So much has been written and debated about the introduction of Metro Express that even after the PNQ of the Leader of the Opposition, serious doubts persist about the financial viability of the project. The few who are aware of the contents of the reports pertaining to the project, detailing its various stages right from its inception during the previous government, have forcefully pronounced themselves against its implementation.
While the Minister struggled to skirt some of the issues raised during question time, his senior adviser concluded in an interview to a local paper that the government would not go forward with the project if it turns out to be too prohibitive. This despite the fact that his minister has made it clear that he would do everything required to speed up the implementation of Metro Express.
Nobody questions the argument that a new form of transportation and in this case the Metro Express will certainly ease the traffic and congestion problem in certain areas, particularly in the district of Plaines Wilhems. But that is all it can achieve, and one cannot expect anything more. To advance claims that it is going to reduce cars on our roads and consequently cut down fuel costs or pollution in a significant manner is simply whimsical. On the contrary it may be argued that easing the traffic congestion problem will liberate the road for more car users. Once the metro would have shifted a certain number of passengers from buses, there would consequently be fewer buses on the main roads for long journeys and a fluid traffic will be more attractive to car users.
There is no country in the world where railways or tramways have led to a reduction of the number of cars on the roads. In Singapore, the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) has not reduced the number of cars on the roads. Several measures aimed at reducing the use of cars have proved ineffective. Finally, the authorities have resorted to the draconian measure of a Vehicle Quota System to control vehicle population growth. On a visit to Singapore in 1986, I was surprised that the person whom I had to meet did not open his office till after 10 o’clock. Subsequently I learnt that he could enter the restricted zone in his private car only after 10 o’clock unless he fulfilled certain other conditions such as having more than one passenger in his car.
Even in London, despite the congestion charges and a terrible parking space problem, cars remain the most popular form of transportation despite buses and underground trains. In Mauritius, as elsewhere, cars not only have utilitarian values but also other values linked to class and status. One cannot imagine car owners abandoning the use of their cars despite all the costs of owning or running a car. Even today one may ask how many people who clamour against pollution have even for one day left their cars and used a bus to go to work?
The argument that the introduction of the Metro Express will modernize the island infrastructure does not hold water. Terms like modernisation, scientific or rational are regular clichés used by the marketing establishment to sell products and projects which are otherwise unsaleable. These usually conceal some vested interests of some sort, ranging from the financial to the political. For example, the British always pride themselves that they introduced railways to modernize India. What is left unsaid was that railways were primarily introduced to penetrate the commodity market in the hinterland and exploit the Indian masses and this is why most railway lines linked the production areas to the ports for the export of goods and produce to Britain.
Our own sanitized histories make us forget the economic interests, both oligarchical and colonial, that lay behind the introduction of railways in Mauritius. Railways were introduced in 1864 to link the different sugar estates to transport sugar to Port Louis. The present railways track from Curepipe to Port-Louis was linked to all the sugar estates from Vacoas to Beau Bassin. Sugar estates paid low freight rates for transporting sugar and the financial burden thereof was borne by the passenger service.
With the introduction of cars, lorries and buses, our ‘modern’ colonial railways looked old, archaic and inefficient. The public deserted railways for the new forms of transport. The trains could not be sustained financially in the absence of passengers and in 1961 the Railway Department had a debt of Rs 80 million. By 1964 the railways had been scrapped and sold off to South Africa.
Similarly tramways became widespread on the sugar estates after the Surra epidemic of 1902 had decimated mules and oxen. To save the harvest, the colonial government provided a Mechanical Transport loan of Rs 3 million for the introduction of tramways. Sugar estate owners in haste and in an unplanned manner set up tramways on their estates with different types of locomotives and track gauge which made it difficult to centralize the factories.
Railways are a sign of modernity for some. According to this line of argument, we had been ‘modern’ for a century and then we later scrapped ‘our modernity’ when it proved onerous. We should not turn the Metro Express into millstones round the necks of the future generations; the minimum which the authorities can do is to make the two reports on the Metro Leger and Metro Express public as demanded by Members of the Assembly and other columnists. To delay any further the dissemination of the reports among the public would only add grist to the mill of all those who have been alleging that there are a few shocks buried in those reports.