Every city of more than three million people needs a metro immediately, says E. Sreedharan, managing director of Delhi Metro Rail Corporation, in an interview with Alokesh Bhattacharyya and Anand J.
ES: DMRC is in business, really, but not normal business. We are in the transport business, which is also a social service.
AB: Just to give some background, sir, for the 20th anniversary of Business Today, we are publishing a special anniversary issue in which we are inviting opinions from people like yourselves. Thank you very much for giving us this opportunity. We would like this to be a free-wheeling chat and know your thoughts on the future of public transport in India. How you think it will evolve? What are the bottlenecks? What are the challenges and what are the possible solutions, especially keeping in mind that migration into urban centres is only going up. And various estimates say 70 per cent of India's population will be probably in cities by 2050 or so. How do we ensure that people's lives move in a smooth manner?
ES: My personal view is that urbanisation should be encouraged, mainly because it facilitates access to benefits - health facilities, education, law and all that - by larger sections of the country. In villages, providing all these facilities is a very big task. This is exactly why China is encouraging urbanisation - so that a larger section of the population can be covered with limited resources. So I don't think that in our country, we should try to discourage urbanisation.
Having said that, we have to tackle the problems of urbanisation, such as providing civic amenities, housing, water supply, drainage and lighting.
Public transport is among all these, because all economic activity and social life depends on easy access to public transport. Now, if everybody starts having their own two-wheelers and cars, city roads will get clogged. So it is necessary to have public transport systems in cities.
Recently, the Planning Commission set up a committee on urban transport for the twelfth five-year plan. I happened to be its chairman. We have strongly recommended that in urban transport, public transport should be encouraged in a big way. Today, this is not happening. We have a rudimentary form of public transport, mostly run by private enterprises. There is very little government initiative, and it's basically in only road transport, not rail. We have recommended that in every city with more than two million people, we should start planning metro service. Metro has a large carrying capacity, and it is energy-efficient. The cost of carrying a passenger per kilometre in a metro system is one-sixth or one-fifth the cost of a road transport system. A rail-based system is fast, viable, safe and comfortable.
Today, there are 19 cities in the country with more than two million people. And I think there are about 14 cities with three million people, and seven cities with more than five million. So we have requested that all cities with five million population should get a metro immediately. Fortunately, that has started everywhere, except Ahmedabad, where things are still in the detailed project report stage. Delhi has completed its project. Bangalore has opened a section. Work is on in Chennai, Kolkata and Mumbai. Cities with three million must also get a metro immediately. In cities with two million people, we must plan in another two years. These are the recommendations.
The question was whether less populous cities should all have metro or rail-based systems as the backbone of their public transport. We still need road-based bus feeder and complementary systems. That is unavoidable.
Today, the biggest problem is that road-based public transport is not viable, or is becoming unviable. In most of the cities, it runs at a terrible loss. Delhi Transport Corporation, or DTC, is an example - its government subsidy is Rs 3 crore a day. DTC has bought a lot of huge buses, and many are not running full all the time.
For the best system in the country, today 30-33 per cent of its cost is just taxes. When you buy a bus, there is a tax. When you register the bus, there is a tax. Fuel is taxed. Everything is taxed. The result: buses are becoming unviable. A city like Delhi today needs something like 25,000 buses in addition to the metro that is coming up. Buses should be available in any nook and corner of the country. Only then will the number of private vehicles come down. It is essential to reduce the number of private vehicles. Lot of disincentives must be introduced. But before you create a disincentive, you must provide an alternative. A public transport system must be available.
But our planners are not looking at it. Delhi has made a good start with the metro system. Now at least the government is committed. Four phases of metro system are in place. Three phases are over, and I think the fourth phase will be complete by 2021. By then, the city will expand so much that it will need another phase. An ideal situation in Delhi would be if every home and workplace were within half a kilometre of a metro station.
AB: That would apply to the other cities with more than five million people as well.
ES: It is required. We have to bring in huge investment in urban transport. We have made practical suggestions to the Planning Commission for how the money to be raised.
A number of measures could be mentioned. One is that a non-lapseable, non-fungible urban transit fund be created by state and central governments. Out of this, allocations should be made - so much for metro, so much for road transport, so much for road improvement. We have found that it is easy to raise this money, provided there is political will. People are prepared to pay if they get service. You will be surprised to know how many requests come in, asking why are don't you raise the metro fare. People think it is cheap. And it is. It's one of the cheapest metros in the world. In Singapore or Hong Kong, it costs four to five times more. In Dubai, it is ten times more. But it is necessary to keep fares low so everyone can afford the metro.
AB: Will profitability come through volumes?
ES: Yes, of course. And you should not think profitability in urban transport. You should not treat it as a business, which, of course, the government is doing. All state governments, municipalities, everyone considers urban transport business. It's not a business. It's a social service. You don't expect profit out hospitals and schools - they are a basic amenity that you have to provide in every city. This is my view. So, to make it easy, taxes on buses should be reduced.
We should tax those who pollute the city.
AB: You mean car drivers?
ES: Yes, cars and autos.
AB: Also the industrial units also around the city?
ES: No, no. We assume that city planning will move industrial units away from the city. Sometimes that may not be possible. But we have suggested something like a green tax on vehicles. The tax that car owners pay is so little. And in a place like Delhi, people have two or three, or even five, cars per house. Keeping cars should not be cheap. There should be parking constraints. People should not be able to park anywhere and everywhere. They should pay high fees to park. Old vehicles that pollute badly should pay a green tax. For whoever wants to purchase their first vehicle, you can be lenient. For the second vehicle, the registration fee should be doubled. That is the sort of disincentive to have for personal vehicles. But before that, public transport must be available, and for that, investment is necessary.
Investment is not at all difficult, provided there is a will to raise the money.
AB: There has been a recent proposal by the Delhi government to introduce a congestion tax in some parts of the city.
ES: Yes, by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi.
AB: And also to raise parking fees in some areas. So, would you say that is a step in the right direction?
ES: Yes. Parking fees should be raised. The cost of land is high. You can't allow vehicle owners to lock up this valuable space in the city. We should encourage people to use public transport.
AB: What is your view on a tram system as a sort of feeder or supplement to the metro and road systems? Delhi had trams long ago. Kolkata still has them.
ES: Tram systems have undergone a change now. Today it is called LRT (Light Rapid Transit). It is essentially a tramway sharing the right of way with the road. These operate in most European countries. But these are systems in cities that are spread out, with wide roads. If you are going to share right of way with other road vehicles here, trams will cause bottlenecks. You can have trams if the roads are wide and you can segregate a portion for the tramway. But our cities are not planned that way. So I do not advocate LRT here. Instead, it should be light metro. The only thing that is different is: on the ground, it is elevated, rather than underground.
AB: How is light metro different from regular metro?
ES: The capacity of heavy metro is 90,000 passengers per hour in one direction. In a light metro, it would be only about 25,000. Many cities are planning medium metro, such Chennai and Bangalore. That is about 45,000 to 50,000 PHPDT, or 'peak hour, peak direction traffic'. Cities such as Mumbai and Delhi require heavy systems.
AJ: Is this a viable system? Indian cities are growing rapidly, so won't the light metro become congested?
ES: No, no. You always make a provision to expand the system. If a line gets congested, you can build a parallel line and siphon traffic to that. That is what every city has done. If you see London, so many lines criss-cross. They weren't all built at the same time. Many came up in the last six years. As the city grows, you increase the network. Add lines. You can't plan one line for 90,000 passengers. Then it is an investment that is not fetching any money. As the city grows, the network should expand.
AB: Bangalore was planning a monorail system some time ago. I don't think it was very successful. What are your views on that?
ES: Monorail is a system ideal for a picnic spot, a park or a religious place. The investment in a monorail is same as for light metro, but the operating cost is three times as much. So it cannot be viable. So many monorails have been planned because of the monorail lobby. If you ask technocrats, nobody recommends monorail. It is only politicians.
You see what is happening in Chennai now. They were planning a metro. When Jayalalithaa became Chief Minister, we gave a presentation, and she agreed and work began on it. Everything was decided. Suddenly, she made a U-turn. She announced 300 km of monorail, instead of metro. Fortunately, her term came to an end, and the DMK came to power. They reversed the decision and reinstated the metro. About 77 km of metro is under construction. Now Jayalalitha is back, and says there will be no expansion of the metro. She wants monorail again. There is no logic there, according to me. The carrying capacity of a monorail is one-third that of a metro. The cost is the same. The operating cost is double. How can it be viable?
They all talk about it being on BOT (build, operate, transfer) basis. You will never succeed that way. A monorail is under construction in Mumbai now. It's going to be a white elephant. No doubt about it. They already spent about Rs 100 crore per kilometre. Light metro costs the same, and has a higher carrying capacity. How is it going to be viable? Monorail is not a solution for urban transport. It is alright as a tourist attraction.
AJ: Would it be viable for cities with a population of a million, such as Coimbatore?
ES: How can it be? It cannot. The cost is the same. You can go for a metro.
AB: So small cities should go for light metro?
ES: They should. We are bringing a new technology here. DMRC is taking the lead. It's called Maglev technology, which is same as light metro, but costs less than a normal metro, Operating costs are 30 per cent lower. We are trying to bring that here.
AJ: Is this the same as the one in Shanghai?
ES: Yes, the Shanghai airport line. But that is high speed - 400 km per hour. For urban transport, the speed is 100 km. This has been successful in Japan. It is being successfully implemented in South Korea now. We are trying to bring this technology to India.
AB: Which part of the city will have this line?
ES: We want to try it on the Najafgarh to Dwarka line. It is a 6 km line. We want to perfect it there, so it can be used in other areas. This is what we are proposing to the government.
AB: There has been a lot of debate about the BRT system in Delhi. Especially because existing roads were split into two, instead of building a separate corridor for buses. The government says it is a success, but people say it is a failure. There is distress among public as well.
ES: From a planner's point of view, it is a success. But if you ask the commuter from the road, as opposed to one in the bus lane, it is an ordeal. It's an ordeal for cars and two-wheelers. There are bottlenecks. Even if the light is green, vehicles cannot move. At every junction, there are two bus stops. At the entry and exit of all junctions, there is a terrific jam. In between, there is not much of a jam. It has not been a success. But can be made into one by planning differently. They should not have huge buses, and buses should be freely available. There are not enough of them. Buses should cover all areas. Having the BRT for a small length is of no use. Having a BRT for 6 km doesn't benefit anyone. It should cover at least half the city. But this city does not have wide roads.
AB: Would you say afresh corridor should be built for the BRT, rather than taking away one line from the existing road?
ES: They should should paint marks and enforce discipline. A physical barrier should not be there. That is not done in many countries. And the most important thing: bus stops should not be near junctions. They should be at least 100 metres away.
AJ: In cities with five to 10 lakh people, what kind of transport do you recommend?
ES: Buses. We have proposed only public buses. Large numbers of buses. These must be freely available. It will not be profitable - the government has to subsidise it. According to me, there should be no sales tax on any bus used for public transport. There should be no road tax. At present, the road tax on buses is crippling. The government thinks it is getting revenue. But it's like killing the goose that lays golden eggs. They should make it attractive for government departments and private operators to run buses. You can't wish away a bus system. They are a necessity in smaller cities.
AB: But when buses are operated by private, people face many problems. Buses stop where there are no stops. They lack discipline.
ES: That is because there is no measure to bring in discipline. Unfortunately, our agency that should enforce discipline is not upright and honest. If any bus driver is booked for a violation, he can easily get out of it by paying a bribe. We have to change the whole system. It is working well in Bangalore. It is making a profit, too.
AB: One last question. The Kolkata metro is the oldest in the country. I rememeber riding in the first metro, in the early 1980s. It took almost twenty years to build. It is in poor shape now.
ES: Very bad shape.
AB: If a metro system is built, and people use it, and then it degenerates, what are the lessons to learn?
ES: Kolkata's metro has not degenerated. It has been planned wrong from the start. They planned wrong, and use the wrong type of signalling and rolling stock. They didn't introduce modern trains and signalling.
AB: This was available when they launched?
ES: It was available the world over. We decided we will do it in our own Indian fashion, get the coaches from ICF. The coaches were manufactured in ICF. Rickety old coaches. They are not air-conditioned. The rudimentary signalling of Indian Railways was adopted.
It was done by Indian Railways. Urban transport is not their responsibility or role. It is the role of the urban development ministry. The railways don't want to part with it, I don't know why, although they incur an operating loss of nearly Rs 100 crore a year. It is a prestige issue for them.
We have given them a proposal to upgrade and modernise the Kolkata metro. We have made an offer saying that we can give a project report and see what it is going to cost. We have even suggested that if we modernise and upgrade the Kolkata metro, a private party could invest. The railways may not need to spend at all. A private party will be interested, because the basic infrastructure is all there. Stations and tunnels are available. And that accounts for 65 per cent of project cost. Any new investor has to put in only the remaining 35 per cent. In Kolkata, the traffic is heavy. They only need to change the fare level. That metro can be brought up to world standards in three to five years. But a beginning should be made.
AB: So, for any city planning a metro, what are the five most important things to keep in mind?
ES: The main thing is to choose the route correctly, where there is maximum traffic demand. Then there should be judicious decisions whether to build elevated or underground. One should also remember that underground costs three times as much as an elevated system for construction. Besides, the operating cost is 50 per cent more, and the security risk is five times more. A terrorist in an underground section can do five times more damage than on an elevated portion. All this must be taken into consideration. There should be a judicious mix of elevated and underground.
We should not go for a posh or luxurious metro. The country can't afford it. We should go for a functional metro, but ensure comfort, speed and safety. Not huge stations with chandeliers and fancy architecture. Delhi's metro does not have costly stations. They are just functional.
I could have made these stations like Moscow's. Nobody would have stopped it. But these are all dead investments. It should be functional. We should be able to complete it without cost or time overruns. We should be able to operate the system economically. And I think we have done that remarkably well in Delhi. Our operating expenditures are half of what other metros are spending the world over. Of course our revenues are also low, because of our fares. Metros should be financially operationally viable at least. They should not depend on government subsidy to run the system.
For all the metros coming up in the country, we have done the project report. Everywhere, we have ensured that we can manage comfortably. Now it depends on the execution. We are not doing that. There are separate organisations for it. If they mess up, the cost will go up. Time and cost overrun can make the metro financially unviable. It is very important to finishing projects on time and within the estimates.