By S. Sivathasan –
In pushing the frontiers of development in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to geographical extremities, Railways have had an impact like no other. The westward push in the US, Trans-Siberian railway of Russia, the network in China and linkages in all directions in India are remarkable. As significant for modern times are the Metro, Mono and High Speed systems for commuter transport. Strides made in engineering have reached wider humanity most effectively.
It is not surprising that the beneficiaries of high end technology making for Metro, are all in the forefront economically. There are 54 nations having the Metro. Over 90% of them are within the first 54 in GDP terms. They are also in EU, OECD and BRIC. The phenomenon signifies some truths. Where the people have composed their differences decades back, their economies are set on a vibrant course. There is a high degree of urbanisation in their principal cities which necessitate an appropriate transport mode. Those nations have the resources to deliver a Metro and the citizens do afford patronage and to sustain profitability. Around 40 more metros are under construction mostly in the same countries or in economies of comparable stature.
To match the pace of urbanization and to meet the demands of further advancement, is the delivery of speedy transport systems. However complex problems are, it is not in the nature of man to beat a retreat or to admit of defeat. Human ingenuity has at all times responded to the challenge and overwhelmed it. To ease the haulage of coal in collieries, first rails and then planks as sleepers were used. Railways developed therefrom and the world has a very sophisticated metro system to provide commuters transport with speed, ease and comfort. Technology is now adding improved refinements by the day. Metro has come to stay and is now set on an exponential curve.
As of January 2014, commuters are being served by 190 metro systems. The number under construction is around 40. To get an idea certain features of the Metro profile are detailed. As the name would convey, the system operates in the metropolis. Characteristically they display three features. The lines are on land, underground and elevated. Energy source is electricity which is clean wherever it is used. One of the principal benefits Metros confer is to take a massive load off roadways and ease congestion in the metropolis. The stations are at close intervals of a kilometer or a little more. Higher frequencies are operated and heavy passenger capacities are provided. Volumes are important for revenue and profitability. Efficiency is therefore vital for its sheer survival.
Historically the first in the world was the London Underground. Not surprisingly, because by 1800, London was the first city of a million citizens. It was inaugurated in 1863 and gained Metro status in 1890 with the opening of the first electrified underground line. As of 2013, Seoul Metro of 940 km is the longest in the world. The first line opened in 1974 and now incorporates 17 lines. The annual ridership is 2.52 billion and is second busiest after Tokyo. Moscow subway is among the oldest having commenced operations in 1935. The oldest subway in China is in Beijing.
Closer home India has made fair progress in delivering Metros in state capitals. The earliest one was Kolkata Metro where commercial services were introduced in 1984. The rest were built and made operational in the present century. They are mostly in state capitals. The iconic among them is the Delhi Metro, where the first section was made operational in 2002. The last line was opened in 2011. Now the Metro has 190 km which will be increased to 296 km by 2016. Then it will carry 4 million passengers per day.
What is reportedly striking about the Delhi Metro is its success. Cleanliness of coaches, track and stations has been sustained from the beginning, food drink and plastics are banned and discipline is maintained. A high level of profitability is recorded through prudent policy measures. It is much sought after for shooting films and charges are Ind Rs. 1 lakh per minute! Together with advertisements earnings are spun. From year one 2002 itself handsome profits are made. According to Dr. Sreedharan the formerManaging Director of DMRC the Delhi Metro now makes an operational profit of Rs 20 million every day.
Delhi Metro had the rare advantage of a stand out engineer now 82, in Dr.E.Sreedharan. He planned and executed each phase on schedule or ahead and within the budget. He was MD for 16 years till he retired in 2011. Possessed of unmatched capability in engineering and management, he was dedicated and became a man who made a difference. Planning, construction and management after completion fell on him. Along with management of Delhi he was also engaged in the delivery of metro systems in certain other state capitals. After retirement his services are spread over as a Consultant to most of the metros now under construction.
Prominent among the current ones under construction is the Chennai Metro, which is the second longest and which is at an advanced stage. The first segment of a fourth will be operational in mid-2014. The whole project will be on stream by end 2015. A brief description of the project profile and management will be edifying. The Metro with a total length of 45 km, is half underground and the balance elevated and on land. The cost is high at a total of Ind. Rs 146 billion for the entire infrastructure including land acquisition. Financing is by the Centre, State and JBIC of Japan contributing 59% of the loan. Construction duration is from June 2009 to completion in Dec. 2015.
Construction is highly specialized, complex and protracted. What impressed the writer most was forward planning with great foresight and diligent follow up resulting in prompt delivery. An example: Having decided on Alstom for engines and coaches, part supply by principals was envisaged. Simultaneously, local manufacture was planned and a factory was built for the purpose. These train sets from Siri City in AP on the borders of TN started arriving on schedule. While specific consignments reached Chennai from Brazil in due time, local supply followed and were taken to the Koyambedu yard for testing and trial run. In all 42 train sets of 4 car configuration making a total of 168 cars will be delivered for the project. The yard itself is a greenfield one executed in time and fully equipped.
At the helm of management is a competent team mainly of senior IAS officials at the level of Secretary or Joint Secretary. Morale of the executing cadres is maintained at a high tempo through recognition and reward. Very regular monthly progress reports detailed and authentic appearing in the public domain keep the cadres and the world fully informed and always in the picture. Some features: Proactive tree planting. Target 65,000 saplings from 2011. Planted up to February 2014 – 56,954.
Transport and Communications
Two of the great essentials after the three indispensables are transport and communications. Globally, telephones are available at 6 for 7 individuals and internet at 3 per 10. Good availability, degree of sophistication and the scale of investment in communications infrastructure are well understood. The world spends 1% of its GDP on road and rail infrastructure. The spending denotes their priority. In the railway sector, the segments of Metro, Mono and High Speed are gaining increasing importance.
It is in the nature of man to go in for the swift. To meet that need, railways came in as an innovation two centuries back. As cities expanded and multiplied Metros were designed and executed to bypass the congestion. To serve the metropolis while not demolishing dense built up areas, going underground was unavoidable. The London Underground set the pace. Now most if not all have a mix of lines on land, underground and elevated. The latter two are high cost, yet all nations opt for them because of the relative advantages.
Mono is not treated as an alternative mode to Metro or HSR. The longest track built and operated is Chongquing in China at a length of 55.5 km. Second is Osaka with 21.2 km. Mumbai mono commissioned in Feb. 2014 is 8.9 km and will be 20 km when phase ll is completed in 2016. To make operations economically viable, tickets have to be priced very high. This shuts out commuters from patronage. Las Vegas monorail carried 6 million passengers in 2009. Even with a revenue of $ 27 million it filed for bankruptcy protection in 2010.
In 2006 Jayalalitha announced her plan for a mono of 333 km when the world’s longest was 21km. Dr.Sreedharan has advised against it as it was not suited for Chennai now. Its relevance is only as a feeder to Metro. Yet obduracy makes her pursue it in print. Mahabharatha says, Duryodhana will never heed advice since malign destiny blinds him to his destruction. So be it with TN and the CM.
High Speed Rail (HSR)
Efforts at developing HSR systems commenced first in Germany and France in the early thirties. Serious attempts to deliver materialised with Japan operating the Shinkansen HSR in 1964. This bullet train has carried 9 billion commuters in the last 50 years without a single fatality. For high speed, Japan was overtaken by TVG of France and in recent times by China. How high should high speed be? There is no precise definition, but over time it has settled down to 200 kmph for upgraded tracks and 250 or above for new ones. In the former are about 16 countries with a total length of 29,000 kms. China has 19,000 of them.
From 1974 onwards, escalating oil prices gave an impetus to more research into use of electricity. Higher speeds were achieved in the last quarter of the previous century and they have stabilized at a sustainable 305 kmph/190 mph. In the present century, China, France and Japan are in the forefront in HSR with more extensive coverage and providing greater commuter satisfaction. Today they operate 800; 600 and 450 train sets respectively out of a global total of 2,500. The number is estimated to reach 3,500 within a few years. It is forecast that China will link all principal cites by 2020.
As of now more countries are delivering, constructing and planning HSR. It is very conspicuous that India is yet to have her first kilometer of HSR. Half the global population was urban in 2005 and UN forecasts that two/ thirds will be so by 2050. By then cities with million plus citizens will be vastly more than 468 in 2007. The need to connect up Indian cities with HSR is inescapable. Intriguingly even a beginning is not made. An outsider can speculate the reason why.
Debate, more debate and intensive debate till eternity before all the strands of wisdom can be assembled for the ideal decision. It is said that UK is debating 100 miles for years. In that duration China has built 6,000 miles. Besides this national trait is the lack of wherewithal. To see the problem in perspective, may it be noted that in TN freebies and subsidies budgeted for 2014/15 need Rs 470 billion; a massive share of the state budget. The national budget boasts of the same profligacy of trillions miscalling it welfare. If Modi stems the rot by going the way of Hitler in the 30s, or Margaret Thatcher in the 70s or Deng in the 80s or Indira Gandhi with her emergency, India is likely to have a spate of HSR in the next two decades. Rickety modes otherwise.
It appears that the world is poised to adopt HSR as the most viable mode of public transport for intercity travel. Projects under construction, being planned and their dispersal worldwide give a clue. It is computed that a single HSR journey can take many vehicles off the road. Use of electricity eliminates pollution. Speed and comfort are natural options of humanity.