Metro Express or Bust!

We are condemned to achieve all of our energy needs from renewables in the shortest possible time. Wouldn’t be wonderful then to ride on 100% clean, green trams and trains that are eco-friendly and non-polluting?

Anyone who has recently travelled along the Curepipe-Port Louis corridor during rush hour will agree that something needs to be done. It just cannot be economically, socially or environmentally sustainable to have people spend upwards of three to four hours for a round trip of 30 miles every working day of the week.

So we should all be jubilating that, after 25 years of dilly-dallying, the government has finally grasped the nettle and has gone for the Metro Express (ME). But as soon as this courageous decision of the Lepep government was announced, the anti-Metro Express or simply anti-Lepep elements rose up in arms expending much ink (and hot air!) to vent their disapproval. Armed with impressive statistics, facts, figures and graphs, they have managed to demonstrate with some success that the Metro Express is not viable economically. QED!

Subsidies and Aberration

However I am afraid they are looking at the horizon from the wrong end of the telescope. For almost everywhere we care to look — from India to Ireland, from Latvia to Luxembourg — public transport systems are subsidized by government. For example, the UK pays its railways a whacking GBP 4bn in subsidies and its buses GBP 2.3bn per annum. Globally the European Economic Area spends EUR 175bn on subsidies to buses and Eur 23 bn to railways. This is a massive payment of nearly EUR 200bn; and this does not include payments made to air and water travel.

But then Mauritius also is hardly a stranger to subsidies. First, there is a grant payable on the import of low-level buses, perhaps on others too. Second, all bus spare parts are subsidized. Third, there is a subsidy on the diesel that buses need to run. Fourth, under the Free Bus Scheme (FBS) for old age pensioners, handicapped people and students, anecdotal evidence suggests that a subsidy of Rs 2k (originally Rs 1.35k in 2008) is currently payable per day per bus. Thus with 1898 buses (Statistics Mauritius 2008) on our roads, the taxpayer disburses a massive Rs 1.38bn per annum for the Free Bus Scheme alone. These are hardly the stuff on which to sustain any argument on the economic viability of our buses.

However that is not all. We have an aberration in this part of the world called the “Duty Fee”. Eligible civil servants are allowed to buy cars without having to pay import duties which results in huge discounts amounting to Rs 100ks, sometimes exceeding the Rs 1m mark. This daft idea probably came from the IMF/World Bank — and avidly gobbled up by the potential beneficiaries at the top as a brilliant policy decision — in order to boost sluggish car sales, mostly imported from the First World.

The irony is that every government ostensibly exhorts the population to leave its cars in the garage and hop on the bus to get to work. At the same time, it encourages (no, it coerces!) civil servants into car ownership. To this end, bureaucrats are offered duty free cars that can be replaced every 7 years with cheap subsidized loans. And as ridiculous as this may sound, this is topped up by generous travel allowances in order to make it affordable to run those cars. As a certain Mr McEnroe might say, “You can’t be serious!”

MID (Sustainable Mauritius Island)

The MID (Maurice Ile Durable) project was initiated by the Labour Party government in 2008. Five years later, the same government adopted the MID-Policy Strategy and Action Plan (MID-PSAP) 2013. It is perhaps worth reminding ourselves that MID-PSAP was itself the result of a comprehensive report that was a whole year in its preparation by Mott MacDonald, a UK multidisciplinary firm.

Of course, by now most of us are familiar with MID’s objectives, which is to make Mauritius a world model of sustainable development particularly for Small Islands Developing States. Although MID’s remit has expanded over time to include economic, social and environmental dimensions of development, the initial focus was on minimizing our dependency on fossil fuel through more efficient use of energy and increased production and use of renewable energy.

But MID is not just a government plan. If we care to look closely, it is a pathway to our destiny, to our very survival, and to our enjoyment of a true Paradise Island! Below are three MID-PSAP stated objectives that are relevant to our public transport system (italics added for emphasis):

 1. Our nation is less dependent on fossil fuels through increased utilization of renewable energy. (The target for renewables is set at 35% of our total energy needs by 2025).

2. Our land use planning, buildings, transport systems and infrastructure are eco-friendly, efficient and safe.

3. Our nation enjoys security in terms of water and food and a high quality of life in a green, zero waste and pollution free environment.

MI(D-)smatch

It is evident that our buses are a complete anathema to MID-PSAP. They do not run on renewable energy; and they use up limited natural resources. So we can safely cross off “eco-friendly.” Run on diesel, they spew out massive amounts of toxic gases including the deadly nitrogen oxide and are therefore highly polluting. Now it has been scientifically proven that the diesel engine emits three times more nitrogen oxide than petrol engines. (According to The Guardian, diesels produce 15% less CO2 than petrol, but emit four times more nitrogen dioxide pollution (NO2) and 22 times more particulates – the tiny particles that penetrate the lungs, brain and heart.) So if we are to ever achieve the three MID-PSAP goals, bus numbers need to be curtailed in the medium term, and eliminated altogether in the long run.

Already the bus companies can contribute to MID-PSAP by running smaller vehicles during the day on certain routes. There is a glaring example where the NTC runs a 50-seater as a shuttle between Quatre Bornes and Jumbo Hypermarket. Much of the time, there is only a handful of passengers aboard. Perhaps the management could think of replacing it by a smaller old-fashioned ‘Tip-Top’. This would be far less costly in terms of energy and environment-friendly due to reduced emissions.

Petrol Cost

For the moment we are able to afford the fuel for our buses. This has been made largely possible due to sluggish demand following the 2008 financial crisis and fracking on a massive scale in the USA which has helped double its oil output in just 10 years. But would we be able to afford it when the price begins to rise, as it must? More importantly what shall we do when reserves run out altogether? Petroleum company BP has calculated that this will happen in 50 years’ time — that is in 2066. As there is no credible alternative fuel to run the internal combustion engine, I wonder what we would do with 2000 buses that would be left on our hands.

No, better to go for an alternative that complies with all of MID-PSAP objectives now. And unless we want to re-invent the wheel, trains/trams are the obvious choice. If the British were able to build a 250km-long railway system that connected all major towns and villages in the 1860s, there should be no impediment to building one now. Indeed this time it might be a little easier because a fair amount of the original embankment is still in place, waiting to be rehabilitated.

At the moment, the government envisages a Metro Express along the Curepipe-Port Louis corridor only. This does not mean that we cannot add other routes in preparation for the day when there is no fossil fuel left. Preferably long before! And they need not all be MEs; there are other systems we can choose from.

Avanti ME

As someone who was lucky to travel on Mauritius’ railways as a child, I rue the day the then government decided to scrap it and I consider it a criminal act against the national interest. They were closed because they were apparently in the red during the five-year period 1948-1953, which again demonstrates what a big mistake it is to view public transport in terms of its economic viability only.

For the moment Metro Express will be responsible for some pollution as it runs on electricity which is mostly produced from fossil fuel. But this is likely to change in eight years’ time, when Metro Express will probably come in operation. In a paper presented at the 2012 International Conference on Agriculture, Chemical and Environmental Sciences in Dubai, Mohee et al concluded that Mauritius “can achieve its 35% self-sufficiency in electricity production by the end of 2025” via the projected installation of the appropriate technologies that use renewables.

Oil and gas reserves are forecast to run out in 50 years and coal in 110 years. So as a Small Islands Developing State, we are condemned to achieve all of our energy needs from renewables in the shortest possible time. Wouldn’t be wonderful then to ride on 100% clean, green trams and trains that are eco-friendly and non-polluting, with traffic jams a distant bad memory?

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