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The Metro Express: some inconvenient truths analysed

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by April 27, 2017 General

The Metro Express: some inconvenient truths analysed (Part I)

The Metro Express (ME) project continues to generate debates in both the National Assembly and the wider public. This is highly desirable in view of its immense costs and questionable technical specifications. Our millennials and their successors will bear the heavy financial burden and it is desirable that they join the fray.

There is clearly a strong desire on the part of the current government to introduce the ME. The Singapore Cooperation Enterprise (SCE) submitted its first report on the introductionof the Light Rail Transit (LRT) to the former government. Following a Private Notice Question (PNQ) by the then Leader of the Opposition on 22 July 2014, the then Minister responsible for transport informed the House the LRT project would cost Rs 22.2 billion and tabled an executive summary in the National Assembly, to which everyone is referring today.

In developing the proposed LRT, it would be interesting to know if the SCE has carried out detailed feasibility studies on the following issues:

  • Patronage on existing bus services and surveys of bus users;
  • Analysis of passenger car data;
  • Surveys of car users and the likelihood to transfer to the LRT service;
  • Assessment of existing and future traffic congestion;
  • Assessment of impact of socio-economic land use changes;
  • Revenue analysis, financial and economic;
  • Technical analysis of preferred route and engineering solutions;
  • Detailed route assessment and description of preferred alignment;
  • Civil engineering assessment of structures;
  • Electrical assessment of power supply;
  • Rolling stock assessment of LRT solutions;
  • Traffic management assessment of LRT/vehicle interface;
  • Institutional and contractual assessment;
  • Environmental assessment.

The aim of these feasibility studies would be to develop the proposed ME network technically and economically into a “bankable” proposal. This can then be used to seek funding from local/international organisations and would have guided contracting organisations wishing to design, construct and/or operate theproposed network.

If detailed studies have been carried, then they should be made available to the public. If not, this is a serious flaw. The public must know in advance what kind of financial situation it is getting into before deciding on a project. A major reason for the financial failure of the first two LRT lines in Kuala Lumpur (KL), in Malaysia, and the monorail project was the poor and inaccurate information given to the government, preventing it from making the correct assessment.

According to a study by Jeff Tan (2008), the KL system was privatized through a build-operate-own concession, based on grossly inflated passenger projections presumably to justify financial viability to secure financing. The ridership was way below projections and insufficient to cover operating costs, let alone interest and principal repayment.

In a communiqué dated 14 April 2017, our Ministry of Public Infrastructure and Land Transport informed the public that the total expenditure incurred as at to-date amounts to Rs 572,239,337.40. From the break-down of the figures published, Rs 1,15 million were paid to Grant Thornton for household and traffic surveys and Rs 5,843 million to Water Research Co. Ltd for geotechnical survey. It would hence appear that, apart from the traffic surveys, none of the above studies has been carried out.

Ridership

Generally, good ridership numbers are required in order for operating revenue to break even with the costs. In response to the PNQ from the Leader of the Opposition on 28 March 2017, the Honourable Bodha, Minister of Public Infrastructure and Land Transport, announced that the ME is anticipated to carry 80,000 passengers per day per direction. There have been no details explaining how this figure of 160,000 has been arrived at.

Put into context, the three bus operators – NTC, UBS and RHT – carry approximately 160,000 passengers daily on some 400 buses across 35 bus routes from the Plaines-Wilhems to Port-Louis and vice-versa. Buses will continue to operate along their existing routes. No question about that.

If, say, 50% – which is a high estimate by the way – of the bus passengers shift to the ME, then the total number of passengers on board the ME will be 80,000 for both directions giving an average flow of nearly 2,700 passengers per hour (pph) per direction over a 15-hour period. To make up for the other 80,000 passengers, the occupants of at least 25,000 cars – assuming 1,5 occupants by car – would have to be shifted!

In his article “Are politics and prestige trumping sound finance and credible economics? (Part II)” – lexpress. mu, of 17 March 2017 – Dr Rama Sithanen stated that “previous studies show that ME is viable onlyif there are at the very least 15,000 passengers per hour, which is impossible along the Curepipe–Port-Louis corridor.” As a matter of fact, the number should be at least 10,000-12,000 pph per direction over a period of at least 12 hours to make the ME break-even, representing an average of 264,000 passenger trips per day, a figure which is more than impossible to attain!

It has been mentioned in the defimedia.info of 3 March 2017 that 30 trains would be sufficient to service the corridor between Curepipe and Port-Louis with a headway (i.e. the time interval between two trains) of 3 minutes. It is assumed that the trains will each have a full carrying capacity of some 400 passengers. With a 3-minute headway, the ME would have a capacity of 8,000 pph per direction during the peak periods. These are small numbers and could easily be carried by a Bus Rapid Transit system, the more so as the flow may only be 3,000 pph per direction if there is some sort of shift from the private cars to the ME.

Mauritius simply does not have the necessary critical mass to support the ME. Reference has been made by many to Singapore, Australia, Hong Kong, etc. People tend to forget that likes should be compared with likes. The Singaporean rail operator SMRT Corporation Ltd and regulator Land Transport Authority are deciding what to do with the problematic Bukit Panjang LRT, including scrapping the system altogether (Straits Times, 11 October 2016).

In a company blog, the SMRT Trains Managing Director, Lee Ling Wee, said that the 17-year-old system is near “the end of its design life”. He added that an idea to do away with the entire LRT system was also mooted and for residents in the Bukit Panjang area to go back to riding buses. He added that “this is not far-fetched, as a fully loaded high-capacity bus like a double-decker can take 130 passengers, which is more than the 105-person capacity of a single Bombardier train.” He reckoned however that this option would of course lead to more road congestion.

A group of Transport Hobbyists

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