Mumbai needs a network of ferry services more than just a Metro 3

The success of the Delhi Metro has motivated other states to initiate similar projects. To solve Mumbai’s transportation problems, a third Metro line and a coastal road are being spoken as solutions.

Metro 3 involves a capital outlay of about Rs 23,136 crore, and will have 27 stations starting from Cuffe Parade in South Mumbai to the airport, ending at SEEPZ in North Mumbai. The 32.5 km underground corridor is intended to connect areas like Kalbadevi, Worli and Andheri (East) that are not served by Mumbai's famed overground suburban network currently. The proposed 36 km Coastal Road is from Cuffe Parade in South Mumbai to Dahisar in the north-western suburbs.

Without going into the merits of these projects, let us note that every government since the 1970s has focused on decongesting South Mumbai. This is why Navi Mumbai was conceived. But today, the largest percentage of those who come to work in the island city stay far beyond where Metro 3 ends! They actually live outside the city’s municipal limits. Lastly, Metro 3 seeks to connect most of the island city to the existing airport when a new airport at Panvel is expected to be operational by 2019-20 and most Mumbaikars do not reside in the island city.

Besides these projects, the government must clearly reactivate the ferry project that makes use of the sea which surrounds the city. A half-hearted attempt with catamarans was made earlier but it was ineffectual in deal with the city's transport needs.

We need to learn from Hongkong which has a very efficient ferry service and think big - like Nitin Gadakari did in the late 1990s when, as PWD Minister, he proposed and successfully implemented the 55 flyovers project in Mumbai.

The broad contours of the service should be:

Western section: Nariman Point to a) Worli, b) Bandra, c) Versova, d) Malad, e) Borivali (where the city ends), f) Vasai/Virar. The first three are office areas, while the rest are residential areas.

Eastern section: Gateway of India to a) Vashi, b) Nerul, b) Belapur, or Panvel (close to the new airport), d) Uran. The Gateway is an office area while the others are residential areas.

The New World First Ferry Services Ltd in Hongkong uses triple deck, double deck and fast ferry vessels with corresponding speeds of 15.2, 13.8, 24 knots, and capacities of 1,414, 629 and 403 passengers. (See details here)

Assuming that the distance from Malad-Manori to Nariman Point is about 18 nautical miles, ferries with speeds in excess of 20 knots would be necessary to cover the distance in an hour (including stops).

A broad-based preliminary study of the coastline reveals that relatively safe depths of at least five metres would be required at landing points for light-weight ferry operations. Fortunately, the five-metre contour line runs close to the coast at most landing points with the exception of two on the western side. Jetties/Piers/Pontoons could be extended from the shoreline to the five-metre contour lines to provide safe depths for ferries as also to provide adequate frontage for terminal buildings, etc. The design of the jetty/pier would have to be decided based on the hydrological factors at each landing point.

Pontoons, of course, would be a faster and relatively lower cost options but would be less robust and versatile than a concrete jetty/pier. The cost estimate for the development of landing points would vary between locations and is the subject of a separate discussion.

The government can incur a one-time cost on making jetties or ask leading business groups to fund its construction in lieu of the jetty being named after the group or its founder. Possible names are JRD Tata, Walchand Hirachand, Dhirubhai Ambani, Adani, Aditya Birla, Essar, etc.

The terminal building would have a Cafetaria and Photo Gallery where business groups showcase their evolution. Only public transport can drop and pick up passengers, with there being no car parking near the terminals. Emphasis should be on making functional, aesthetic jetties rather than architectural marvels.

The Income-Tax Act should provide for such expenditure (creation of infrastructure for public good through public-private partnerships) as allowable deductions. Further it should qualify as corporate social responsibility spends under the Companies Act.

The indicative cost of a new high-speed ferry with a 250-seat capacity is approximately $ 3 million and, for a vessel about five years old, about $1.5 million. As operations are consolidated and more operating data (financial/operational/technical) emerge, larger capacity ferries could be deployed.

A licence to operate ferries must be given to at least two service providers on either route to ensure competition. The Director General of Shipping/Mercantile Marine Department would be the agencies to give statutory approvals while passenger fares could be approved by the MSRDC, which will also be the nodal agency for this project.

Those who have driven on the sea-link can tell you how scenic Mumbai looks from the sea. Imagine coming to work seated in an AC boat or enjoying the sea breeze. When compared to jostling in an overcrowded local train or navigating traffic jams, the proposed journey is the closest one can get to travel Nirvana!

A ferry network will reduce pressure on the existing rail and road networks. Importantly, it improves connectivity with the Mumbai Metropolitan Region where an increasingly large number of citizens live. (Vasai in West and Panvel on the Harbour line)

It could work on the hub-and-spoke model where ferries take you to a point after which public transport takes you to the interiors.

Mumbai's extended monsoons may disrupt services, which means services will be suspended for around 75 days a year on the western side and 30 days on the eastern (which is protected by a harbour). In Hongkong, the services are stopped for typhoons.

On weekends and off-peak hours, the ferries could be used by tourists. Look at the number of tourists who throng the Gateway of India to get a sense of the sea's attractions. A two-hour return sea ride from Nariman Point to Borivali with buffet lunch could be a winner.

Tours could be organized to Mumbai’s Fishing villages and Food Festivals by Mumbai’s Koli (fishing) community. Ferries will also enhance coastal security as it amounts to indirect patrolling of the coast.

To reassure itself of consumer response, the government can indicate tentative pricing for services and conduct a survey at key railway stations/online.

Lastly, the government should create a regulatory framework which allows for safe travel and becomes a win-win for all stakeholders.

If there is political will and transparency in project conception/execution, the project could become a reality sooner than expected. For business groups it is a vehicle to promote inclusiveness and create memorials in honour of their founders.

Tailpiece: Hongkong’s leading operator Star Ferry was started by an Indian, Dorabjee Naorojee, in 1888. Isn't it time we did the same for ourselves/

The author is an Independent Columnist.

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