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BW Businessworld

The Right Track?

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If in the future, monorail’s history in India is written, jailed Pakistani terrorist Ajmal Kasab will feature prominently in the write-up. Consider this: the Mumbai terror attack by Kasab and his fellow terrorists on 26 November 2008 came just two days before a function to mark the start of construction of the Mumbai monorail, where Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was supposed to be the chief guest. Needless to say, the grand launch was delayed by three months. Then, almost a year was lost because security concerns stalled the monorail line near Arthur Road Jail, in which Kasab is housed under heavy security.
 
Despite these hiccups and a few environmental issues, by early next year, the city of Mumbai will boast of the first modern monorail system in India — if all goes as planned. It will be the harbinger of a wave that is set to sweep across India in the field of monorail systems and transportation infrastructure. 
 
If the plans take off, India will become the monorail capital of the world. At present, 13 projects, covering between 300 and 350 km, at a cost of Rs 30,000-Rs 35,000 crore over the next 3-5 years, are in either the planning or implementation stage across the country. But is it all worth it?
 
“We expect an investment of a minimum of $5 billion in the coming years in India on monorail systems on some 21  projects that are in the pipeline,” says Kanesan Veluppillai, president of Scomi International, the Malaysian monorail systems maker which is implementing the Mumbai monorail along with its consortium partner Larsen & Toubro (L&T).
 
Such a mad rush for monorail — no longer preferred as a mode of mass transportation the world over due to its low passenger capacity — is unheard of in the history of monorail systems. Most monorail experts of yesteryear have, over the past 3-4 decades, either exited the business or moved to other advanced 
transportation techniques due to lack of clientele.
 
However, sensing an opportunity in India, most of those remaining in the field are flocking to the country — including the three major players: Scomi, Bomabardier and Hitachi. Some are even looking to set up their own rake-manufacturing facilities in the country.
 
But the moot question remains, is monorail  the right mass transportation medium for populas Indian cities?
 
Waning Popularity
Interestingly, no country has had a monorail network of the scale that Indian cities are looking to build.
 
COUNTRYWIDE CONNECT: Monorail has lost out on appeal in most parts of the world, but in India it appears set to grow with many plans afoot
(Click to view enlarged image)
According to the Monorail Society, an organisation that pushes for its wider acceptance, Asia’s first such project was opened in 1986 at the Lotte World in South Korea, a three-car train carrying 18 passengers and connecting two stations: an indoor amusement park to an outdoor island.

China’s first monorail project was a similar small 1.7-km project at a theme park in 1993. Its first urban monorail started in 1998 at Shenzhen, covering 3.8 km; but its first major monorail system was opened only by 2005 in Chongqing, a 55.5- km stretch connecting 43 stations and carrying 30,000 passengers per hour during peak rush. Other than that, not many new projects have come up in Asia, with the possible exception of an 8.6-km-long project in Kuala Lumpur. Of the seven new monorail projects under construction in Asia, the longest stretch is at Daegu in South Korea: a 24-km length that is being managed by Hitachi.
 
Africa is yet to see a monorail in operation (at Port Harcourt in Nigeria, a 6.4-km project is in progress). Australia has just three monorail lines, all started in the 1988-89 period.
 
In Europe — where the first monorail system was started in 1901 at Wuppertal in Germany — only one project is coming up, a 5-km solar-powered monorail to connect Bologna airport with its central railway station. In Japan, where 11 monorail systems operate, the last one to come up was back in 2003.
 
In 1959, Disneyland made monorail systems popular  in North America. However, just nine monorail systems have come since then, the last in 2004 in Las Vegas.
Apart from India, the only other nation where a larges-cale monorail project is coming up is Brazil. The city of Manaus will construct a 20-km-long monorail with nine stations in time for the soccer World Cup in 2014. Scomi is implementing the project. Sao Paulo is alos working on implementing a monorail network, with three lines covering nearly 100 km.
 
Monorail Versus Metro
“Monorail is a suitable system for urban transportation. There are many opportunities for us to introduce monorail systems the world over; not just in India, but also in China, South-east Asian countries, etc.,” says Satoko Yasunaga, a spokesperson for Hitachi Asia (Singapore). Hitachi is one of the largest players in this field, having constructed monorail systems in Singapore, Tokyo, Osaka, Chongqing (China) and South Korea.
 
Harsh Dhingra, chief country representative of Bombardier Transportation India, says that India, with its congested cities, where alignment of metro routes is not always possible, monorail is the most obvious alternative. He notes that some nine Indian cities have a population of more than 5 million and, by 2051, more than 35 cities will reach that figure. To cater to such a large urban population, India needs a comprehensive, sustainable and integrated rail transportation system, says Dhingra.
 
Veluppillai of Scomi notes that with 40 per cent of India’s population set to live in urban areas, there will be a need for extensive transportation infrastructure: more metro and railway lines, roads, sidewalks, foot overbridges and cycle tracks. “It is not possible to acquire large tracts of land by displacing people in thickly populated areas for a mass rapid transportation system such as the metro. One practical solution is to create connectivity to existing suburban railheads with monorail, which requires less space,” he says.
 
Philippe Delleur, senior vice-president, international network, Alstom, another global mass transportation provider, says metros and monorail are complimentary to each other and one is not a substitute for the other; each has its own advantages and disadvantages.
 
“Globally, monorail is suited for small capacity routes and as feeder to the existing metro network. Increasingly, Indian cities, especially tier-2 cities, are looking at monorail as a means of urban transportation. Monorail is being considered as a feeder to the metro,” he says.
 
For Delleur, the advantage of monorail lies in its ability to operate in restricted spaces. Monorail can be incorporated into a conventional rail-based design without the disadvantages of having proprietary trains. 
 
Globally, more than 50 monorail systems are in operation and it is generally perceived as a leisure park technology because of its attractive looks and small passenger capacities. The capacity of a monorail typically ranges from 2,000 passengers per hour per direction (pphpd) to a maximum of 48,000 pphpd when a monorail is used for mass transportation, depending on the number of cars. As against this, mass transportation systems such as the metro can carry over 70,000 pphpd. The question is: what happens when cities need higher carrying capacity while the central channel of major roads of the city are occupied by low capacity monorail?
 
break-page-break
 
In the case of the Mumbai monorail, the plan is to have 15 trains of four cars each, which will carry around 1.25 lakh people every day. In comparison, the Mumbai suburban railway carries 72.4 lakh commuters daily, while the Mumbai Metro One, the Versova-Andheri-Ghatkopar Corridor Mass Rapid Transit System (MRTS) project being developed by Reliance Infrastructure, is expected to carry six lakh commuters per day on completion.
 
Viability Question
“Worldwide, monorail has found far less acceptance than metros or trams as an urban rail transport mode,” admits Delleur.
 
In fact, more than 50 monorail projects in different parts of the world have been decommissioned in the past for various reasons, chief among them being economic unviability. 
 
“Monorail is seen as a good option only for the last-mile connectivity and its viability is dependent on the traffic density of each corridor. Such feeder systems cannot survive only on revenues from passenger traffic and require a viable economic model such as public funding (like viability gap funding) or subsidies or other streams of revenue such as real estate development,” says Sanjay Sethi, senior executive director and head of the infrastructure group at Kotak Investment Banking.
 
In fact, India had two monorail systems earlier: the first being the one that was used by the British to transport tea from Kundala Valley in Munnar in Kerala. The second was the Patiala State Monorail Trainways (PSMT) — a partially road-borne railways system running in Patiala from 1907 to 1927. While the former was stopped due to a flood in 1924, the latter was abandoned following the death of its patron, Maharaja Sir Bhupinder Singh of Patiala. 
 
The period between 1950 and 1980 was bad for monorail. City planners preferred to invest in cheap transport systems such as buses that could ferry more passengers instead of investing in monorail that incurred high costs, and carried fewer passengers. Experts  says that most of the surviving monorail systems are dependent on revenues from the tourism industry. The coming of mass rapid transport systems such as the metro virtually killed the market for monorail. 
 
(L-R) BW Pics By Tribhuwan Sharma and Subhabrata Das

 
However, the industry revived post the 1980s with the development of modern mass transit monorail systems, running on elevated beams. 
 
“With improvement in technology and higher passenger capacity options, the cost of construction of a monorail network has come down,” says Veluppillai. 
 
The Indian Story
Like most Indian infrastructure projects, the upcoming monorail projects are also experiencing delays, cost escalation and viability issues. In Mumbai, initially the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) wanted to construct eight monorail lines at a cost of more than Rs 20,000 crore. MMRDA’s plan to construct a second monorail connecting Kalyan-Bhiwandi-Thane was suspended after the consulting agency, RITES, said it would require 90 per cent viability gap funding to make the project viable.
 
Later, the MMRDA dropped its plans to add new lines and decided to concentrate only on the first line, a 19.5-km stretch from Chembur to Wadala and then to Jacob Circle, with an investment of over Rs 2,460 crore. The  line between Chembur and Wadala is expected to be operational by December this year or January  and the line from Jacob Circle to Wadala is to be ready a year later. MMRDA has planned the line as a feeder service to the existing suburban railway network. L&T and Scomi have been  contracted to build and operate the monorail until 2029.
 
Similarly, the Delhi administration’s plans to construct a 90-km, six-line monorail network have been whittled down to 1-2 lines — one in East Delhi, linking Shastri Park with Laxmi Nagar via Trilokpuri in an 11-km route.
 
 Experts say that while a 4-car metro train would require an expenditure of over Rs 200 crore per km on elevated lines (in the case of an underground metro, it can cost up to Rs 600 crore), the cost for a monorail would range between Rs 120 and Rs 150 crore per km on elevated lines, depending on land costs.
 
“Mumbai monorail’s cost is nearly Rs 123 crore per km (worked out about five years ago) and with new construction technologies and opportunities for rolling stock makers like manufacturing options in India, it can further come down for new projects,” says Scomi’s Veluppillai.
 
The construction time is also comparatively lesser for monorail, which is built using either suspension technology or straddle beams, and with cars running on rubber tyres. “We have the capacity to complete such lines in 36 months provided land and other clearances are given,” says Veluppillai.
 
Chennai’s plan was to construct an 111-km- long monorail project at a cost of Rs 16,650 crore, at a rate of around Rs 150 crore per km. Then the state government revised the plan to a 54-km phase-I, costing some Rs 8,050 crore. The current status is that Scomi International, Hitachi, Bombardier, L&T, Gammon and IL&FS have qualified for the final request for proposals stage.
 
Though the Kolkata monorail project was awarded even before the Mumbai project, it is yet to reach the implementation stage. The project, awarded to Andromeda Technologies of Kolkata, was slated to get under way by 2011, but it is nowhere near completion. The project was for constructing a monorail from Budge Budge to Taratala, a distance of 20 km, on a build-own-and-operate basis at an approximate cost of Rs 60 crore per km.
 
The National Transportation Planning and Research Centre (Natpac), which did the feasibility study of the Thiruvananthapuram monorail project, says the cost works out to Rs 125 crore a km in the first phase and Rs 118.7 crore a km in the second. The study says the financial internal rate of return will be 7-13 per cent and the economical internal rate of return will be around 12.6 per cent, which makes the project viable, on the assumption that 40 per cent of the current road traffic will move over to the monorail, once it takes off.
 
“The major challenge we foresee for these projects will be funding to make them viable from a social and economic point of view. The second major challenge will be timely land acquisition where city municipal bodies have to play a major role,” says Dhingra of Bombardier.
 
Sensing the opportunity, manufacturers of monorail are devising their plans around India. Scomi plans to make India its hub so that it can go looking for monorail projects in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. In India, Scomi already has a team of 100 in place. “We have a 200 rake car- manufacturing unit in Kuala Lumpur and another one is coming up in Brazil. Once we get a sizeable order, we will think of starting a manufacturing unit in India,” says Veluppillai.
 
Bombardier — the first multinational company to set up a wholly-owned railway manufacturing plant in India for the production and final assembly of bogies and car bodies at Savlinear Vadodara with an investment of `33 million — is currently  vying for monorail projects by offering its INNOVIA Monorail 300 systems for the Kozhikode and Thiruvanthapuram monorail projects, as well as for those planned in Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai. Bombardier has an order book of more than 600 cars from the Delhi Metro alone.
 
“Our recent investments demonstrate that we are committed to the development of rail transportation in India. Bombardier is always exploring opportunities to bring in advanced global rail technologies in all countries that it operates in,” says Dhingra.
 
Alstom has a wait-and-watch policy to tap the Indian monorail opportunity. “We will closely watch the experience of the first monorail projects in India and refine our strategy accordingly. Meanwhile, we will have the ability to participate in projects by providing  signalling and train control systems,” says Delleur.
 
Hitachi’s spokesperson says the company is now looking for opportunities in India. The company is also looking at partnering local players as an option. “It is a very important alternative. Generally speaking, the partnership with a local entity will be very important to contribute to each country’s social infrastructure,” says Hitachi’s Yasunaga.
 
While the enthusiasm of city planners and monorail makers augurs well for the ever-growing number of urban Indian commuters, it remains to be seen how many of these projects actually become a reality.
 
With inputs from Joe C. Mathew 
 
p(dot)jayakumar(at)abp(dot)in
 
(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 17-09-2012)