Opinion

Costly metro rail is no silver bullet

Subir Roy | Updated on March 09, 2018

On track: Only if it remains viable and cost-effective

It should be viewed in conjunction with other public transport options. Buses shouldn’t be entirely overlooked

Foreign investment has been invited and 50 cities are ready to implement metro rail projects, the prime minister said, while inaugurating the first phase of the Kochi metro rail recently. He thereby underscored the aspiration of every city worth its salt to be able to boast its own metro rail.

But in order to plan for a cost effective and efficient public transport system across urban India it is critical to have an idea of what the metro rail can and cannot do, how much it costs, and how it can fit into the overall scheme of urban transport which is typically undertaken through multiple modes.

Costly deal

First, metro rail is hugely expensive to build. A kilometer of metro rail requires an investment of around ₹200 crore, compared to around ₹10 crore for a kilometer of bus rapid transport route. As opposed to this, a low floor city bus using existing roads, can be had for around ₹50 lakh. What is the bang for the buck under these different modes of transport? Delhi metro, the country’s most elaborate metro rail system, constructed in three phases (last will be over shortly), bears a price tag of over ₹70,000 crore and carries 2.76 million passengers per day.

Against this, the over 5,500 buses which ply in Delhi and would have cost under ₹3,000 crore to acquire, carry nearly four million passengers per day. So, buses, which require under 5 per cent of the investment needed for metro rail, carry 40 per cent more passengers!

This is, of course, not the total picture. Buses require roads to travel on and road space is in severe short supply (witness the traffic jams.) Also, pollution per passenger trip on metro rail is less than of the pollution from a bus trip, even if run on CNG.

It is logical to say that metro rail makes sense in high traffic density routes which typically run to and through the central business district and inner city areas. But to minimise disruption to existing way of life and traffic patterns, the metro rail line through these parts needs to go underground. Once you do that costs shoot up. The underground section of phase III of Delhi metro will cost a whopping ₹552 crore per km to build, against the average cost of ₹200 crore.

But there is one other point in favour of a metro rail. All metro rails, which initially run over short distances and are really showpieces, begin with low occupancy. But as the network grows, and draws passengers from a bigger hinterland, occupancy goes up and cost per passenger trip goes down. So for the cost of a metro rail to slowly become affordable, it should keep growing!

Long lasting

Plus, the life of a metro rail is enormous. The first trains ran in what is now the London Underground, the world’s first, in 1863. Of course, a lot has changed and gas lit wooden carriages and steam locomotives are no longer there but investment in a metro rail project has a far longer payback period longer than for any other mode of transport.

A cost effective urban public transport system has to strive to minimise journey time and cost while maximising comfort. This has to be done within constraints created by built-up cities. Even if you built a brand new city such as Chandigarh today, in it metro rail would remain one of many modes that a citizen would use to get from door to door.

A journey usually begins on foot down narrow congested roads which lead to bigger roads of varying dimensions and then maybe ends on a smaller road. A metro rail can help you skip a bit of the in-between road travel.

To this has to be added the growing additional concern of controlling and reducing automobile pollutio.

Metro rail can win on the basis of comparative cost advantage. It should not remain a high tech, flashy must-have status symbol for citizens even though it may cost a bomb.

The writer is a senior journalist and the author of Made in India: A Study of Emerging Competitiveness

Published on June 29, 2017

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