years, the negative perception about Thane has been transformed with great efforts. Underground water and storm water drainage system was installed, upgraded. Large underground network of telecom cables was laid in the city. Roads network was improved immensely. Some of the lakes, a unique feature of Thane were rescued and restored at great costs. Tree plantation and beautification projects implemented. In short a small town was transformed into a thriving city with new urban infrastructure projects. Presence of large population its self has diversified the economy, society and out look. This is often reflected in a number of Marathi and English newspapers, which have added Thane city sections to their daily newspapers[18].

On the negative side, due to inadequate transport facilities a large number of single story buildings, chawls, single-family bungalows and low rise buildings as in the area of Brahmin Society in Thane near the station area were demolished and rebuilt with multi storey structures. The demand for space near Thane station was so great that the corporation increased the FSI. Many unauthorised additions to buildings are constantly exposed in the media. As a result the land area close to Thane station has been filled with tall structures accommodating a large number of tenements, commercial premises on upper level and shops on the ground floors as well as basements. These areas now experience a very high density of residents as well as commercial establishments. Quite Ram Maruti road precinct has been converted in fashionable shopping street in last five years. As per the project report itself, 49 percent people walk to work or station due to such dense, multi-use developments. One could imagine that if the mass rapid system was erected in early 90s the distant nodes would have developed with it and the crowding and heavy concentration could have been avoided. Now if the MRTS is made to pass through this locality, it would adversely affect the residents, users and shop owners.

Today 1500 buses and some 25000 Auto rickshaws and 54000 two wheelers largely fulfil the transportation needs of Thane as per the MRTS report[19]. A large number of employment is generated by these transportation modes. Road improvements have eased the congestion to some extent but since then the number of autos and private vehicles have increased and most of the additional road space is now taken up by the parking and foot-path space occupied by vendors. Unless effective measures to control vehicles and parking on street no technical solutions are going to work. At the same time many indigenous informal arrangements have evolved in the city. Point to point services by autos is quite common at peak hours. They prove to be mutually beneficial to auto owners as well as commuters.

A large number of housing estates and commercial premises as well as illegal slum settlements that have developed on the periphery are serviced by these multiple transport modes. It would be difficult to estimate how many would switch to MRTS, given the flexibility, variety and individual choice offered by these various modes. In fact what would have been a guaranteed customer base in the 90s has been lost due to the expensive time delay.

Question 2. What lessons planners can learn from the MRTS project of Thane?

It is quite clear from the above discussion on five important aspects of market, design and context, financing and time that the project as conceived by the planners and the administrators is too ambitious, rather out of proportion to the needs and would create serious problems if implemented as per present design. Technically speaking the project may succeed in providing additional transportation service in Thane. However whether it would resolve the present transportation problems of congestion, speed and convenience faced by the residents remains doubtful. In the process it may create financial burden, may destroy existing social and economic composition, tear away many important services and vitality of some areas, and cause serious safety, environmental, economic and social hardships during and after the construction.

One could cite a few successful and many not so successful examples of creation of transportation facilities from western countries. Many city planners had implemented infrastructure schemes in developed countries in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Most cities in the USA and Europe in late nineteenth century had witnessed the same kind of urban chaos we experience in our cities today. Large scale Technical Systems (LTS) were planned and laid out to create order and discipline in the cities.  Metro systems in New York, London, Paris, and the elevated loop in Chicago and many other cities as well as the highway networks in Germany and USA were created with large scale planning, huge investments and ruthless destruction of environment and communities.

“By linking venture capital with engineering, innovation, and organisation building, Thomas Huges showed (what was called system building entrepreneurs) struggled to impose systemic qualities on their infrastructures, through a particular style, in often difficult and usually volatile circumstances” (as quoted by Graham and Marvin 2001, p.180)

MRTS project of Thane in fact shows great resemblance to such projects and implementation strategies that were followed in the western countries in the last century. MRTS is largely modelled after the western infrastructure ideals of that period. The problem with such systems is that the ideal of the last century planners is challenged in the Western countries. Industrial age technology and planning methods used for designing urban infrastructure projects have come under great attack in the post industrial period in the western countries.

As a result of wider shifts in urban planning and its social context, it was becoming increasingly untenable by the late 1970s to maintain that infrastructure networks were simply technical, engineered systems existing somehow separate from society which operate to ‘impact’ on society. The methodological and analytical tools underlying urban infrastructure planning were similarly under question. The collapse of notion that civil engineers could roll out integrated infrastructure rationally to meet the perceived needs, whilst abstracted from the social and political worlds of their city, has been especially important.”

“The field of transportation planning is an especially powerful example of the collapse of the notion that infrastructure is simply a technical, engineered system… Tim Marshall (1997) points out that transport planners have virtually given up forecasting the future, not only because past efforts were so embarrassingly inaccurate, but because of transport planners sense of being adrift in a confusing and uncontrollable flux.”…Future development of transport sector is determined as much by economic, political, social and environmental factors as it is by the availability of the technology” (Graham and Marvin 2001, p.179-180)

Infrastructure planning and technological solutions without consideration of the economic, social and political context has come under great cloud everywhere. This is precisely what has been done in case of Thane MRTS project. The Thane residents, their real present day transportation problems, requirements, their views and their participation are conspicuously missing. No specific sector wise socio-economic study of Thane residents, their composition, and movements is attempted. No opinion is sought from the residents, users, shop owners, pedestrians and whole lot of different commuters on the project before or during the project was planned. In fact taking into consideration and creatively engaging them in the planning process is an essential tool of contemporary planning philosophy. It is now labelled as soft technology. Urban planning is now getting oriented towards this soft technology[20].

With this background of contemporary paradigm shift away from the simple hard mechanistic technological  solutions we have to explore ways and means for creating solutions to the real transportation needs.

Question 3. What alternative measures could be suggested to make the system appropriate?

The need for efficient and environment friendly transportation network facilities in Thane is beyond any doubt. In addition to this it needs to be flexible and affordable as well as economically viable to stand on its own merits. What could be the ingredients of such a system?

High speed and carrying capacity of transport is often considered as the most important criteria of efficiency as in the case of MRTS Thane. It is for this sole purpose Thane MRTS is proposed to be elevated on the concrete structures. A dedicated route with no crossings with other means of transport provides the necessary speed. The project planners have mentioned that there is one junction for each 1.5 km length. However all the road junctions the MRTS has to cross do not carry heavy traffic. Besides most junctions on Highway service road do not pose problems. It could be seen from the road maps that the route crosses only four major roads that may need elevated structures for crossing. Kalwa road near the creek, Bhivandi by-pass on Mumbai Agra road, old Agra road near creek and Ghodbunder road. One could think of constructing raised crossings only for these sections. All other crossings are mainly on the eastern express highway and can be managed with traffic planning and co-ordinated signalling systems. In fact advanced electronic traffic control and communication systems operated by the MRTS train drivers can ensure unobstructed travel of the train even on crossings. Alternatively the road traffic can be regulated to give priority to MRTS operations, which would impose very little cost.

Restricting and regulating private vehicles on important roads, curtailing auto rickshaws on certain roads at peak hours, better training of auto operators, differential pricing at different times, entry fee and no parking in crowded area of station at peak hours, utmost priority and safety for pedestrians and better logistic management of bus operations to co-ordinate with mass transit are essential in any case. And these can be implemented immediately with help of the auto unions and commuters even before MRTS is in place.

Considering the present settlement pattern of high density in the Thane station area and Gokhale road the elevated structural arrangement in this section is the most objectionable part of the design. To improve the situation one may consider dedicated land tracks for MRTS in this area to operate only at peak hours simultaneously prohibiting any private or public vehicles on west side of the station and Gokhale road. This area could be completely reserved for pedestrians and could be developed as pedestrian plaza and shopping precinct with strict control on hawkers.

The land based rail system is much efficient and flexible. Even in densly constructed localities single track could enhance speed and capacity. Such extensions could be possible if the present system is also designed as land based. It could also provide gradual replacement of buses on certain routes. Land based rail transport could be extended gradually on many other routes emanating from Thane station. Simulation, trial and error methods, continuous monitoring and planning could replace large scale planning. The project plan can be replaced with a continuous planning process, a process that continues to adapt to changing demands and fluctuations in time and space.  It is an evolutionary planning perspective. Land based system would offer greater flexibility with rakes of one or two compartments. In fact planning on gross understanding should be replaced with more pragmatic planning process routed in changing ground reality from time to time, season to season.

Land based system can be mounted on the road surface without disturbing under ground installations. Wherever the system is extended those roads could be made into pedestrian plazas. Thus vehicular traffic as well as number of vehicles could be limited only to few localities and residential areas. A gradual shift to MRTS would be needed to avoid large-scale displacement of auto rickshaw dependent jobs.

The system would be hugely economical and would avoid stations elevated at higher level. Large number of electrical devices such as escalators, lifts could be automatically eliminated.

Lower fares and lower capital costs would rather ensure inexpensive rides and make the system more attractive even for a short distance. The number of people using the system would be much more than presently estimated.

In the heydays of Large Technical Systems their success was guaranteed by elimination of competitive modes of other means of transport. Such systems relied on heavy taxation, or punishment to competitors through legal measures. The history of urban development is closely related to the development of transportation systems in the Western countries. After a century of this development new insights have developed in the field of transportation which are rather valuable for countries such as India and cities like Thane. The gross understanding about cities and transportation is now greatly replaced by specificity of cities where by specific understanding about city sectors is considered essential planning tool.

The specific understanding is also helped by new emerging technologies such as Information and Communication Technology (ICT) With help of these technological advances in transportation field city transport systems are simulated, modelled, monitored and continuously upgraded with small investments and attention to detailing. Large number of transport related information nodes are developed in cities and traffic management is carried out through networking all these nodes and by appropriately controlling traffic flows through various parts city. Such systems are operational at many places in the western countries. In fact such technologies could be of great help in planning transportation system in Thane. They could easily be designed by local planners for the local conditions for targetted needs of mobility and accessibility.

However these new planning methods would need different kinds of planners than those trained in the last century with emphasis on mechanistic planning.


Thane MRTS project proposal was first mooted as Light Rail System in 1987 as an alternative to bus transportation. In 2003 Thane already has a large fleet of buses and auto rickshaws. MRTS proposal could be viable only by replacing these existing means of transportation.

The MRTS proposal is based on future growth of Thane city in coming three decades. However the projections are grossly overestimated. The alignment along the crowded street is an extremely unfortunate part of the design, which would create grave hardships to the present Thane residents from these areas. The elevated profile of the rail system has tremendously increased the project cost and would put heavy burden on the city finances. The proposal needs large number changes if it is to be made suitable for Thane city. It is also essential to visualise MRTS in relation with comprehensive transportation plan of Thane and the region to make is more effective. Such changes are possible and could be made with participation of all the stake-holders and local experts from different fields.

What in fact is being promoted by MRTS of Thane as a modern technology and modern project planning is rather an outdated, discarded and thoroughly suspect technology of the twentieth century. Better contemporary planning methods and means of transport developed only in the last few years such as Information and communication technology need to be explored. Such evolving technologies offer much better alternatives and suitable low cost solutions to cites such as Thane.


[1]Early Large infrastructure projects consisted of ports, canals and rail roads which connected cities, ports across the continents as well as hinterlands of the countries in Europe and America as well as in Asia. Metro rails were erected in London, New York, Elevated rail in Chicago in early twentieth century. First Indian railway was commissioned in 1853.

[2] Refer Graham Marvin 2001

[3] Industrial cities such as Detroit from USA, Manchester from UK witnessed decline in their industrial activities since 1960 after initial rapid growth in the first half of the twentieth century.

[4] The public transport in some of the western countries is sustained to help the poorer sections of their society who cannot afford cars. Removal of such systems would lead to complete isolation of poor people. Many cities in the USA have newly created rail systems to promote public transportation. However the domination of car is continuing and hence not many passengers for urban train. The systems therefore are sustained on support from governments.

[5] The conversion of computers, telecommunication and electronics media is termed as ICT.

[6] Census of India Series-28 Maharashtra, Provisional Population Totals Paper 2 of 2001, Rural Urban Distribution, Page 61

[7] Development plan of Thane 1986-2001, Page 9

[8] 32 settlements including Kolshet, Balkum Industrial complex, Kalwa, Mumbra, Kausa, Diwa etc. were included in the Thane corporation area.


[10] Executive Summary pf H.C.M.T.S. study by Cidco.

[11] MRTS study report VOL I. Dec. 2002.

[12] MSRDC was promoted by the State government of Maharashtra in 1997 as an independent corporation to look after the construction of various road and bridge projects. It was instrumental in successful completion of the Mumbai-Pune Expressway and flyovers in Mumbai region. Due to the success MSRDC has become an important agency for implementing various road and infrastructure projects in Maharashtra. It is in this context that Thane MRTS proposal was probably entrusted to it.

[13] Alexander Gravin in “A realistic Approach to city and suburban planning and ingredients of success form the American city: what works what doesn’t.

[14] Census of India Series-28 Maharashtra, Provisional Population Totals Paper 2 of 2001, Rural Urban Distribution, Page 61

[15] Vehicle traffic projections made for Mumbai-Pune highway is one of the best examples. The less than expected vehicle number has affected the financial calculations and repayment of the public bonds issued for the purpose.

[16] Population of Mumbai 119 lakh, Kolkata 45 lakh, Delhi 98 lakh. Thane ranks 19 th among cities with more than one million population as per census data of 2001 available on India Census website.

[17] Ref. Executive summary page. 15.

[18] Times of India, Indian express are the English dailies while Maharashtra Times, Loksatta, Sakal and many marathi dailies have weekly or daily supplements on Thane.

[19] It is not clear whether the number of buses include TMT, ST, NMMT and private because. The report should have included TMT bus users analysis for better insight.

[20] Graham and Marvin 2001




1.       Castells M. (1985) High Technology, space, and society, Sage Publications Beverly Hills, Calif.

2.       Castells M. (1989) The informational city: Information Technology, Economic Restructuring and the Urban-Regional process, Oxford: Blackwell.

3.       Castells M. (1996) The Rise of the networked Society Blackwell Publishers, Cambridge, Mass.

4.       Census of India 2001, Series –28, Maharashtra, Provisional Population totals. Paper 2 of 2001, Rural Urban Distribution of Population, Director of Census operations, Maharashtra.

5.       Graham S. and Marvin S. (1996) Telecommunications and the City, Routledge, London.

6.       Graham S. and Marvin S. (2001) Splintering Urbanism. Routledge, London

7.       Goodman D. and Chant Colin Ed. (1999) European Cities and Technology: industrial to postindustrial city. Routledge in association with open University, London

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  2. Kevin Lynch Good city form, 1981 MIT press Massachusetts
  3. Landry C. The creative city: A toolkit for urban innovators. 2000, Earthscape Publications Ltd. UK.

11.   LeGates R.T. & Stout F (Ed) The city Reader, 2001 Routledge, London and New York

12.   Mackenzie D. and Wajcman J. Ed. (1985) the social shaping of Technology, Open University press.

13.   Roberts G.K. and Steadman P Ed. (1999) American Cities and Technology: wilderness to wired city Routledge in association with open University, London

14.    Schon D.A. Sannyal B., Mitchell W.J. Ed. (1999) High Technology and low-income communities, MIT press Cambridge, Mass.

Project reports

Report prepared by RITES and CIDCO for Thane Municipal Corporation, Thane

MRTS report Vol I to VII, MSRDC, Mumbai