Thousands go for joyride on Delhi's new underground

The escalators proved as much a novelty as the hi-tech underground trains on Sunday as tens of thousands of joy-riders crammed Delhi’s new metro line connecting key transport hubs with the main business district.

Though it officially opened on Saturday, the public had to wait a day before being allowed on the 6,3km “yellow line” linking the upmarket Central Secretariat government area with the teeming bazaars and narrow alleyways of Old Delhi.

The line passes through Connaught Place, New Delhi’s confusing and crumbling business area, the sprawling New Delhi and Delhi Main railway stations, and the Kashmere Gate interstate bus terminus.

But for most riding the rails on Sunday, getting from A to B wasn’t the priority.

“We’re going nowhere in particular,” said PK Sethi, a businessman clutching the blue token costing 10 rupees (about 5 US cents) that allowed him to cover the Central Secretariat sector in just over 10 minutes of air-conditioned comfort.

“We’re just seeing what’s the metro all about,” Sethi added, his two-year-old daughter Aditi in his arms. “We’re just riding around.”

Sethi was not alone.

“We came specially to look at the metro—it’s an outing for us,” said Manoj Aggarwal surrounded by an entourage of family members.

With the day hot and muggy, and the metro cheap and cool, it seems many of the capital’s 14-million population had a similar idea.

Carriages were as crowded as those in Paris and London at peak times, and queues at the ticket counters long and chaotic.

Many had dressed up to experience the luxury of the world’s most modern metro, a joint Indian-Japanese venture.

With signs similar to the London underground, open-style carriages, long benchlike seating and constant warnings to “mind the gap”, commuters could have thought they were travelling beneath the British rather than the Indian capital.

However, with announcements of upcoming stations—there are just seven of them—in Hindi and English, and with electronic signs within the carriages flashing out names of stations such as Patel Chowk, Chawri Bazaar and Rajiv Chowk, there was no mistaking that this was indeed Delhi.

“I’ve travelled the London underground and the Paris metro and I think this is better,” said Ravindra Uppal, a banker. And although he did not envisage using the metro very often, he clearly saw its advantages.

“It will pull a lot of traffic off the roads, making it easier to commute,” he added.

Officials estimate that some 70 000 commuters will use the new section every day, adding to the 130 000 daily passengers already using the “red line” which was opened in December 2003 catering mainly for students and workers in east Delhi.

The yellow line is expected to reduce the number of daily bus trips by around 1 000 a day, as well as cutting down the number of private vehicles on the roads.

Many preferred on Sunday not to leave the cool precincts of the ultra-modern stations and instead spent time wandering around the gift and food shops in the concourses before taking the metro on to the next stop.

Some, in a city with few shopping malls and little high-rise, had clearly never seen escalators before and were too frightened to step on to the moving stairs, with other commuters chuckling at their reticence.

For others however, the mechanical devices became moving playgrounds as they sat on the escalators or ran up and down them.

For some, the metro allowed a relatively painless visit to the bazaars of Old Delhi instead of having to make the rather demanding trip above ground by bus, taxi or three-wheeled autorickshaw.

With India’s ability to absorb the new without ditching the old, however, the contrast on emerging from one of the most modern facilities in New Delhi into the Walled City, as Old Delhi is known, was stark.

While the metro trains were speeding away just 20m beneath the streets, horse-drawn buggies and cycle-rickshaws were plodding through the muddy streets at centuries-old pace.

Traders in Connaught Place are pinning their hopes on the metro helping revitalise business in the area, which has slumped 30% in the past few years.

For them, like the grey-haired, white-bearded man squatting in the street near the Chawri Bazaar metro station cleaning the wax from a client’s ears, more commuters mean more customers.
- Sapa-AFP

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