Views of Kumar Keshav: “Metro systems will become an important constituent of the transport mix in all urban centres”

The metro rail system forms an important part of the daily commute for urban citizens. In India, the mass rapid transit system has become a popular mode of travel in recent times. However, metro rail development has faced many obstacles.

At a recent India Infrastructure conference, Kumar Keshav, chief executive officer, DB Engineering and Consulting India, discussed the experience of metro rail development in India, the issues and challenges faced during implementation, and the lessons learnt. Excerpts…

The experience so far

The viability and profitability of metro rail projects have always been matters of concern during the implementation of such projects. How­ever, the deployment of metro services in cities such as Lucknow, Agra and Kanpur proves the necessity of this urban mass transit system in In­dia. The viability of Lucknow Metro had been qu­e­stioned at the time of its announcement. Ne­ver­theless, as per the latest updates, nearly 80,000 people commute via this mode of transport daily, thereby proving its merit and benefits.

The choice between light or medium metro as well as the selection of other technological as­pects depends primarily on the current and projected traffic of a city. The metro is primarily an energy-efficient mass rapid transit system, which is required in India. The energy required per passenger-kilometre by a metro system is much lower than by a car or a two-wheeler. Even though metro projects are capital-intensive, they have a lot of intangible benefits.

Lucknow Metro was planned as a long-term, sustainable mobility solution for the city’s commuters. Since its inception, Uttar Pradesh Metro Rail Corporation Limited (UPMRCL) has undertaken various measures to ensure compliance with environmental norms. Lucknow Metro is a 23 km-long project with 21 stations. Of these, four are underground stations at den­sely popu­la­ted commercial centres of the city. Various new technologies, including communications-ba­­sed train control technology for signalling, ha­ve been deployed at Lucknow Metro. The project was successfully completed 36 days ahead of the schedule of four and a half years. In a no­ta­ble development, the Lucknow Airport metro station was completed in only 19 months, bagging a position in the Limca Book of World records for the fastest construction of an underground metro station. Work on the metro has also recei­ved many other accolades for the good quality of construction and the timely completion.

Role of private participation

The capital-intensive nature of metro projects acts as a constraint on getting good returns on investment for private players. However, it is essential that the importance of private participation is recognised, as the huge investments required for the development of mass transit projects cannot be provided by the government alone. Even with the low rate of interest on whi­ch loans are being given by external funding ag­encies, the financial viability of projects is be­ing questioned. It is essential to garner private sector interest, at least partially if not fully, in areas such as train operation, supply of syste­ms, train sets and LED screen installation. Oth­er advantages of bringing in private participation include enhanced skillset, expertise and technological upgradation.

Delhi Metro is a huge network. However, cities such as Lucknow, Kanpur, Agra and Visa­kha­patnam will always have smaller networks. For such cities, funding technological upgradation on their own is very costly, therefore necessitating private participation. Greater flexibility in decision making is another advantage with private participation to achieve cost-effective operations and maintenance.

Issues faced in Lucknow metro

The execution and implementation of Lucknow Metro has been tougher than Delhi Metro. The key challenge for any metro project is to garner the support of the general public and deal with their expectations. In Lucknow, this was dealt with through consistent stakeholder engagement and community interaction programmes with the public to provide the necessary affirmations regarding the benefits of the project. An additional issue faced during project execution was obtaining pending approvals.

As opposed to Delhi, where there is a vast network of roads and service roads through wh­i­ch traffic can be diverted, the execution of Lucknow Metro had to be done in a densely po­pu­lated area with limited space, even for foot­pa­ths. This led to various engineering challen­ges as elevated sections had to be constru­c­ted in densified commercial areas. Building the me­tro in the heart of the city was a major challen­ge. Meanwhile, given the apprehensi­o­ns of the locals, it was our responsibility as the metro au­thority to complete the project on time. Another key challenge was the lack of capable local contractors and design consultants for undertaking such difficult and massive construction through the densely populated city.

Best practices

The Lucknow Metro project has not only brought fame to the city but has also changed the face of urban mobility in the state. The timely completion of the project was made possible on acco­unt of the innovations and strategies undertaken by UPMRCL. Key amongst these was the use of the pre-cast construction technique and the erection of U-girders for metro viaducts. The metro stations under the project were constructed quicker on account of pre-cast structures.

Another cost- and time-saving method is in­te­grated contracts for supply of rolling stock and the signalling system. The integration of the roll­ing stock and signalling packages for the Luck­now, Kanpur and Agra Metro projects re­sulted not only in cost-competitive procure­me­nt by UPMRCL, but also better inventory control, and op­eration and maintenance simplification. A lot of interface issues were tackled this way, which led to faster commissioning and timely operations.

Apart from this, project execution can be smoothened by keeping the locals and the government satisfied with the least possible inconvenience. The contractors and suppliers to whom a project is awarded should also be co-operative in order to ensure timely completion of the project.

Key recommendations

With Indian cities growing at a fast pace, metro systems are bound to become an important constituent of the transport mix in all urban centres. Metro projects are capital-intensive as they require everything – land, civil structures, signalling systems and rolling stock. However, the capital cost of any metro project is only 40 per cent of its total life cycle cost, while 60 per cent of the life cycle cost comes from operations, maintenance, asset management, etc. Given that focus is laid primarily on the design and execution of a project, costs related to op­erations and maintenance are not accounted for. This brings into question the financial sustainability and profitability of such projects. It is therefore imperative that, in order to avoid issues pertaining to financial sustainability, the entire vision and philosophy of operations and maintenance is also planned at the design phase itself. While planning a metro rail project, components such as last-mile connectivity, passenger convenience, traffic integration, asset management and predictive maintenance also need to be properly planned. In order to ensure the profitability of a metro project, it is essential that these urban mass transit systems are planned as transport models as well as business models.

Another requirement in today’s time is the formulation of a single entity for all public tra­ns­port in a city. To that end, different modes of public transport should work and function in unison and via integration, rather than co­m­peting against one another. Meanwhile, in order to be cost-effective, it is essential that operational and technological redundancies are minimised.