The disruption caused by the nationwide lockdown for the containment of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent workers’ exodus from cities back to their homes will result in technology playing an even bigger role in the execution of the metro rail projects, experts have said.
“One of the issues that will be around due to the very fast growth being witnessed in India is the availability of manpower, its pricing and the timelines because all the cities are getting congested. We can try for increased mechanisation and pre-casting systems. Like, in the Mumbai Metro where we have made the whole station except the foundation and the pier through pre-casting. More pre-casting will help in speeding up the metro projects, lesser number of traffic issues and more productivity with reduced labour,” opined Nalin Gupta, Managing Director, J Kumar Infra Projects Ltd.
Together with some of the biggest names in metro rail, Gupta was speaking at the ‘The New Metro Lifeline’ webinar organised jointly by CONSTRUCTION WORLD and INFRASTRUCTURE TODAY magazines of the ASAPP Info Global Group.
Amid the world’s largest lockdown, the decision by India Inc. to shift to work from home regime has thrown up some very interesting outcomes across sectors, with the metro rail being no exception. For instance, Mumbai-based provider of IT, data management and business process management services, Datamatics Global Solutions Ltd remotely developed and tested out its automated fare collection (AFC) system.
“While our ticket collection machine and gates were in the factory, our team installed the software remotely and tested it out through video conference. Once the testing was done, we offered it to Mumbai Metro who meticulously checked out each aspect and measurement of the gate over video conference,” informed Bhushan Vartak, Vice President at the firm.
The company is presently working on developing chatbots for processes like ticketing with limited success. Given the unique requirements of a diverse society like India, a lot of issues need to be ironed out before the technology can be rolled out on a mass scale.
“The technology needs to mature more to understand Indian accents and languages. Artificial intelligence (AI) can help you predict faults ahead of time. But then it is only as good as the quality of data. While preventive maintenance is going to help bring down costs, AI can also be used in planning,” said Vartak.
The coronavirus pandemic has provided a trigger for both developers and operators to scrounge for out of the box ideas to keep work going. Although some of the solutions have been around for the past several years, the crisis is likely to result in their large-scale deployment.
The recent flight of migrant workers to their homes is one of the biggest causes behind this shift. Although migrant workers travel to their homes in the month of March for the harvesting season and social engagements like weddings, the COVID-19 outbreak exacerbated the exodus.
“We provided them with meals, sanitation and counselling on the need to stay back in camps. Despite all these measures, the two-month lockdown made them mentally vulnerable and it became a big challenge for us to convince them to stay back. We are left with only 20-30 per cent labour strength at all our sites across the country,” informed Gupta.
According to an official statement of Indian Railways, the Shramik Special trains operationalised by Asia’s second-largest railway transporter carried over 4.8 million passengers, including migrant workers, pilgrims, tourists, students and other persons stranded at different places due to the nationwide lockdown in May.
Allaying such fears, Kumar Keshav, Managing Director, Uttar Pradesh Metro Rail Corp. Ltd said, “As regards operation, the Indian Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning (IHRAE) has given certain guidelines for the air-conditioning systems, with most of such systems to be operated in the open mode.”
He further emphasised that all metro systems would need to ensure proper crowd management, sanitisation and social distancing to mimise risk to passengers.
Expressing his agreement, Dr, Ramnath Subramaniam, Director, Strategic Planning, Maharashtra Metro Rail Corp. Ltd, cautioned, “The last two years were very challenging. Now, with this corona problem, we are going to have a very tough time.”
On being asked about another important challenge, the preparedness for the upcoming monsoon season, Gupta of J Kumar Infraprojects observed, “Since all the state governments have been very supportive, we are focusing on arrangements for drainage and pits that are unsafe. Concerning the underground work, we have a dewatering system installed at all our project sites.”
Elias George, Partner & Head, Infrastructure, Government & Healthcare, KPMG in India described metro rail as the one-stop solution for the ills afflicting urban India.
“Of the 200 odd metros worldwide, only a handful make a profit. Looking at the balance sheet alone is not a good way of evaluating a metro. Why do people build a metro? It is because the benefits of a metro rail will not come back to the operator. It goes back into the revival of the whole economic aura of the city and facilitating ease of travel, especially women’s safety. We, therefore, need to monetise these benefits,” he said.
The former Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer and Managing Director, Kochi Metro Rail Ltd, urged states to maximise the plug and play template provided by the Central Government to focus on aspects like transit area development.
For his part, Keshav also felt that as metro projects had large social-economic benefits the economics of ROI alone wasn’t probably the right way of assessing them. “The Metro Policy, 2017, says that 2 million-plus cities must plan for a metro. Thirty-two cities in the country have a 2 million-plus population. That means that 32 metros should be sanctioned and not 27. In all advanced economies, cities with a million-plus population have a metro!”
He remarked that public transport was the need of our cities, with the COVID-19 pandemic again having proved that the railway was the best solution for urban transportation needs. Referring to the time when he was associated with the Delhi Metro Rail Corp. (DMRC), Keshav cited the example of how the country’s largest metro rail system started with a ridership of just 6,000 passengers daily on the Shahadra-Tees Hazari section. Today, the total ridership on the Delhi Metro was more than 4 million passengers per month.
“There is a huge migration happening across the world from private transit to public transport. The state governments have to work on convincing people to make the move here as well,” asserted George.
Another quick audience poll revealed that the people expected road traffic to decline following the launch of new metro rail projects.
Maharashtra Metro Rail Corp.’s Subramaniam said that metros weren’t expected to make money. “The way the fares are controlled, the 40 odd per cent is the fare part of it and 60 per cent is the non-fare part looking at the best-case scenario of a Singapore or Hong Kong metro. The detailed project reports (DPRs) of both Nagpur and Pune were constructed in such a way that 1 per cent stamp duty and development charges were put there right in the beginning” he informed. According to him, the two elements were incorporated to make the metros sustainable.
Subramanian also informed that they had come up with a new bus-based concept called Metro Neo for a small city like Nashik. “What happens is that the Capex reduces from say Rs 2.5 billion for a normal metro and Rs 1.25 billion for a Metro Lite, to less than Rs 100 crore per km for a Metro Neo, with the capacity to scale-up operations.”
The subject of the efficacy of running MRTS projects on the public-private partnership (PPP) model was also discussed. George felt the answer was directly tied up to the larger question about the fate of PPP projects in India. Till about 2012, 40 per cent of India’s infrastructure investment was from the private sector, which has since come down to 20 per cent. This wasn’t a viable proposition for any country as infrastructure projects couldn’t be created with public money alone.
“What we tend to do is we push things like land acquisition etc. into the private sector. So, people don’t feel very secure about investing their money into such joint venture projects. Secondly, very stable policy and regulatory environment are required where the investor is secure about his money over the next 30 years. If we get all of these things right, the money will start flowing in,” said George.
The webinar was moderated by Pratap Padode, Managing Director, ASAPP Info Global Group and Founder & Director of infrastructure think-tank, First Construction Council (FCC).
Earlier, opening the session, Padode remarked, “The five-year order book from FY2020-25 only for metro rail projects in India is estimated to be at Rs 2.5-2.6 trillion. Further, the investment for the segment during the period is estimated to be Rs 3.5-3.6 trillion. Of this, 55-60 per cent of the order book is likely to be in the construction segment. This is an opportunity for engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) companies.”
MRTS has emerged as one of the most effective means of mobility for citizens in Tier-1 and Tier-2 cities in the world’s fifth-largest economy. The Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA) has released funds for various metro rail projects. All new metro rail projects are approved subject to the last mile connectivity for passengers.
The webinar was supported by J Kumar Infraprojects and Datametics.