Metro Express: Improving transportation of goods and services

Mauritius has made economic progress by increasing its connectivity. This is an on-going dimension for any country which doesn’t want to be distanced by development

 The Mauritius Metro Express project was officially launched this week with the award of the contract for its construction to Indian engineering firm Larsen & Toubro. The tramway, which has benefited from consultancy services from the Singapore Corporation Enterprise, is to extend over 26 kilometres from Port Louis to Curepipe.

A lot of controversy sparked off earlier whether this massive infrastructure project should be implemented in Mauritius. Those fearing loss of their jobs have opposed it; others having to evacuate their habitations to clear the passageway of the train have resisted. Several others have opposed it because they doubt that it is economically viable or that it will transport passengers at the stated cost and with a sufficient amount of travelling comfort to travellers.

Not deterred by all these arguments, the government which has received partial financial support for the project from the Government of India has stood firm. The project is expected to be fully implemented by 2021 starting this year. Two main arguments persuading the government to go ahead are: the current road congestion cannot go on accumulating for years and an alternative mode of transport had to be sought to ease this mounting problem; there is considerable daily huge loss incurred by road users and by the country as a whole (due to extensive traffic jams on public roads) on account of cost of imports of fuel oil arising from this situation.

It is not difficult to observe for a number of years now that the road traffic problem has been compounding itself in Mauritius. It means the existing public transport facilities have been inadequate to supply to the public a convenient means of transport, despite some amount of extension of the public road network having been undertaken lately. It is one of the reasons why the number of vehicles on our roads has kept increasing year after year, cluttering up the traffic even more.

We have a population of around half a million vehicles today for a total human population twice this size and an annual tourist population of a little over one million. Despite some amount of decentralisation of public offices and business centres (e.g., Ebène and several shopping centres across the country) having taken place, traffic remains dense at nearly all times of the day not only along the main connecting roads of the country but just the same in rural areas, villages, side roads, etc. This is a clear symptom of an inefficient public transport system as it is. It is easy to imagine how the situation will aggravate, left to itself.

The tense driving condition resulting from this situation is doing no good to the country as well. Fatal road accidents are only one side of the story. Cost of maintenance of an ever-growing vehicle park keeps increasing. Vulnerability of the country to hikes in imported fuel prices is lurking on the sides anytime just like our dependency on imported fossil fuels. It is sufficient for the international oil price to tweak up somewhat to put us back into a deterioration of our external balance of payments situation like the distressful ones we experienced in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

A situation such as this has been calling for reversal since a long number of years. Countries like Singapore ration out additional private vehicles on the roads to cope with the traffic and related problems of an otherwise sprawling car population. Heavy tolls have been introduced in places to keep vehicles from entering already congested areas. One could even consider imposing a heavy tax on parking places in congested cities to incentivize vehicle owners not to use private vehicles for moving from one place to another. However, an alternative decent mode of transport should be provided on a prior basis.

It is the reason why different previous governments have come up with the idea of introducing a light railway transport system, without actually implementing any. Travellers will adopt such a public transport system if it is a cost-efficient and convenient alternative to the use of private vehicles both for the transport of goods and passengers. It should have the necessary safe environment, amenities, cleanliness and appropriate pricing to become an accepted part of the country’s day-to-day alternative transport infrastructure.

How much does the Metro Express project under way meet such expectations? In theory, the government cannot be expected to deliver a sub-par transport facility unmatched with modern public travel standards in the best of other places. It is this that will ensure its economic sustainability and perenniality as an accepted alternative transport system.

There should be no hidden costs that will surface up at a later stage challenging the future viability of the project. Already, several hundreds of millions have apparently been spent to restore the Terre Rouge-Verdun road: we should not be in for such bad surprises once the Metro Express contractor and consultant have walked away after delivering the project.

London the way we know it would not have been possible without its underground system. Nor would other cities like New York have managed their thriving businesses without their Tubes. Singapore is currently rebuilding its existing MRT network in anticipation of demand for 2025. These systems have been designed to rise to the occasion as the external situation evolves, putting the service under continuous pressure to be flexible enough and deliver what is expected of it. They are not static.

Our metro system should therefore be so designed likewise as not to be overwhelmed any time soon after it has been launched. It should be linked up efficiently with other complementary modes of public transport to keep making sense.

Mauritius has made economic progress by increasing its internal and external connectivity. This is an on-going dimension for any country which doesn’t want to be distanced by development. This fundamental aspect of countries’ economic development through efficient transport and communications was stated as far back as the early 18th century by the one who is regarded as the founder of economics, Adam Smith. His recommendation still holds good.

Anil Gujadhur

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