(Note – this is a first draft. I will continue to expand this over the next few days).
The Mumbai – Pune rail corridor is one of the most important rail corridors in the country. It connects two big metros (total population over 25 million). The Mumbai-Pune rail line also continues down towards Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Chennai. The Mumbai – Pune stretch is also a very busy and important freight corridor, given the large number of manufacturing companies in Pune. Given the rise in services and manufacturing industries in both cities, as well as the overall population and per capita incomes, the number of commuters between the two cities has grown exponentially. Unfortunately, the railways hasn’t kept pace with this over the past few decades. The Mumbai – Pune Road Expressway provides some relief…but even that is getting congested.
Mumbai – Pune was one of the first intercity rail-lines completed in India (1850s). It was also the first intercity rail-line to be fully electrified (1920s). In 1930 luxury train Deccan Queen was started, and it took just 2 hours 45 min to cover the 192 km distance! Over the years, the Deccan Queen has slowed down (thanks to the heavy suburban local traffic) and now takes around 3 hours 15 min. So basically, in 85 years we have regressed…instead of speeding up! The Deccan Queen when it started was considered to be one of the fastest trains in all of Asia. Today on one hand, many countries have speeded up their trains to 150/180/200/300 kmph and beyond…while Mumbai – Pune corridor is still stuck at 110 kmph for over 80 years.
Here’s my wish list for the Pune – Mumbai rail corridor. Note, this is an unconstrained wish-list. I am not an expert in railways and don’t have feasibility/cost data for these suggestions. Note that this list is for the existing corridor (not for a possible high-speed ‘bullet train’…that will need an entirely new corridor, to support speeds of 300 kmph and higher (similar to the true high speed trains, in operation in Europe, Japan and China.)
The main thrust of the wish-list below is: expanding capacity of the current corridor to achieve faster run-times, some route changes, and faster frequencies. Expanding (widening) the corridor is key since this stretch has heavy suburban local traffic, which slows down through long distance trains.
* 4 tracking of Lonavala – Pune – Daund (present 2 tracks)
* 4 tracking of Bhor Ghat (Lonavala – Karjat) … (present 3 tracks)
* 4 tracking of Karjat – Panvel (present 2 tracks)
* 4 tracking of Panvel – Vashi – Mankhurd – Kurla (present 2 tracks)
* Establish: Pune-Karjat-Panvel-Vashi-Mankhurd-Kurla-Mumbai has the main Pune-Mumbai route. This will cut-off 25-30 km distance. Note, this is the route that Pune-Mumbai road takes as well.
* Ideally, provide a rail link along with the proposed trans-harbor link between Uran and South Mumbai. This will save another 10-20 km for the distance between Pune and South Mumbai (CST Station).
* The present route Pune-Karjat-Kalyan-Thane-Kurla-Mumbai is longer (192 km). This also is affected by heavy suburban local train traffic from Kalyan to Mumbai (fast locals).
* Current max speed on this route is 110 km/h. Bhor Ghat max speed is 40-60 km/h (or less).
* Explore if certain stretches of the non-Ghat section can be speeded up to 150-170 km/h (semi-high speed).
* Start hourly trains between the 2 cities on the new route. 2 hour run time is feasible with the current track (max speed of 110 km/h)…This was envisaged over two decades back with the Mumbai – Pune ‘Shatabdi’ ..but never implemented due to the suburban traffic. Even with a max speed of 110 km/hr and a 45 min travel time in the Ghat section, a sub 2 hour travel time is easily possible for a 160 km distance.
* Higher frequency (hourly and 30 min at peak times) should also lead to smaller trains, resulting in faster acceleration. This can facilitate short 2 min stops in Lonavala, Panvel if required.
* Connect Panvel Station with a light rail connection to the new upcoming Navi Mumbai airport at Kharghar. This will be convenient for both Mumbai and Pune travelers.
* Run some trains from Pune to western suburbs (route them from Kurla to Andheri/Bandra ..), instead of Dadar/CST.
* Start Lonavala-Pune-Daund suburban local trains with 15 min frequency. This is critical for the Pune metro region’s public transit. The Lonavala – Pune – Daund suburban corridor should be fully exploited to support Pune’s public transit system.
* To support this heavy Pune – Mumbai traffic, significant upgrades will be required for Pune and Shivajinagar stations. Both need additional platforms. Also, given the space restrictions at Pune, Shivajinagar, will have to expand capacities of Khadki/Dapodi/Pimpri and Hadapsar/Loni stations.
* Pune and Shivajinagar Stations should be supported by underground metro stations, to ease the commute. Khadki/Dapodi should also have metro stations (on the PCMC/Hinjavdi Metro route).
Indonesia is the biggest country in South East Asia – with over 17,000 islands, stretching from 100 km south of Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal, to near Darwin Australia. It has over three time zones, thirtythree provinces and hundreds of languages and dialects. It is also the fourth most populous country in the world.
‘Indonesia Indah’ – roughly translates to ‘Beautiful Indonesia’. I recently got a chance to visit this interesting country – a country rich in history, culture and nature. In this blog post, I will discuss some of the highlights from my trip. (Please do read this nice blog post by my friend: http://arsh-else.blogspot.com/2010/10/guest-blog-about-indonesia-by.html for an interesting perspective.)
I would highly recommend visiting Indonesia. (Unfortunately, at present there are no direct flights from India to Jakarta – Hope that they do commence direct flights soon! For now, connections through Singapore, Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok are quite convenient). Tourists from many countries may be eligible for visa on arrival. Combining Jakarta, Bandung and Bali in your itinerary would require a week (at minimum). Given our time constraints, we decided to leave Bali out for our next trip.
Jakarta is the capital (as well as the commercial capital) of Indonesia. It is a large, vibrant, cosmopolitan metropolis with over 14 million people. Like many large developing world cities, it exhibits quite a few contrasts – from first world like road infrastructure, downtown area, malls – to shanty towns and slums. Situated by the sea, 6 degrees south of the equator, it has tropical weather all year around. However, the humidity is definitely a shade lower than what we typically experience in Mumbai.
Friendly and courteous people
The Indonesian people are friendly, courteous and patient. One example of this is evident in the crazy traffic jams – hardly heard any honking! English is not that well understood by the common man; so communication can be a bit of a challenge. Given the breadth and diversity of the country, many different cultures and languages exist. Jakarta itself is quite cosmopolitan. On the topic of language – the Bahasa Indonesian spoken by the majority of the population has many words with Sanskrit origin. It is an interesting blend of East-West, given that the script is Roman.
Remnants of Dutch Era
Indonesia was a Dutch colony for over 3 centuries. But in comparison with cities like Mumbai, Kolkata, and Delhi – you don’t see as many colonial structures/infuence in Jakarta. Maybe the Dutch didn’t invest as much in infrastructure as the British. There are a few old buildings around the old port area and railway station – but nothing grand like the Fort Area or the Victoria Terminus in Mumbai. One prominent Dutch era remnant is the canal network in Jakarta. Though not very well maintained, they remind you of the typical Amsterdam canals. If there is any prominent western influence today, it is that of the American Culture – malls, fast-food, popular entertainment, etc.
Ramayan & Mahabharat
It was interesting to observe how Ramayan and Mahabharat occupy an important place in Indonesian culture. Jakarta’s central business district, features a prominent 50 feet long statue of Krishna and Arjun in a 13 horse chariot. Wooden puppets depicting scenes from these epics are quite popular.
Nasi Goreng (literally means ‘Fried Rice’) is one of the most popular dishes in Indonesia. It is a spicy fried rice preparation with various additions such as Chicken, Seafood, Shrimp, Beef, Eggs, Vegetables, etc. It is available everywhere – from street-food corners to good restaurants.
Traffic in Jakarta is crazy; but definitely better disciplined than in India. The city has over 2.5 Million Cars and over 7 Million Two-Wheelers. You will often get stuck in kilometers long traffic jams. Petrol is quite cheap (until recently, Indonesia was a net-exporter of petroleum) and public transportation is not very good. This adds to the traffic load.
The highway infrastructure though is quite world class. Jakarta has quite a few expressways inside the city. The ride on the Jakarta – Bandung Expressway was also quite good.
One interesting thing I saw was the concept of ‘tipping’ while yielding in traffic. In these crazy traffic jams, it is often impossible to make a turn in busy traffic. However an ingenious solution (doubt if it will work in India!) is often used to address this problem. A group of volunteers act as traffic cops, stop the oncoming traffic and let you pass. You simply tip this volunteer group! It is a commonly accepted practice…the oncoming vehicles doesn’t seem to protest!
Toyotas (and Daihatsus) are by far the most popular. The Toyota Innova (known as ‘Kijang’) and Toyota Avanza are the top models. These 3 passenger row vehicles are ideally suited for the large Indonesian families.
The iconic Bajaj Auto-Rickshaw made an entry in the Indonesian market in the 1970s. Though their popularity has gone down a bit since the 1990s, they are still omnipresent in Jakarta. Like in many Indian cities, they are popular commuting options. Interestingly, they are not called Rickshaws or Autos, but ‘Bajajs’! (Bajaj pronounced ‘Baa-j—aah’). One strange quirk though – the backseat appears to be at a substantial slant angle, compared to what we see here in India.
[On a related note – I reminded my friends that two popular things in Indonesia have a Pune connection! One being the ‘Bajaj’ and other even popular one being the extremely popular game of Badminton. Badminton (originally known as ‘Poona’) originated out of the British Army Cantonment in Pune in the 19th century]
Bajaj (image credit: Wikipedia)
We visited a few malls in Jakarta. Some of them were quite large and impressive – comparable with some of the good malls in U.S. Indonesia is definitely an attractive shopping destination; especially for apparel. Do make sure you visit the many traditional ‘Batik’ showrooms.
Bandung is the 3rd largest city in Indonesia and also the educational and textile capital. It is located around 160 km from Jakarta, at a height of over 800 meters. The weather is quite pleasant. Bandung is also a must-visit shopping destination for apparel. Many factory outlet stores have great merchandize selections and huge discounts.
Located close to Bandung, ‘Tangkuban Perahu’ is a dormant volcano. It is a popular tourist destination. Tourists can do a short hike to one of the craters (Kawah Domas). This crater has a few active hot springs.
Taman Mini Indonesia
Taman Mini Indonesia Indah (translated as “Beautiful Indonesia Miniature Park”) is an excellent tourist destination in Jakarta. This theme park provides a showcase of all the major provinces of Indonesia. It is a bit similar in concept to Epcot Center (Orlando, Florida). One interesting attraction is a lake with a series of well manicured islands – that are miniature replicas of the major Indonesian islands – Java, Sumatra, Sulawesi, Kalimantan, etc.)
Even though we didn’t visit Bali on this trip, we got a brief glimpse of the temples, architecture and culture at the park.
Indonesia is the 2nd most bio-diverse country in the world (1st is Brazil). Given its vast expanse and tropical climate, a wide variety of plant and animal species thrive here. Dense forests, rice fields, cash crops plantations (palm, rubber, coffee, tea, etc.) fill up the landscape. Many different kinds of fruits grow here. Do recommend trying the pineapples here (they were great!), as well as fresh coconut water (available everwhere!).
We recently visited the beautiful country of Switzerland. Enough adjectives have already been used to describe this heaven on earth. Instead of adding to that list, I will just provide a simple comparison – Here’s a place that combines the Best of the Best – German Engineering, French Finecrafts, English/American Banking & Finance and on top of all this, spectacular nature! During our one week trip, we visited Interlaken, Lucerne, Zurich and Davos. Many people had recommended that trains are the best way to see Switzerland. I concur. However, driving around is also great fun. We settled for a hybrid approach. Decided to the travel by train on the Zurich-Interlaken-Lucerne sectors, and rented a car for the remainder.
In this two part article, I will describe my observations from the trip.
Interlaken is situated at the foothills of the majestic Jungfrau Mountain (more on this later). We took a train from Zurich airport to Interlaken (with a changeover at Berne, the Swiss Capital). Interlaken is a small town with one main street (Höheweg) and 2 stations Interlaken West and Interlaken Ost (East). Most tourist hotels are located on this main street and are within walking distance from the stations. The Höheweg at times resembles an airport terminal with many tourists dragging their large suitcases. The street has many good souvenir shops, restaurants and cafes. We stayed at a nice, small family run hotel: Hotel Splendid. It was originally built in 1908 and served as military hospital during World War II (during WW II, Interlaken was an important center for the Swiss Army). A building across the street from our hotel was one of the oldest buildings in Interlaken(over 500 years old).
Interlaken reminded me of two distinct places in US – Yosemite Park and Madison, Wisconsin. Interlaken is surrounded by many tall cliffs and is situated in between two spectacular lakes: Lake Brienz and Lake Thun (hence the name ‘Inter’ Laken…). When we reached Interlaken, we saw literally dozens of para-gliders gliding down from these cliffs and landing in a park in the town center (something to try for sure … maybe on the next trip! ). The Jungfrau peak and surrounding Alpine mountain ranges are visible from the town on a clear day.
I had been warned that Interlaken might be a bit ‘too touristy’ but was pleasantly surprised. Maybe this was a good season to be there, and it was not very crowded. Noticed a lot fewer Indian tourists (I guess peak season is May/June) than many earlier visitors had reported…but couldn’t help notice a few prominent Indian restaurants. Amongst the non-EU tourists, I think that Indians represent the second largest group, after the Americans. I am sure the Swiss Tourism Industry is thankful to Bollywood :)
Majority of people in Switzerland speak German (the locals will point out that its ‘Swiss-German’…). Though given the tourist influx, English is reasonably well understood, compared to other European countries. The people we met were quite helpful and friendly.
One big realization (and probably the only negative one…) that hits you on your first day in Switzerland is that this place is ‘really’ expensive! I have a simple, unscientific cost of living indicator that I use across countries. It simply entails comparing the prices across popular restaurant chains (McDonalds, Starbucks, Burger Kings, etc.). Prices in Germany, Netherlands tend to be about 1.5 times of US, while those in Switzerland are two times as expensive (A basic Starbucks Coffee costs more than $4).
On our second day in Interlaken, we headed for the Jungfrau excursion.
Jungfrau is the tallest peak in Switzerland and amongst the tallest in the Alps. An amazing piece of engineering over 100 years ago – the Jungfraubahn (Railway), opened up this great mountain range to Alpine tourism. The Jungfrau Railway uses a cogwheel track for better traction on these steep gradients (max gradient is 25%).
To reach Jungfrau Hoch station (at around 11,000 feet), you need to change trains at 2 intermediate stops. There are two alternate routes, both with breathtaking scenery (strongly recommend trying both routes – one for going up, and the other one for coming down). You start at Interlaken Ost at around 1900 feet and ascend up over 9000 feet in 2.5 hours. The changes in the landscape are quite interesting as you gain altitude. From trees and green meadows, you start seeing snow at higher altitudes, and eventually are surrounded by glaciers. The last stretch from Kleine Sheidegg to Jungfrau Hoch passes through many tunnels, but with nice viewing galleries (windows) cutout through the tunnels at certain spots. The view of the glaciers is great…unfortunately we were there on a foggy day, with limited visibility. Jungfrau Hoch has been developed as a big tourist destination with multiple attractions and restaurants. A lift takes you few hundred feet up from the station, to a great open-air viewing gallery.
On our way up, we took the Interlaken Ost – Grindelwald – Kleine Sheidegg route. On the return, we took the Kleine Sheidegg – Lauterbrunnen – Interlaken Ost route. Train changes are required at Grindelwald, Kleine Sheidegg and Lauterbrunnen. The onward connections are synchronized (within 5-10 minutes), but I would recommend skipping a connection and spending 30 min – 1 hour at each of these picturesque stations on the way. Lauterbrunnen is also the starting point for a cable car ride up to Mt. Shilthorn (also referred to as the James Bond Mountain).
On our 3rd day in Interlaken, we boarded the train to Lucerne – The Golden Pass Panoramic Express. In the second blog post on Switzerland, I will write more about this wonderful train journey, and our stay in Lucerne, Davos and Zurich.
[Note: Thanks to my wife for taking all these wonderful photographs…many more coming up in the 2nd blog post]
(Image Credit: Wikipedia)
Recently, I got a couple of opportunities to travel to Kokan (I have no idea how the term ‘Konkan’ in English originated. I guess it was the British who started spelling it this way. Going by its Marathi pronunciation, it should be ‘Kokan’ and not ‘Konkan’). These were my first trips to Kokan after over 20 years! Needless to say, I noticed quite a few changes. This blog is an attempt to highlight some. Note I am focusing this on the Kokan region of Maharashtra, and not the entire Kokan region on the western coast of India.
1. Kokan Railway
For a long time, the Kokan region was lagging behind rest of Maharashtra in growth and development. I think Kokan Railway was a seminal event in the transformation of Kokan, which is now well and truly underway. After many years of planning and discussions, this impressive civil engineering project was finally completed in 1998, with the first train being flagged off on the Republic Day. I have not yet travelled on this rail route, but hope to do so soon. Some of the bridges and tunnels on the Kokan Railway look quite spectacular. The Kokan Railway website has some very useful information www.konkanrailway.com .
(Image Credits: Wikipedia)
2. Roads/ Bridges
Quite a few new roads (state highways and national highways) and bridges have been built over the past 2 decades. (Though like every other infrastructure issue in India, a lot more still lot more needs to be done!). The Rajapur – Ratnagiri – Ganpatipule coastal state highway is a great example. Many big and small creek bridges have been constructed. Distances that took hours to cover now take minutes. If you look at the Kokan geography, there are many small creeks that separate villages and towns. In the past, a trip to a neighbouring town took a long time since there was a need to circumnavigate this water body. Not anymore. Ganpatipule to Ratnagiri time is down to less than 45 min from the previous nearly 2 hours.This coastal highway provides many stunning views of the Arabian Sea and really reminded me of the Pacific Coast Highway in California (just that the road quality has some room for improvement…).
3. Television and Communications
During my last trip to Kokan in 1989, the satellite TV and Cable revolution had not yet happened. Hence TV coverage was very limited. Very few folks had those large dish antennas, required to receive INSAT transmission of Doordarshan. Now, thanks to Cable TV and Satellite Dishes – TV coverage is available in the remotest of the villages. Same is true with mobile telephones coverage. One interesting, yet a little different example I can cite here is that of my car GPS navigation system. Was quite skeptical of using it in Ratnagiri and Kokan, but was amazed to see that it had a comprehensive database and turn by turn directions for Ratnagiri Roads and Points of Interest!
Though Kokan is no where near Goa in terms of tourist volume, the railway and better roads have helped substantially in improving the tourism. Many new hotels and resorts have come up. But still the quality and standard of most needs to improve. Ganpatipule has been transformed from a small coastal village and temple town, to a big tourist hub. Talking about modern tourism – the famous Ganpati Temple at Ganpatipule has a prominent sign – www.ganpatipule.co.in This is a nice website with lot of good information.
5. Development and maintenance of heritage structures and temples
Most probably driven by cultural tourism, I noticed a big improvement in the upgradation of facilities and maintenance work done around heritage structures and temples. I visited a few that were over 1000 years old and were very well maintained.
Once good infrastructure is in place, the economy is bound to improve. This is clearly evident. Compared to the 1980s, the area looks much better off. Still, the economic activity and prosperity gap, is evident when you climb up from Kokan via Amba Ghat into the Sugarcane rich rural Western Maharashtra. Maybe Kokan would bridge that gap in the coming decade. I noticed a big increase in number of bank branches. Even the smallest towns had a prominent bank location – a clear sign of economic progress.
I remember in 1979, how Ratnagiri looked like a village. That changed a bit when I next visited in 1989. However in my most recent trip – the changes have been drastic. Ratnagiri now increasingly looks like a small city, with 4 laned divided roads, large buildings, markets, factories, restaurants, hotels, etc. Chiplun has also become an industrial town.
Cash crops are booming in Kokan, clearly led by Mangoes. I noticed a big increase in organized mango farming over 100s of acres of land.
Like elsewhere in rural Maharashtra, the spread of education in villages seemed quite prominent. In every small village we drove through, we saw a bunch of primary and secondary school kids en route to/from their schools. Similarly in urban and semi-urban areas, many colleges have also sprung up.
Many new industries have come up in Kokan. Chiplun is becoming a chemical / pharma hub of Kokan. While driving to Rajapur, we saw a massive new Tubes Plant that is coming up just 10 km south of Ratnagiri. The much debated Dabhol power plant is also now functional (though I am not sure if it is at 100% capacity). The small Mirai port near Ratnagiri is also undergoing big upgrades.