Modern buses to test waters before metro takes plunge on new routes

State govt. not in a position to set apart funds for the ₹1,957-crore Kakkanad extension and subsequent projects

With the Metro Rail Policy-2017 according primacy to expected passenger patronage on different routes before sanctioning metro projects / extensions, the State government is considering a proposal to introduce a fleet of modern buses under Kochi metro phase two and three extensions to test the waters before the metro takes the plunge, it is learnt.

The second phase extension proposed to Kakkanad is awaiting the Union Cabinet’s sanction, and Kochi Metro Rail Limited (KMRL) has cited this as the reason for not revealing the expected passenger patronage mentioned in the detailed project report (DPR) for the 11.20-km extension. The Aluva-international airport third phase extension is to follow suit.

“This testing of the waters is crucial before a decision is taken to take the plunge for metro rail, a mass rapid transport system (MRTS) that is highly capital-intensive. The conventional metro rail costs around ₹250 crore per km and needs further investment for last-mile connectivity, which is yet to happen in Kochi even four years after the metro was commissioned. The State government, which will have to provide substantial funding and repay the loan from French development assistance agency AFD is currently not in a position to set apart funds for the ₹1,957-crore Kakkanad extension and subsequent extensions,” official sources said.

It is estimated that an entire fleet of 250 Volvo buses and allied infrastructure like modern bus stops can be established using the ₹250 crore that a kilometre of metro rail costs. These buses will in turn act as a feeder system for the existing metro by bringing in people from suburban towns. In addition, buses will considerably lessen the need for last-mile connectivity, since they can be diverted through newer routes where demand arises. Already, the Aluva-Pettah phase one stretch of the metro is incurring loss to the tune of approximately ₹1 crore a day.

Hyped patronage

“Stakeholders gave thought to rolling out a fleet of modern buses on routes where the metro has been envisaged on finding that project consultants, which in the case of metro phase one was DMRC, showed hyped passenger patronage figures [which was over 3.5 lakh per day for 2021], to get Central sanction for the project. In comparison, the metro was getting an average of just around 70,000 passengers a day even before the pandemic struck. This is nothing but playing games with public funds, and just a handful of stakeholders benefit. Further extensions by banking on the conventional metro system need not be worth for cities like Kochi,” the sources added.

The metro is an expensive toy that only mega cities can afford. It is in this context that a realistic estimation of demand based on patronage for buses that offer metro-like ride experience has to be done before pumping in thousands of crores worth public funds for a conventional metro. If not for KMRL, the Kochi Metropolitan Transport Authority (KMTA) can spearhead the bus project. Most modern cities have such well-networked modern bus fleets, with a driver being the sole crew member who controls the opening and closing of doors. A whole lot of technologies are available to inform passengers of the location of each bus, expected time of arrival and the number of vacant seats, they said.

Former urban transport specialist of World Bank O.P. Agarwal was among those who spoke of the need for a ‘metro-neo’ system — a fleet of air-conditioned vestibule buses — to link the city with the IT Hub in Kakkanad. This could be readied for less than ₹75 crore per km (mainly for procuring buses) as compared to over thrice the cost for the conventional metro. It will also do away with the need for extensive quarrying for an elevated viaduct for the metro, he said.

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