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Metro Rail: Glamour meets utility

Metro Rail: Glamour meets utility

The rapidly expanding metro rail network needs a relook through the lens of sustainability, than just as a mass trend. Garima Pant takes a peek at the current trends in metro rail projects in India.

A round 2.5 million passengers use the Delhi Metro everyday that has an operational distance of 190 km with an aim to touch 400 km by 2021. “Despite the metro expanding across cities, the pace of metro expansion is inadequate,” said Mangu Singh, Managing Director, Delhi Metro Rail Corporation Ltd at a recent CII conference on Urban Transportation. While Singh may find the expanding metro projects with track length of nearly 400 km and worth over Rs 100,000 crore and currently under execution across nine metropolitan cities inadequate, there are doubts being raised about the viability of the rapid expansion.

“Our view at the Planning Commission is that the medium of metro rail is good but you should enter metro rail till you have exhausted the other means of urban transportation like buses, the BRTS. So transportation should be used in terms of cost effectiveness. Metro should not be just a fashion statement, as we believe some states are going in that area these days, and should not be explored without first exhausting the capacities of the other transportation systems. For us the mobility is more important and not the technology,” said Dr Manoj Singh, Adviser – Transport, Planning Commission at the CII conference. Singh's views were supported by CK Khaitan, Joint secretary, Ministry of Urban Development as he says (read interview), “when we talk about metro, generally we do not do justice to this mass-rapid transit system (MRTS) because metro is one of the MRTS. There are other options available which are less costly, like monorail, light metro, tramways etc. It has become a fashion to discuss about metro rail when there are less costly options available too”. While subsidised input costs, income from other sources such as land parcels and branding and optimum fares for passengers are the key essentials to make the expensive metro project not suffer from operating losses, the financial viability is often a sore point. Viability of metro projects depends upon well-defined traffic corridors, adoption of technology, availability of land, volume of traffic carried, capacity utilisation and acceptance of the mode by the commuters.

Union Urban Development Minister Kamal Nath at the foundation-stone laying ceremony of the Kochi Metro had said that to improve the current urban transport situation the Government of India is giving much attention to Metro projects. These projects are already under implementation across the country – Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad and Jaipur. The Government of India has decided to support DPR preparation for Metro Rails for all cities having a population of more than 2 million.

But there are states and cities with a population of a million that have also joined the metro bandwagon, putting a question mark on the viability of these projects. Experts believe that if there is technology and funding in place, the affinity towards this melting pot of all classes can work. In the backdrop of Delhi and Kolkata, India has tried experimenting with public-private partnership (PPP) model in one section in Delhi, Hyderabad and Mumbai. But it hasn't tasted much success. According to the recommendations of the working group on Urban Transport for the 12th Five Year Plan, a study of the global experience in urban rail transit provisioning shows that PPPs have not been very successful. The analysis of metro rail systems in 132 cities in the world provides a comprehensive understanding of the ownership structure and use of PPP in metro rail development. In 113 cities having metro rails, 88 per cent have been developed and are being operated in public sector mode whereas in only 12 per cent cities some form of public private partner¡ship exists. In fact outside India, no city anywhere in the world (except the failed experiment of STAR and PUTRA Metro Rail in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia) has attempted in last few decades provisioning of Metro Rail in a full city on PPP.

Even the new metro rail projects, which are being developed, are largely being taken up on public sector mode rather than PPP, even though PPP has been an important financing mechanism of the other modes of transport. Accordingly, it has been proposed to take up urban rail transit with primarily Government funding except in very rare cases of high density corridors of metropolitan cities where such PPP can be attempted for elevated corridors.

Insufficient ridership and length of the network can pose a higher risk of failure in the upcoming metro rail projects in sub-one million cities. Experts feel that although urban transport should be a focus area for planned development, haphazard growth can add a lot of stress on the state treasury. The sustenance of the upcoming metro rail projects will also depend on the last mile connectivity, which can prove to be the decisive factor and a game changer defining the success or failure of a metro project.

The metro trend

The runaway success of the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation has prompted other major cities to take up the task of building metros. When begun a decade back, construction of elevated track costs Rs 120 crore per km, while the underground stretches came at Rs 250 crore for each km. DMRC's first and second phases involving 168 km ended up costing Rs 30,750 crore while 140 km of the Phase III will come at a whopping Rs 42,000 crore!

Superb project management under the brilliant leadership of Dr E Shreedharan ensured no time or cost overruns. Over the years, its losses have dropped, from Rs 185.15 crore on a revenue of Rs 2,247.77 crore in 2011-12 to Rs 90.91 crore on a revenue of Rs 2,687.48 crore for 2012-13, reaching a level of almost 2.5 million footfalls a day. Most importantly, total repayment obligations of Japanese International Co-operation Agency (JICA) loan up to the close of financial year 2012-13, aggregating to Rs 1,961.15 crore have been duly met by DMRC. Apart from accessing cheap loans from JICA or World Bank and part funding by the state governments, property development has a major role in making such projects viable. Bengaluru Metro has found a way to partly fund it by a nominal cess for infrastructural development on all purchases of petroleum products in Karnataka. Repayment schedules, however easy, demand an early commissioning of any project with optimum revenue generation at the earliest, before they turn into financial time bombs.

In addition, the half completed civil structures could soon become eye sores as has already happened at Bengaluru, in due course turning the project into 'white elephants' draining away state/nation's precious financial resources. However, apart from Chennai and Hyderabad, progress on metro projects in Bengaluru, Lucknow, and Kochi headed mostly by bureaucrats has been poor, and none have so far shown the promise of reaching the performance levels of DMRC in the near future. The recently commissioned MMRDA's 20 km long monorail from Wadala depot to Chembur has yet to meet its target footfalls.

The public-private partnership (PPP) has not been so successful in this vital area of infrastructure. R-infra opted out of the 23 km long Delhi Airport Metro line after the revenues failed to meet its expectations, as well as a 32 km line in MMRDA's Phase II, citing delays in getting clearances.

Top honours for a transport infrastructure undoubtedly goes to the over 300 km combined network of Central and Western Railways which between them carry over 7 million commuters a day, a virtual transport backbone of the megapolis which would come to a grinding halt the day the trains don't run! – RC Acharya, Former Member, Railway Board

“The backbone of urban transport has to be rail-based transport” – Mangu Singh, Managing Director, DMRC

In Delhi we are already operating 190 km of network and 140 km is in the construction. There is certainly a need for more than that considering the size of Delhi, number of passengers and constraints of the road. Delhi will probably need a phase IV too of metro. A network of 450 km for Delhi will be optimum and then subsequent to that some add-ons, filling the gaps and also the feeder services can supplement the system. This will be the final scenario for Delhi. For other cities, if you see from the international standards, a number of them qualify for metro and having an efficient transport system, metro being one of it. But these projects require huge investments and that is an issue. But I think that tier II cities like Pune, Nagpur, Lucknow, Jaipur, Ahmedabad, need to start now. And in 10-15 years they will have their own network. Funds need to be found and I personally believe that funds should never be a problem and a constraint once you decide to execute such a project.

If you actually see in strictly financial terms, these metro projects are not viable financially. But if you see the economic benefit to the society, we had got this study done for Delhi by CRRI and they actually concluded that the economic rate of return of these projects is as high as 23 per cent. And the entire investment is back to the society in 4-4.5 years of time. Delhi metro's initiative of indiginisation has also helped metro to bring down costs by bringing in local players. This will further help metro rail.

Also, it's not a question of BRT vs LRT vs mono or metro. People should not view it this way. All our cities, growth has been haphazard and uncontrolled. And in that scenario, the system has to be of retrofitting. It's a good concept of having a planned city with planned urban transportation. But when it comes to retrofitting and then choices are limited. The reason why BRT is criticized so much in Delhi is because of retrofitting. BRT concept as such is not a bad concept, but it cannot be fit everywhere.

Historically all urban transport of cities with more than two million population, the backbone of urban transport has to be rail-based transport, not necessarily metro rail. It is the most economical and energy efficient. And it can be further supplemented by other means. And if you are planning a new city, it can be planned in any which way. There is also a need for a unified transport authority to ensure last-mile connectivity.

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