Mad Rush for Metros?


metro-rushWith the means to establish efficient urban transport system, metro rail projects have become the first choice of any city who wishes to move up the development ladder. New Delhi is the quintessence city in the country that has proved how a well-planned metro rail project can become a lifeline for residents.

Last year, Finance Minister ArunJaitley, supported the need to bring in Metro Rail network to all the “two million plus cities” as he feels that Urban Metro Projects have proved their worth. Initially, only cities with three million plus population were considered for metro projects.

After New Delhi, Kolkata and Bangalore, cities like Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Bhopal, Indore, Chandigarh, Ludhiana, Jaipur, Kochi and Pune will come under metro projects. As mentioned earlier, ambitious as this project sounds, still there are issues that need to be thought on at broader level.

New Delhi V/s Other Indian Cities

Treading on the similar path as Delhi, other cities in the country also want to repeat the DMRC success story. However, the question that begets answer is whether investing in metro rail projects the best option, given the fact that other cities are not same as Delhi and differ in demographics, settlement patterns and transportation infrastructure. That is why many policymakers have raised doubts over the importance of setting up a metro rail project for the cities who can actually do and survive without it.

There is a perception that metro rail comes with higher level of comfort, speed and efficiency along with achieving greater capacity to carry passengers when compared to buses. This is true but, when considered along with other facts, choosing metro rail over other mass transit options may not always be a viable option.

Expanding population calls for a transport mode that reduces traffic on road along with increasing ease of travelling. If government is able to bring in such system then it would automatically be able to take off from roads those people who are presently forced to travel with their own mode of transportation, or are taking road based public transport, in turn reducing congestion as well as pollution levels. However, as per a survey done in low and middle income countries which have introduced metro rails, the usage of metro is less than expected which results in less than expected reduction in road traffic and air pollution.

The Success with Hidden Flaws

Metro rail projects require capital intensive construction, high operation cost and long gestation periods. Thus, while undertaking the decision to introduce metro railways, financial support from the state as well as central government and in the form of foreign loans are required to back up such project.

Now, with billion dollar investment in line, is it not imperative to first explore the financial sustainability of metro railways as a means of public transportation in a particular city.

After studying the negatives impacts of Delhi metro in the city, other cities also need to take in consideration the implications as well before embarking on this high investment journey.

To start with, the fare collected from passengers contributes less than 50 percent of the total cost of the Delhi Metro. Thus, metro transport mode cannot sustain on fare collection; it is therefore not self-sustainable and thus has to rely on real estate development on DMRC property and in areas in close proximity to metro rail lines.

Findings of a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report of June 2014 show that DMRC has a current debt of USD 3 billion, thus debt repayment increases the cost of operations. As things stand, cost would keep mounting as its network expands further. The study also shows that actual ridership of the Delhi Metro stands at barely one-fourth of the estimated ridership, resulting in an overestimation of the benefits. Thus, during the planning phase, the authorities in various cities should carefully simulate the demand to correctly estimate the revenues from the proposed metro venture they are planning to embark upon.

Passengers prefer travelling by metro for long trips (10 km or more). However, for shorter trips, the UNEP study revealed, passengers choose to commute by bus or non-motorized transport (NMT). Eighty percent of all the distances travelled in the capital as well as in other cities include shorter trips. Thereby, improving on NMT and bus transport services would be a better plan instead of choosing high investment metro projects.

Moreover, construction of metro projects is a

Many non metro cities have gone ahead with metro plans without careful analysis
Many non metro cities have gone ahead with metro plans without careful analysis

polluting exercise in itself. Further, additional energy consumption because of metro projects leads to extra CO2 emissions. In short, as compared to CNG-run buses, metro rails cause a higher negative impact on the environment. Cities need to take into consideration the overall adverse impacts of metro construction on the environment.

According to research agency Flyvbjerg, big projects with large capital investment, across different nations, had been able to justify their billion dollars project only after they presented exaggerated benefits along with underestimation of costs. Flyvbjerg had surveyed more than 210 transportation infrastructure projects and they found out that these factors had been very common when justifying the return on investment for rail-based projects.

Invest Wisely

Tax waivers and subsidies, revenue sources, cost and debt burdens, ridership, displacement of households, labor fatalities and other aspects need to be well studied as even a place like Delhi has struggled with these issues.

The point of discussion here has not been to negate metro rail projects as a mass rapid transit systems but to ask whether other non-metropolitan cities, with population less than 3 million, really need such high capital intensive transportation projects.

Mumbai metro and Pune metro had earlier faced the criticisms for introducing metro plans without thorough analysis of city’s transport system and traffic. Now, with Kochi, a major port city, too being included in the ambitious metro projects, similar questions will be raised as to what is the need for a metro when the city can do very well with a strong ferry systems along with improved bus and local train mode.

Metros built in Europe in the 20th century were undertaken as they had centralised business districts. However, Indian cities, including New Delhi, do not share the similar pattern which leads to escalated costs along with poor revenue collection. That is why upcoming cities inclined towards setting up metro infrastructure projects may fail if overall demographics and transportation patterns are ignored.