Why Mumbai Metro could be a financial and ridership disaster…

…if we can’t reverse the current trends: more sensible alternatives as prescribed by govt policy of 2017 are being ignored

Ashok Datar | September 12, 2022

#Mumbai   #metro   #urban governance   #transport   #infrastructure  
(Photo courtesy: Aswin Krishna Poyil/WikiMedia)
(Photo courtesy: Aswin Krishna Poyil/WikiMedia)

Work on the first metro in Mumbai started in 1998 and it became operational in 2014. The second metro became partly operational in 2022; it is expected to become fully operational in another year. The most prestigious (and controversial) of them all, the third line which is underground, is expected to be operational – first part in 2024 and second part by next year, according to the MMRDA. In the meanwhile, its cost has escalated to an astounding amount of Rs. 42,000 crore. It will be no surprise if it costs, when fully completed in 2026, would come to Rs. 48,000 crore for a distance of 33 kilometres. Delhi built more than 16 metro lines in 20 years ending 2021 and achieved a ridership of 55 lakh with a total investment of over Rs. 150,000 crore.

Mumbai has so far only two lines covering 20 kilometres and a ridership of 4 lakh a day – a rather dismal performance compared to Kolkata and Bengaluru. Recently a report on metro was released by the standing committee of parliament which observed that not one metro line anywhere in the country has achieved the breakeven point and is not likely to achieve it in the foreseeable future. This is when the metro is now 22 years old in India. The metro policy, enunciated by the union government in 2017, has following basic conditions:
1.    Metro is very expensive and should be undertaken only when we have examined all the other alternatives after a detailed study (which in this case is not done at all!)
2.    It should have a minimum ridership of 30,000 to 50,000 in the peak hour peak direction. At its peak, metro one run by Reliance came close to 23,000 riders phpd before Covid. The ridership per km and in the peak hour was the highest of any metro line in India to have achieved. Now it has gone down to 18,000.
3.    The metro project should earn 14% return on investment. (There is no chance of it at all unless metro trains are as full as suburban trains at the current high fare.)
4.    Metro lines have been set up in cities such as Nagpur, Lucknow, Jaipur and Kochi, with expected miserable performance (but no admission of truth, no trying with alternatives). But in Indore and Ahmedabad, the Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS) is running quite well. In Mumbai, the pilot ran exceedingly well at BKC road (7 km in 2016, 110 buses per hour). Yet, metros are being implemented in Ahmedabad, Indore, Nashik and  Patna, when it is obvious that they have no chance whatsoever to meet the conditions set by the government.

Ridership of metro in Mumbai and other cities
For any mode of transport, ridership is the most important factor. There was an optimistic note when after two to three years of starting in Mumbai it achieved the highest ridership per peak hour of 40,000 and per km of all lines in India. Unfortunately, now when even buses have exceeded the ridership of the pre-Covid high, metro is still nowhere near the pre-Covid high. Besides, performance of metro 2a/7 in its first eight months is not encouraging. It has only 35,000 riders a day. It is partly due to the pending completion of a part of this line. However, the indications of achieving a sizeable ridership look remote. If a railway line makes some financial loss, it makes it up with high ridership. Metro has high fare for suburban riders (Rs 3 to 4 per km as against Rs 0.20 per km for second class passes in the suburban trains). In fact, railways are worried how to reduce the uncomfortably high ridership during the peak hours. There is no way of knowing the profit and loss of suburban operation. 60% of rail ridership is second class passholders who pay very low fare with little change over years – and still huge losses as more and more lines are put into operation (with much delay and big increase in cost – not all justified by inflation).
Comparison between suburban and metro systems
Suburban trains have 12 or 15 coaches compared to 8 on metro 3 (which is the highest amongst all Mumbai metros). The number of people per coach in the peak hour is higher in suburban than metro. Its frequency is 3 min/train for suburban as compared to 5 minutes for a metro. So metro cannot carry as many people per train or per hour. Hence, the expectation that metro 3 (and other trains) can achieve a ridership of 18 lakh/day is much higher than a realistic estimate. Therefore, the total earning per train will be lower for metro 3 after the stabilization period of a year or two, and considering its mammoth cost, it simply cannot achieve any positive return on it. This underground train is iconic and will not consume any road space is a big plus and perhaps justified as a symbol of what we can build. This also eliminates the opposition of the car lobby!

What about all AC trains on suburban network?
But to have some 15 metro lines will be surely unviable when Mumbai will continue to have suburban rail ridership for a metro system to contend with. However, converting it entirely to AC trains will be another unwise thing, because the AC rail fare is similar to the metro fare and it is simply unaffordable to more than 60% of users. It is possible to reduce this fare to some extent through innovative pricing. It is possible to increase the suburban fare by 20-40% over three-four years. AC trains, if they run nearly full, will make some profit. But there is no chance of that happening. It is like the bullet train. Such projects which ignore the profile of users are doomed to commercial failure. Instead, we can introduce three AC coaches and three first-class coaches per train and rationalise the fares (by which increase second class and pass fares by 30 -40% and reduce first class and AC fares by about 30% and have mixed trains as of now).

It is reported in cities such as Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad and Bengaluru, the ridership in metros is still below their pre-Covid highs. Further, there is an expenditure of Rs. 175 crore+ to carry a maximum of 70 lakh people per day (the original forecast of MMRDA of Rs. 1.25 crore is simply impossible, unless we ban the suburban system and compel people to travel only by metro and not by cars and buses by road!) And this capex, in next seven years, will definitely have a serious impact on the ability of state government to ensure repayment, because there will be, in addition, an operating loss for most of metros in large amounts every year. This will mean the government will not have enough money for education, healthcare and creation of socially useful employment such as police, nurses, doctors, teachers and affordable housing for the bottom 60-70%.

Why projected ridership of metro is virtually impossible
This is on account of two reasons: there is a great upsurge in sales of cars and two wheelers. Secondly, the metro fare is high at Rs. 3-4/km, and there are no monthly/quarterly passes (which are available for the suburban system at very low prices). Even prices of bus ride per km in Mumbai is barely Rs. 1.5 for non-AC and Rs. 1.6 per km for AC rides. By next year, most of the buses will be AC but the fare won’t increase much and the availability of somewhat cheaper prices of bus passes will make journeys cheaper for a large number of people. Quality of buses (AC electric) is improving every day. The difference in comfort will be smaller. In any case, buses require less walking as they will go nearer to where the passenger wants to go and there is no climbing any stairs and walk the length of metro. Today the biggest problem with buses is their low speed and low and unpredictable frequency. These problems could be solved with a bus lane. This will require low investment and time. We can ensure that there is at least one bus per minute during peak hours and two minutes during off-peak hours. It is possible to double this frequency if the demand warrants. A bus lane will cater to two/three routes. Hence for your route, the waiting time will be max 4 or 6 min (less in the peak hours)

Is there a genuine alternative available which is low in cost (per km per thousand passengers, very quick to implement and carry large numbers of people at an affordable price) more than the poorly conceived metros? Yes, it is the Bus Rapid Transit System. It is not appropriate in all cities and in all parts of a city. We believe that some parts of Mumbai fit in this category - roads like WEH, EEH, new links being built btw Thane and Borivali and Goregaon-Mulund, MTHL etc. Bus lane coupled with paid and regulated parking is a pair of solutions that offer speedy and cheaper transport to the common man, while allowing efficiently managed scarce road space for private cars and auto/taxies in a balanced manner.

Comparison between Delhi and Mumbai metros

Work started on Delhi metro a couple of years earlier in 1998 but it has completed a network of 350 km. Mumbai could manage to complete only 22 km so far.
In 2021, MMRDA indicated that all the planned metros – about 15 – will cost Rs. 150,000 crore, assuming no cost escalation in next 10 years. (However, underground line 3 has already accepted a rise in the cost by Rs. 10,000 crore to a total of Rs. 40,000 crore.) MMRDA estimated that the system could carry 52-56 lakh riders a day. Can Mumbai metro area carry 1.2 crore riders per day? Delhi metro didn’t have to compete with a very low priced suburban system, as in Mumbai, which has stabilised at 75 lakh riders per day.

These are vexed issues and they need serious and comprehensive answers. Today with two lines Mumbai has achieved only 4 lakh+ riders. It is, indeed, a long way to achieve the ridership target for metros that MMRDA has set. It is ok if it falls short to a reasonable extent on financial targets such as the break-even point or return on investment, but the ridership target should be achieved at least to the extent of 90% and one doesn’t know what new developments will take place, what escalations will achieve during next 10 years.  

Ashok  Datar is associated with MumbaI Mobility Forum.



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