The land above the tracks

Almost exactly a year ago, we were on our way from Vienna to Budapest and ended up reading the Vienna Hauptbahnhof Railway Station some three hours early. It had been snowing that morning in Vienna (it was April 1st, and supposed to be spring), and not wanting to go anywhere in that shit weather, we simply got to the railway station. It didn’t help matters that our train (which was coming from Munich) had been delayed by a further hour.

We were not short of options for entertainment in at the railway station, though. In fact, it hardly looked like a railway station, and looked more like a mall – for there were no tracks to be seen anywhere. We spent the four hour wait shopping at the mall (it was just before Easter, so there were some good deals) and having breakfast and lunch at what could be considered to be the mall food court. And when it was time for our train to arrive, we simply took one of the escalators that went down from the mall, which deposited us at our platform.

Each platform had its own escalator going down from the mall, which had been built on top of the railway tracks. It can be considered that the entire Vienna Hbf station was built on the “first floor”, making use of the land above the railway tracks. Land that would otherwise be wasted was being put to good use by building commercial space, which apart from generating revenues for the Austrian Railways, also made life significantly better for passengers such as us who happened to reach the station insanely early.

This is a possible source of revenues that Indian Railways would do well to consider, especially in large cities. The Railways sit on large swathes of land above and around the rail tracks, especially at stations (where such tracks diverge). Currently, the quality of experience in Indian railway stations is rather poor. If a swanky mall (and maybe other commercial space) were to come up above the tracks, it could completely transform the railway experience.

There will be considerable investment required, of course, but given the quality of real estate on which most Indian railway stations sit, it is quite likely that private developers can be found who will be willing to invest in constructing these “railway station malls” in return for a share of subsequent rent realisation. There is serious possibility for a win-win here.

As the Vienna Hbf website puts it,

The BahnhofCity Wien Hauptbahnhof features 90 shops and restaurants occupying 20,000 m² of floor space. A fresh food market, textile shops, bakeries and cafés are designed to make BahnhofCity a meeting place. During the week, it will be opened until 21:00 and many shops will also open on Sundays. Excellent public transport links and 600 parking spaces complement the offer.

An idea well worth considering for the Indian Railway Ministry.

One thought on “The land above the tracks”

  1. Very sensible in theory but consider how things work in practice in India through a small but illustrative example. At the railway station in Indore (a tier 2 city in MP) modernisation work is going on right now at some of the platforms and a new platform is also being constructed. In the whole scheme of things there is no provision for a ramp which would make it convenient for people to lug their stuff easily. Reason? Not a dumb administration but pressure from coolies/porters (or “sahayaks” as they are being called these days) whose opportunity for livelihood would be affected if there were to be a ramp. If the railways administration can’t get such a basic fucking thing done to make life easy for passengers, imagine the kind of resistance it will face with attempting a complete overhaul of stations. On that note, the New Delhi and Hazrat Nizamuddin railway stations till date don’t have a single, I repeat, a single ramp. If somebody expects me to believe that this is because nobody ever gave it a thought or that it just simply can’t be done, I might as well believe that the sun rises in the west. The kind of price gouging that goes on by porters at these stations is mind boggling. And why not? The badge that qualifies people to work as porters comes at a steep price which most of those holding these buy after taking hefty loans from private lenders at eye-watering interest rates.

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