Metro Express: ‘Will villagers be willing to subsidize town-dwellers?’

Qs & Ans: Pooranen Sungeelee – Mechanical Engineer

 * ‘When 25,000 cars will have to be taken off the road, massive subsidies have to be poured into a slow transport system thereby warranting new taxes’

 

PooranenSungeelee has been in charge of the Central Mechanical Workshop of the Ministry of Works, that of the National Transport Corporation, Manager of the Industrial Trade Training Centre of the Ministry of Education. His “social responsibility”, as he puts it, includes scientific and engineering assistance to the Association of Consumers (ACIM). In this week’s Qs & Ans, he has addressed the burning issue of Metro Express and traffic decongestion, etc. In the light of his answers to key issues below, a re-examination of the contemplated project may not be out of place, despite the urgent necessity for Mauritius to deal firmly with the continuing intensification of our road congestions.

 

* You have been writing against the introduction of a rail transport system in Mauritius for a good number of years now. What’s your take on the present government’s Metro Express project?

There are a number of aspects to the project – the social, mechanical, financial, but to start with let’s say that I cannot understand why the government will want to introduce a transport system wherein up to 8 passengers are crammed to the square metre. In India, Europe and in most countries, brochures of LRT manufacturing companies “politely” give 4-6 passengers/m2… just try placing even 6 standing persons over an area of 1m2 and you will understand what I mean: some 80 to 90 % of passengers will be standing.

* And what are you stressing upon concerning this project?

That passengers entering at an end-of-line station will be lucky to find a seat. Others will remain standing. Does that matter? Of course, it does. A typical passenger will not be standing for just one trip, though he may enjoy the novelty of a first one. Then, she/he will stand for long periods: twice a day, at least 22 days a month, 12 months a year and 38 years (of service) in a lifetime: the remaining 20,063 trips, to me, is dire reality…

* What about trip duration and vehicle speeds?

Far-fetched speeds of the order of 70km/h are quoted. Certainly this is possible for an LRT along a dead straight, well secured horizontal track when the vehicle is empty. Around December 2016, the Government website gave the Port-Louis to Curepipe travel time as being 32 minutes. When that figure could not be sustained, the travel time was altered to 43 minutes. What’s the real figure?

In previous reports the journey length was 27.3 km. If the Quatre Bornes by-pass and that of Caudan are added, the line length must be increased to some 30 km and not be reduced to 24.9 km, as per the government website.

Heaps of technical figures give average speeds of around 20km/h for an LRT. The French Strasbourg and the Spanish Zaragoza light rail vehicles run at 19km/h on average. Here in Mauritius, bends will reduce the speed even further.

A one-way trip will take over 1 hour – a certainty for one of the 20,000 or so trips a typical Mauritian will endure in a working lifetime.

With no public debate, many Mauritians may not be very clear about the reality. All concerned Mauritians should check figures from all reliable sources nationally, internationally, online, etc. When so doing, please do not confuse LRT with MRT: the latter runs on heavy rails (e.g. most of the ones in London and Singapore are MRTs, not the ones planned for Mauritius).The MRT in Paris runs on rubber tyres for better accelerations and decelerations.

* What does an analysis of the financial costs inform you?

International figures point to between Rs 40 bn and Rs 50bn minimum for such a project. Georges Chung, Senior Adviser to the Prime Minister, quoted the Gold Coast LRT of Australia as an interesting project. But it’s good to note that Mr Chung’s LRT — only some 13 kms long – comes at a minimum cost of some Rs 25 bn. Double that length would cost us over Rs 50 bn. A group subsequently took it up in detail in L’Express, and with the latest Australian dollar conversion rates came up with an estimated figure of around Rs 70 bn.

Further, when France, India, Australia, etc., produce and install an LRT next to a place of production, the cost is evidently lower than when transporting it even to a distant area in the same country, e.g. the price of a Newcastle line costs well less than one in London. Now transporting the concern by ship over the oceans is neither a joke nor comes free of charge. Add to that insurance and the cost of sending high level expatriates to a foreign country (Mauritius) to work and one begins to understand the issue, e.g. a Yutong bus costs Rs 1.85 million in China, but over Rs 4 million in Mauritius. I am not trying to force any idea into the mind of the public, but just informing one and all – everyone should cross-check my figures at all times.

The present Public Infrastructure minister, as General Secretary of the MSM, in a letter to ACIM just before the last election quoted a price of over Rs 35 bn. Why is the present Government now quoting Rs 17.7 bn or around Rs 20 bn?

Now, that’s not all. When you buy a bus, you buy your own fuel and your engine does the rest. Not so with an LRT. It has an electric motor all right, but it does not have its own energy. The electricity will have to be provided for by the CEB, not now in a position to supply more power, so who will build a new power station to supply LRTs with electricity? The CEB or the private sector?

This begs the question: at what cost?

A hand drilling machine is rated in kilowatt. An LRT system needs megawatts. Either way the public, me included, will have to foot the bill. Will it be by the CEB immediately with taxpayers’ money or in terms of delayed monthly payments for electricity bills if private operators join in?

* You do not think that the price of the LRT will be affordable?

When I hear a Government representative state that “the price of the LRT ticket will be the same as that of a bus for a given trip”, I say that it is possible only if it’s heavily subsidized, e.g. Rs 8 bn/yr years back for the Kuala Lumpur LRT, thereby cutting on other major social expenses.

There is also the social aspect: I was born in Surinam. But now that I live in Beau-Bassin, it is alright that I pay for the LRT, through the CEB. I am not sure my friends and relatives living in the South would be willing to subsidize my “modern” means of transport. Will villagers, those living in Plaines des Papayes (where I lived) or Camp Diable or Grand Gaube be willing to “contribute” through higher electricity bills to subsidize town-dwellers? My answer is categorically no. Nor would they, I am sure, readily volunteer to pay for a new power station for town-dwellers for the LRT to start off.

It looks obvious to me that a referendum must be carried out concerning the biggest ever project of Mauritius. The idea of referendum appeared in the Government Programme 2015-2019 that was read out by the President of the Republic at the first sitting of the National Assembly. “Parole donnée, parole sacrée”, isn’t it?

* Technically, why must the LRT fare be more expensive?

A bus has a mass of about 6 tonnes and carries some 60 passengers, an LRT at around 90 tonnes carries some 400 passengers (1 tonne = 1000kg). So a passenger needs more iron/vehicle mass to carry her/him in an LRT (i.e. some 100 kg/passenger by bus v/s over 200 kg/passenger by LRT). How can the LRT fare ever be cheaper than that of the bus? Add to that the massive installation cost of the rail-system, a new power station, electricity lines, new signaling systems (to stop traffic on roads for instance) , you end up with an installation of the LRT costing some 3 to 10 times that of a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT).

In real terms, in a non-subsidizing economy as in the UK (“reality figures” started by Mrs Thatcher), the fare for an LRT is some 4.5 times that of a bus: checked with Oyster cards in London. In other countries, most LRTs make losses on top of capital cost not being repaid by the respective LRT companies.

* What about the traffic congestion issue? That’s the reason for the Metro Express…

The public should note that the “Metro Express” is not an Express Service, i.e. not one that proceeds from one end station to the other extreme end with no stop — maybe an odd stop at most.

The Public Infrastructure minister, again in Parliament, has explained how the Quatre Bornes centre can be decongested by putting up flyovers, link roads, new motorways, etc. That being so easy to implement, why doesn’t the Government replicate such projects all over the country?

We travel at 50 km/h by bus or by car in towns. On the motorway, it’s 80 km/h or more. Do we want to travel at 19 km/h in the LRT? I am against unthought-of development policies that are not evidence-based. Massive debts for questionable projects will take this and future generations to a low/negative development mode. How can one ignore the case of Greece?

* Whatever be the names that have been given to the LRT project by succeeding governments, are you saying that both the ‘Metro Léger’ as proposed by the earlier Labour Party-PMSD government, and the ‘Metro Express’ by the MSM-ML government without the PMSD appendage any longer – go against the interests of the country?

When 25,000 cars will have to be taken off the road, massive subsidies have to be poured into a slow transport system thereby warranting new taxes or massive cuts in Education and Health departments… I also wonder what LRT / Metro Express/ Tramway passengers, used to being seated, will feel like when facing the reality, viz a very slow means of transport where a seat will be a luxury… and muscle pains sets in.

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