A Ray of Hope: Trends and opportunities in the urban rail sector

Trends and opportunities in the urban rail sector

The metro rail sector has been growing steadily over the past few years. Private participation, though limited, is gradually expanding in unbundled services such as fare collection, running of trains, and operation and maintenance of metro stations. The focus on non-fare revenue sources is continuing to receive attention from metro corporations. While fare revenue is expected to be abysmally low in 2020-21, it will rise with the increase in ridership and resumption of economic activities. Contactless ticketing in metro rail systems is assuming importance in preventing the spread of Covid-19 and commuters are slowly taking to QR code-based ticketing systems. This will become the new normal in the post-Covid world. Besides, elevated/at-grade structures will continue to dominate the future urban rail map, especially since a number of Tier I and Tier II cities are now focusing on cost-effective modes such as Metrolite and MetroNeo, which often have elevated/at-grade alignments.

Trends shaping the sector

  • Foreign fund inflow continues: Multilateral sources have been key contributors to meeting the funding needs of mass transit systems in India. Multilateral agencies such as the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the Japan International Cooperation Agency, the European Investment Bank (EIB) and AgenceFrançaise de Développement have been providing financial assistance to metro projects, while the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is a relatively new entrant in the country’s urban transport sector. Loan approvals from ADB and EIB to the Delhi-Meerut Regional Rapid Transit System (RRTS) and Kanpur metro are the latest instances of financial assistance from multilateral agencies.
  • Focus on energy conservation and renewable energy sources: Metro corporations have been devising ways to reduce energy consumption, a key contributor to operational costs, which have been on the rise. The use of regenerative breaking systems, variable voltage variable frequency system drives and LED lighting for trains and station areas have been some of the key initiatives taken. There has also been a focus on the use of green energy to reduce the increasing dependence on conventional sources of energy. While almost all metro systems in the country have started deploying solar rooftop panels, the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) is planning to run trains on solar power as well. Besides, energy generated by waste-to-energy plants also has the potential to be an alternative to conventional energy sources in metro operations.
  • Dominance of foreign players: The metro rail sector has been consistently dominated by global players. Foreign companies especially continue to dominate key segments such as rolling stock, station design, and signalling and train control. There has also been considerable participation by foreign players in fare collection systems. However, the civil works segment has been largely dominated by domestic contractors.
  • Emerging role of private sector: There has been increased private participation in the sector, especially since the launch of the Metro Rail Policy, 2017. Metro rail corporations have been roping in private players not only for the development of new metro stretches, but also for operations and maintenance of government-owned metro systems and for providing last-mile connectivity.
  • Growing focus on non-fare revenue sources: Metro corporations have started looking for non-fare box streams to augment their revenues. Train wrapping; licensing of food kiosks, refreshment stalls, commercial outlets, shopping malls, etc. inside stations; concessions for commercial/residential development; and station branding, among others, are some examples.
  • New modes of rail-based mass transit: The success of metro rail projects in Tier I cities has led to a growing demand for similar systems in Tier II and Tier III cities. Alternative systems such as Metrolite and MetroNeo have been proposed in some cities that expect to have a lower ridership. Meanwhile, ropeways and RRTS projects have also been proposed in some cities.
  • Last-mile connectivity: In a bid to provide last-mile connectivity and enhance revenue, metro systems have been increasingly focusing on providing customer services such as feeder buses, scooters, e-rickshaws and cabs.

Key developments in the past few months

Metro services resumed across the country on September 7, 2020 in a graded manner after being closed for over five months in the wake of the pandemic. As per the guidelines issued by the government, metro stations falling in Covid-19 containment zones will remain closed. The metro corporations of Delhi, Noida, Chennai, Kochi, Bengaluru, Mumbai (Line 1), Jaipur, Hyderabad, Nagpur, Kolkata, Ahmedabad-Gandhinagar and Lucknow have prepared their standard operating procedures for resuming operations. However, the Maharashtra government has decided to resume metro services only by October 2020.

The government inaugurated the 1.33 km Thykoodam-Petta stretch of the Kochi Metro Rail Project, Phase I on September 7, 2020. With this, work on Phase I (Aluva-Petta) stands completed while work on Phases IA and IB is in progress. Bengaluru Metro Rail Corporation Limited (BMRCL) commenced trial runs on the 6.29 km Reach-4B stretch under Phase II (the 72.1 km Yelachenahalli-Anjanapura line) of Bengaluru metro. The line is slated to be launched for commercial operations in early November 2020, after many deadlines were missed in the past due to various reasons with the latest deadline of August 15, 2020 missed due to delays caused by the Covid-19 outbreak.

The focus on indigenisation has increased with the Make in India and Atmanirbhar Bharat initaitves. The DMRC took a major step towards the development of an indigenously built communication-based train control signalling system with the launch of i-ATS, which is an important subsystem of the signalling system. Recently, Bombardier Transportation won the contract for providing 201 coaches and signallingand train control systems for Phase I of the Kanpur and Agra metro projects for Rs 21 billion, and will start the production of coaches at its rolling stock facility in Savli, Gujarat.

New initiatives amidst the pandemic

Metro authorities are adapting to the new environment created by the pandemic. As they open metro services to the public, practices such as physical distancing, thermal screening, sanitisation and contactless ticketing have come to the fore. In keeping with the new normal, the Delhi metro has taken a slew of measures to ensure the least possible physical contact for riders such as deploying an automated thermal screening-cum-sanitiser dispenser and lift calling system driven by a foot pedal. The DMRC is also planning to release updated smart travel cards for contactless travel during the pandemic. The new Zero Human Intervention Metro Smart Cards are being made available to customers via the Autope app. The new smart cards will come with an auto top-up feature that will automatically recharge the card with Rs 200 at the automatic fare collection (AFC) entry gate, if the balance is below Rs 100.

The Lucknow metro has become the first metro to introduce the GoSmart card, which gives the user a contactless trip right from entering the metro station and boarding the train to exiting the station premises. The automatic sensor at the AFC gate detects the card from a distance without the need for tapping it. In a bid to minimise the spread of Covid-19 and encourage contactless ticketing, Chennai Metro Rail Limited is offering a 20 per cent discount on QR code ticketing for single journeys, return journeys and group passes. The Kochi metro too has taken the necessary preventive measures to adopt contactless ticketing and digital payment modes at all stations. Cash boxes and contactless ticket machines are being set up at each station to discourage the use of currency notes. These are only a few instances of innovative fare mediums being used to contain the spread of virus.


The Covid-19 pandemic has posed challenges for the metro rail sector in the country. Metro authorities have suffered huge losses due to the complete suspension of services for five months. There has been an uptick in ridership after the opening of metro services; however, the numbers are far below the pre-Covid levels. That said, there is a glimmer of hope for metro authorities as ridership is expected to pick up further in the next couple of months.

On the upside, a plethora of opportunities are now available as a result of the pandemic, particularly in segments such as fare collection, signalling and telecommunication and rolling stock. New technologies and systems for fare collection, remote surveillance and passenger monitoring are being explored by metro rail corporations. QR ticketing, biometric-based ticketing systems, artificial intelligence and UV light disinfection technology for surface sanitisation are thus expected to gain traction.

In the rolling stock segment, the India-China standoff at the border will open up new opportunities for domestic and other foreign rolling stock manufacturers that have facilities in India, especially since the healthy pipeline of metro projects will keep stakeholder interest high. Thus, there is light at the end of the tunnel, even though things seem to be gloomy at this juncture.