New Avenues: Opportunities for private participation in urban mass transit

By Hari Somalraju, Managing Director, SYSTRA India

The urbanisation rate is projected to reach over 50 per cent by 2030. The per capita trip rates and passenger trips per day are also estimated to be on a growth trajectory. The demand for sustainable public transport is expected to be high. If the mobility needs of the population are not catered to, there will be hi­gher road congestion (in business-as-usual sc­e­nario-average journey speeds expected to be 10 km per hour), pollution, carbon dioxide em­issions and air quality index, which will lo­wer the standard of living. Thus, there is a need to devise pan-Indian strategies to shift the mo­bility sector to carbon-neutral modes.

The two key major mitigation measures are the shift from private to public transport syste­ms and use of sustainable transit systems, whi­ch are fuel and energy efficient and finan­cia­lly sustainable. The growing pollution and congestion have necessitated the need for new modes of transit like MetroNeo, Metrolite, ca­ble cars and electric buses, which are emerging as potential and viable transit options for Tier II and III cities.

Urban mass transit in India

The Government of India (GoI) has initiated various measures for improving the sustainable public transit systems in Indian cities. Prior to 2014, a 248 km metro network was operati­­o­n­al in five cities. During 2014-21, 484 km of operational metro network was added in 18 cities. At present, a 733 km metro network is operational in 18 cities, 1,046 km under construction in 16 cities, and six proposals are un­der evaluation. The goal is to cover 27 cities with 1,700 km of metro rail network by 2025. In addition, India intends to expand its metro rail network to 100 cities by 2047.

Meanwhile, cable car projects have been initiated by the GoI in eight cities. There are about 200 such projects un­der evaluation, with plans for most of them to be implemented in medium- and small-sized ci­t­ies. Convergence Energy Services Limited is planning a $10 billion tender for 50,000 electric buses that will drive India’s plans to decarbonise public transport and help it meet its goals for net zero emissions.

MetroLite systems are being planned in the cities of Gorakhpur, Thane, Jammu, Srinagar, Coimbatore, Dehradun, Vadodara and Rajkot. The main challenge in implementing these systems in smaller Indian cities is obtaining right of way. In addition, detailed technical specifications need to be developed for these systems along with knowledge transfer in India to facilitate the Make in India initiative.

Opportunities for private participation

Due to the large upfront investment requireme­nt, low profitability and an extremely long ge­sta­tion period, the majority of urban transport pro­jects continue to be funded by the government. Multilateral and bilateral agencies also play a crucial role in financing the­se projects. He­n­ce, going forward innovative financing sou­rces need to be actively tapped by metro au­tho­rities. Private sector expertise and investment not only reduces the pressure on the go­v­ern­ment but also helps in optimising the capital expenditure and reducing the O&M expenses.

The private sector can be involved in the following components of public transit projects:

  •   Station development: The private sector can be involved in the development of public tra­n­sit stations including design, construction and implementation and collection of non-fare-box revenue. The involvement of the private sector will help in space optimisation, design optimisation and maximisation of non-fare-box revenue.
  •  Train operations: The private sector can be involved either in managing the train operations on a turnkey basis for a period of 20-30 years or just be limited to the provision of trained manpower for train operations.
  •  Leasing of rolling stock.
  • Hybrid annuity model: The private sector can explore the opportunity of implementing the hybrid annuity model for metro rail development and operation. The involvement of the private sector will help minimise project risks, ensure design optimisation and maximisation of fare box and non-fare box revenue.

Emerging technology solutions and digital interventions

In terms of technology, communication-based train control (CBTC) is the most used signalling system in all metros. It makes the metro fully au­tomatic and consists of an automatic train control system, automatic train supervision system and computer-based interlocking and radio system. CBTC helps significantly reduce the O&M costs and dependence on original equipment manufacturers.

Metro systems have been increasingly fo­cusing on switching to advanced technologi­es such as driverless operations. They also help in reducing human error, and increasing operati­on­al efficiency, safety and flexibility. Driver­le­ss ope­rations have been commissioned on a 37 km long stretch of the Magenta Line and 57 km long stretch of the Pink Line of the Delhi Metro.

The other technologies that are gaining traction are supervisory control and data acquisition, which is an artificial intelligence-based diagnostic platform for monitoring the functioning of the metro. Meanwhile, digitalisation us­ing building information modelling, e-PMC, digital twins and virtual reality is also gaining traction. It helps in effective planning and redu­ces de­lays in construction. Mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) is a data-driven approach to bridge the gap between first- and last-mile connectivity using smartphones. Further, internet of things and big data have huge potential in the metro sector, particularly in asset management, for which data is collected through sensors atta­ched to critical components of the metro.

Investments plans

Efficient urban transport serves is the lifeline of any dynamic and growing urban area. It is important that the growth and development of urban transport is commensurate with the gro­wth in population, area and economic activities. However, the development of an urban tra­ns­port system requires large amounts of in­ve­st­ments. The Union Budget 2022-23 has set aside Rs 238.75 billion for the mass rapid transit system, an increase of 1.7 per cent over 2021-22 (revised estimate). This includes an outlay of Rs 47.1 billion towards projects of the National Capital Region Transport Corporation.

The vision 2025 for urban public transport (NITI Aayog) envisages mass rapid transit system to be available in more than 50 cities in India by 2025. Projects worth Rs 5,733.66 billion are to be implemented under the urban transport/mass rapid transit system.

Although urban transport is a state subject, investments made in the urban transport sector can be observed at the national, state and city levels under various programmes and sc­hemes launched by the central and state governments. At the national level, investme­nts to upgrade urban transport and climate ch­ange are funded by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, Ministry of Environment, Fo­rest and Climate Change, and the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways.

The central government, along with the state governments, also needs to provide a so­vereign guarantee to the project SPVs in securing concessional loans from various funding agencies. Although multilateral and bilateral funding agencies do provide grants to urban local bodies, these grants are either for feasibility studies or other project preparatory facility, and in some cases for implementing pilot projects or demonstration projects.

The road ahead

The urban transport sector is growing at a rapid pace. The sector has a promising outlook given the favourable government policy support, robust project pipeline and increasing emphasis on efficient modes of mass transport. The Make in India initiative has also increased the level of indigenisation in metro projects. The overall gro­w­th of the sector is dependent on a number of factors such as the creation of a Unified Met­ropolitan Transport Authority, integration of various transport modes and smart ticketing.

Multimodal integration is gaining traction with the uptake of regional rapid transit syste­ms. Metro authorities are working in this area for providing a seamless travel experience to co­mmuters. MaaS, internet of trains, big data and predictive maintenance are some of the new concepts and technologies being explor­ed. Other future technology trends include unattended train operations, CBTC, open-loop ticketing, environment safety solutions, and increased mechanisation and remote monitoring. Further, there has been a growing fo­cus on the use of green energy to reduce the growing dependence on conventional energy sour­ces. The use of energy generated by waste-to-energy plants has also displayed the po­tential to be an upcoming alternative to conventional sources. Going forward, the sector is expected to offer various opp­ortunities for its stakeholders.