By Jayashree Mendes
As cities grow, it becomes imperative to develop urban rail transport system to ensure sustainable development. But urban transportation also involves cycling tracks, bus services, bus rapid transport system (BRTS), and light rails and regional rapid transportation systems (RRTS). In India, talking about urban transportation inevitably veers the conversation towards metros.
Of the country’s 5,400 towns and cities, about 100 require a 21st century urban transportation system. This, by no means, is a small project. Moreover, these projects are extremely capital intensive and for them to be viable, the promoters need to consider size of the population and its density, ability to finance them and the intensity of commuter traffic. In addition, there are the requirements of routine maintenance and upgradation.
In spite of the favourable economic reasoning for urban transport system across cities, most of them do not see the light of day as it is difficult to justify investments from a financial viability perspective. Karun Raj Singh Sareen, deputy general manager, Larsen & Toubro ECC division, says, “The challenge is to ensure that such projects are structured and developed in a manner that it becomes attractive for investors while benefitting the cities in terms of its social and economic growth.”
Sunil MK, head – architecture, engineering and construction (AEC), India & SAARC, Autodesk, a company that has designed several urban transportation systems across the country, says, “Challenges in the construction and development of urban rail transport arise due to their complexity. Unlike roads and highways that are single entities with a top surface and can be seen only from the top two points, geometrical designs for urban transportation are much more complex.
Once the design has been developed, it is necessary to transfer this complex geometry, correctly and accurately, to the team entrusted with the actual construction.
This is where technology intervention becomes critical to build an efficient and modern urban network.”
Technology could be used to avoid delays in projects caused by improper planning, land and right of way (RoW) issues and delays in approvals which lead to long gestation periods. Some of the innovations that could be adopted are:
Using a pre-cast approach for construction by ensuring that civil construction takes place off-site. This helps in faster construction and reduces inconvenience to moving traffic.
Using communication based train control (CBTC) signalling technology in the case of metro rails that are ubiquitous as compared to other urban transportation systems.
Simultaneously, developers are finding the benefits of using design technologies to gain better value. The 71km Hyderabad metro rail project is a good example.
Another recent prominent example of urban rail transport, a lighter version than metro rail, is the Mumbai Monorail that used AutoCAD Civil 3D to fast track its success story. AutoCAD Civil 3D has established India’s first monorail project as a precedent for achieving a level of accuracy and accomplishing 80% time optimisation in deliverables.
A 3D design technology can provide real value to developers. Sunil MK says, “Adoption of technologies such as Building Information Modeling (BIM) will not only help decrease the overall time and costs of projects by minimising rework, enhancing collaboration among project teams, providing more actionable insight into projects but would also accelerate decision-making earlier into the project lifecycle.”
The more important factor is making urban transportation systems financially attractive through various policy initiatives and innovations. By nature, urban transportation projects are initial investment intensive with low to moderate returns thus resulting in long gestation period. B. B. Sankaram, senior vice-president of Hyderabad-based Aarvee Associates, says, “The prevailing conventional financing methods and means are not conducive to develop sustainable projects.
For instance, while developing a typical urban rail project (with domestic funding or PPP), the net cash flows will remain negative for initial 15 years. But there are innovative financing options to overcome this problem. Ultimately the loan repayment period and rate of interest matters in any capital debt financing.”
“As we all know, the nature and magnitude of project risk is not uniform throughout the project period. Considering this fact, if interest on debt can be charged at varying rates in proportion to the assessed risk, would yield great benefits to the industry and encourage serious developers. This approach would also help in timely completion of the projects and bring them on fast-track,” he adds.
Sareen lists two aspects that can make urban transport systems viable:
In case of metro rail, developers need to create innovative financing mechanisms by allowing transit oriented development as a cross subsidisation tool.
Integrated urban development involving building of transit oriented development (TOD) along with urban rail development will enhance viability through additional non-fare revenue support.
Urban development around the world has proved that the intermodal integration, last mile connectivity and seamless travelling facilities are essential features to extract the maximum benefit out of any investments. Therefore at the initial stage itself facilities like skywalks, common ticketing facilities for various transport, unified transport planning approach, para-transit developments is firmed up.
According to Sareen, urban transportation can be made sustainable and cost competitive to developers. Speaking of metro rail systems, he says, “Of the 200-odd metro systems in the world, there are few metro systems that are making operational profit. In addition, going by current concession agreements, most of the risks are taken by the private developers.”
He points out to some much-needed policy changes that will help attract private participation:
Increase the concession periods
The Government of India should facilitate in provisioning of cheaper loans for heavy infrastructure projects
Waiver of certain central and state taxes on par with Delhi metro and Jaipur metro projects
Compensation to private developers in case the RoW and land not provided by the Government within the agreed time frame
Introduce a metro cess for new development around the metro corridor which should be passed on to the private developer
Creation of an independent metro authority for rail related approvals.
Currently the approvals come under the purview of Indian Railways. This will facilitate standardisation across various metros and will speed up the approval process Sustainable transportation holds the keyto the future of cities. Car-dependent cities are vulnerable to several pollution-related health hazards apart from congested traffic arteries. Dependency on personal vehicles will need to be replaced by clean, efficient and dependable public transport.
Sunil MK says, “Light rail is the way forward for a country like India suffering from urban clutter. It goes on the side of the streets and involves no heavy civil engineering work. Light rail can help in reclaiming the streets for users. It does not need underpasses and overpasses. It has only stops, no stations. India could think of light rail for tier-II cities.”
With a coach width of two metres and two carriages, it can carry 600 people. It runs on electricity and spares people the pollution. Not every city needs a metro rail system when other urban rail transport systems are available.