The Skybus Metro needs a huge push from policymakers (23 December 2001)
For Mumbaites the super smooth Expressway linking Mumbai and Pune is a matter of great pride, notwithstanding its recent financial problems. It has reduced the tedious commute between the two cities by a third even before some key segments are fully complete. And although implementation has slowed down perceptibly in recent times, it has still the weekend getaways from Mumbai much more accessible to people.
The Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation (MSRDC) have to battle misguided environmentalists and recalcitrant villages to get the project going, but some smart thinking and superb planning by R.C.Sinha, the first managing director of MSRDC and an equally supportive minister in Nitin Gadkari paved the way for an international grade project.
Can’t such a feat be replicated within the vast metropolis of Mumbai whose public transport systems are groaning under the pressure of ferrying 1.05 crore people to and from work everyday? The pressure on Mumbai’s harried commuters continues to intensify as the population and car density increases everyday—at the same time the Rs 3,860 crore Mumbai Urban Transport Project-I (MUTP) continues to move at a snails’ crawl and the widening of roads and building of new flyovers faces organised resistance from citizens.
The clear need is for a Mass Rapid Transport system which is inexpensive, requires the least displacement and disruption of people and traffic, and still provides and international class solution. That is exactly what the Konkan Railway Corporation (KRC) is offering through its Skybus Metro proposal. KRC, which has proven engineering and implementation skills, and owns a clutch of international construction patents, has already built top class facilities on the Konkan railway and elsewhere. Even on MSRDC’s Mumbai-Pune Expressway, the high-tech tunnels with their fully computerised systems for monitoring availability of air, temperature, graded lighting and traffic within the tunnel, with cameras that can zoom in on a specific license plate in seconds —have been implemented by the Konkan Railway.
For the Metropolis, Konkan Railways managing director B Rajaram is offering an ambitious Rs 5,400 crore Sky-Bus-Metro project which will cover approximately 120 kilometres of road length with minimal disruption and a five to seven year implementation schedule. Over the last year or so, Rajaram has personally made presentations to a variety of people—he has been speaking to commuters, has been quizzed by policy makers, interrogated by NGO’s and environmentalists, grilled by IIT engineers, quizzed by rival service providers and questioned by financial experts. The verdict is that the Sky-Bus-Metro is certainly a workable project —more importantly, unlike the flyovers that have mainly benefited car owners, the Skybus-metro is an equaliser and affordable to the entire commuting population. At best it may have to be broken up into segments; first implemented as a pilot project or the cost-structure and the design tweaked a little for efficient implementation and viability. But it is certainly a project that deserves the full support of policy makers.
Look at the numbers: As against a cost of approximately Rs 325 crore per kilometre for a pair of lines for a tube rail project, the cost estimate for the Skybus project is around Rs 45 crore per kilometre for a pair of lines. Not only is the Sky-bus-metro viable in Mumbai, but also it seems ideally suited to other cities with a population of over 20 lakh and a daily passenger commute of around three lakh persons, so long as they can ensure continuous uninterrupted power.
What is it that makes an untested concept like the Skybus-metro so attractive? For starters there is the cost. Even at twice the optimistic tariff estimate of 40 paise per km by Rajaram, the Skybus promises a comfortable, inexpensive and air-conditioned commute to all segments of the population, which will easily beat the existing modes of ransport. Secondly, even though it is a first-time project its technical viability is assured, because every single component that is planned to be used is known, and in operation in India or somewhere else in the world. As Rajaram promises —there is no question of experimenting with Indian commuters, the various technologically tested components will simply be imported and put together in India.
Basically, the Skybus will comprise twin suspended coaches that run well above the regular road traffic at a frequency of one minute and can travel at up to 85 kms per hour. It can follow the regular road profile and be built over the central road divider. What is not known is whether the new flyovers will be a bottleneck and if it can be built over the existing railway routes instead. (for readers who are interested there are further technical details at http://communities.msn.com/SkyBusMetrosolution.)
Sudhir Badami, an engineer, says that the Sky-Bus-Metro route can be designed so that the distance between the international airport to South Mumbai can be covered in approximately 30 minutes, instead of the present one hour plus train journey or the two hour road commute. The Skybus Metro will also allow an efficient link between the eastern and western parts of Mumbai, which are neatly divided by the railway line.
What would it take for the Skybus project to make headway? First of all, it would require policy makers to jettison large parts of the MUTP project and divert funds to the more economical and environmentally friendly Skybus project. The MUTP has been under discussion and negotiation for almost a decade; obviously, the Skybus Metro was not even conceived at that time. But will policy makers be pragmatic enough to discard the old and expensive option and switch to a new alternative? They would, if the citizens demand it and lobby for it. The Prime Minister has announced that infrastructure development; especially the long North-South and East-West highways linking up the entire country will be a priority at the national level. In the same way, the Maharashtra government needs to identify the Skybus Metro as an equally important imperative for India’s crowded commercial capital.