Just as the telecom sector revolutionised communication through wireless waves, the metro sector in India embarked on a journey to redefine urban mobility through elevated or/and underground tracks. Both sectors disrupted traditional norms, ushering in an era of seamless connectivity and efficient transportation. The telecom sector’s shift from landlines to mobile networks mirrors the metro sector’s transition from conventional transportation to high speed, energy-efficient metro systems.
In the past two decades, Indian cities have added more than 800 km of operational metro rail network, which has now become the fifth largest metro rail network in the world, according to India Infrastructure Research. Today, metro rail projects have become the lifeline of many congested urban cities such as New Delhi, Hyderabad and Bengaluru. India will soon overtake Japan and South Korea to have the third-largest metro rail network globally.
Although there has been a tremendous growth in the urban rail sector in the country, with metro rail systems currently operational in 19 cities, this is still modest in comparison to a country such as China, which has more than 7,000 km of metro rail network. India, with more than 50 cities with an urban population of more than 1 million, has tremendous potential for expansion of the metro rail network.
Opportunities in the sector
India’s urban population is projected to increase manyfold by the time we celebrate our 100th year of Independence. The next two and a half decades are going to be most critical for India’s growth story. In line with the prime minister’s vision of transforming India into a developed nation, the country aims at a tenfold increase in GDP to become a $35 trillion economy by 2047. This will require increased investment and spending on the urban rail sector in the country.
More than 1,000 km of metro rail projects are under implementation and many are at the planning or proposal stage. New metro rail projects have been announced in several Tier II cities such as Gorakhpur, Varanasi, Meerut, Vijayawada, Vizag, Dehradun and Bhubaneswar. Expansion of existing metro rail systems in major cities such as Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad Airport Link and Ahmedabad is under way. The pace of implementation of metro rail projects is expected to quadruple to reach 5,000 km of operational network over the next 25 years.
In spite of the compelling need to provide an affordable, accessible, cleaner and reliable public urban transport system, gaps exist in cities owing to the complex interplay of systemic, infrastructural, financial and policy-related issues.
One of the core obstacles is the lack of comprehensive urban planning that integrates transportation systems with urban development. This disconnect has led to fragmented transport networks, making it difficult for commuters to transition seamlessly between different modes of transportation. Issues related to land use and zoning further complicate matters. Inadequate land allocation for transport infrastructure and inconsistent zoning regulations hinder the expansion and efficiency of public transport networks.
A fundamental hurdle is the highly capital-intensive nature of projects and non-availability of sufficient financial resources for urban rail transport systems. Although these projects play a pivotal role in fostering economic growth, with a sustainable mode of urban transport, the creation and upkeep of effective transport systems demand substantial financial resources and do not guarantee financial returns.
Complicating matters further are policy and regulatory intricacies that have created barriers to the development of integrated transport systems. Complex regulatory frameworks and incongruous policies across different modes of transportation create challenges in achieving seamless connectivity and result in limited accessibility, reliability and saving in journey time.
Additionally, there are pre-development and construction challenges in the development of the metro rail system. Project implementations are significantly delayed and overshoot original budgets.
The above challenges are, however, surmountable and can be overcome by ensuring that urban planning aligns with transport needs, reforms that simplify regulations, innovative funding models, technological advancements in planning, execution, construction monitoring and operations, less capital-intensive innovative urban transport solutions and, most importantly, policies that promote the shift to a sustainable mode of transport.
Future outlook and trends to watch
The future outlook of the urban rail transport sector seems promising. With a growing focus on enhancing the sustainability of cities through an affordable, clean, reliable and robust public transport system, this sector is likely to see significant investments. Some of the advancements that can be anticipated in the sector are:
- Implementation of cost-effective mass transit solutions such as MetroLite and MetroNeo in smaller cities or as a feeder to the main metro system in large cities.
- A more pivotal role by unified metropolitan transport authorities in shaping the urban transport landscape by fostering collaboration, ensuring sustainable practices and aligning transportation systems with the broader goals of urban development and environmental sustainability.
- The presence of integrated transport services providing last-mile connectivity and services through a single, unified platform, accessible on demand through a mobile application, enabling integrated journey planning, ticketing and payment.
- Greater involvement of the private sector in operations and maintenance (O&M) of urban rail systems and integrated transportation platforms. The private sector offers efficiency, innovative revenue improvement options and reduced costs over the project life cycle, and helps overcome the limitations and capacity constraints that the public sector typically faces.
- Focus on reducing the capital cost of construction and execution time by using sustainable and latest technologies. New methods of construction such as off-site construction and newer construction technologies, which allow construction with little disruption and are environmentally friendly, advanced construction planning and monitoring tools such as 5D BIM, Integrated Project Management Systems, drones, smart sensors and 3D printing will play a large part in helping projects to be delivered more efficiently and effectively.
- Aiming for 100 per cent indigenisation of all components of the metro rail system, including rolling stock components, tracks and track fittings, signalling systems and O&M spares. Steps have already been taken for the sector to achieve atmanirbharta.
- Increasing use of innovative financing instruments through green bonds, value capture financing and financing through development finance institutions. Increased participation of the private sector in financing will also be encouraged. Some alternative form of integrated public-private partnership (PPP) contracts, unbundled PPPs, alliance contracts and toll-operate-transfer contracts, which are more prevalent in the roads and highways sector will be explored for inviting larger participation from the private sector.
Urban rail transport is an essential part of sustainable urban infrastructure development. Metro rail systems are a faster, more efficient and environment-friendly mode of public transport for cities with a high population density.
Looking at the example of the telecom sector today, the Indian telecom market is one of the largest and most competitive in the world, with widespread growth and connectivity. While the telecom and metro rail sectors have distinct characteristics, the principles of innovation, scalability, user-centric approach and public-private collaboration can be reference points for the metro rail sector to follow.