Saturday, September 26, 2020

Interaction- Dr E Sreedharan, a.k.a. Metro Man of India


A new metro policy which is practical and easy to implement, has to be brought in




DR. E. SREEDHARAN, is credited for changing the face of public transport in India. Under his leadership, Konkan Railway and the Delhi Metro projects were completed on time. He has been invited by UN Secretary General to serve on High Level Advisory Group on Sustainable Transport for a period of three years. DR. E. SREEDHARAN, a.k.a. METRO MAN OF INDIA in an exclusive interview to CONSTRUCTION OPPORTUNITIES spoke about his most challenging projects and what measures are to be taken by the Indian government to bring about a metro revolution.







Tell us a little bit about some of your most challenging projects.


Most challenging projects I had encountered were:

a) Restoration of Pamban Railway Bridge in 1964.  Following a severe cyclonic storm, tidal waves knocked away 126 girders out of 146, along with 2 piers.  I was given the task of restoring this bridge in 6 months time by the Railway Board which was reduced to 3 months by the then General Manager, Southern Railway Sri B.C.Ganguly. I achieved the task in just 46 days.

b) I was on deputation to Cochin Shipyard from Oct. 1978 till Nov. 1979 as its CMD.  During this period, the first bulk carrier ship
of 90,000 DWT named Rani Padmini, which was in the building dock for nearly 6 years was floated for further fitments and trials which was a great achievement accomplished in 4 months as against 3 years planned by the Shipyard.


c) Konkan Railway, a 760 Kms long Railway line from Roha to Mangalore, along the west coast, passing through the most difficult terrains ever encountered in the history of Railway construction in India, was completed in a ridiculous short period of seven years between Oct. 1990 and Dec. 1997.  Since the line was to be funded on BOT basis, the most difficult job was raising more than 2000 crores needed for the project from the market as the Govt. contribution was only 1/3 of the cost.


d) To start a metro revolution in the country after making Delhi Metro a great success.  Now 16 cities in the country are building/ operating Metros.




Metro Rail is considered very expensive. Does it have any cost-effective alternative?


Metros are highly capital intensive. The costs vary from `230 crores per kilometre for elevated metros to `500 crores per kilometre for underground metros.  In all other transport systems (except Railways) the entire infrastructure costs are borne by the Govt. and the operators have to bear the procurement cost of vehicles and O&M costs.  The infrastructure cost of a metro, such as land and civil works, constitute almost 60 per cent of the cost of a Metro. If the Govt. bears the cost of infrastructure, as they do in the case of road transport, Civil Aviation and water transport, then metro cost can come down to 40 per cent, which will make the metros financially attractive  and viable.  To reduce capital cost, efforts are necessary for complete standardisation, indigenisation and waival of all taxes and duties including GST. Instead of creating huge capacity, we should go for light metro projects with linear induction motor (LIM) technology for smaller cities, instead  “Metro Light”, a fancy project of Urban Development Ministry, which is nothing but “Tram Lines”.



Passenger patronage of Delhi Metro is high, but that’s not the case with many others. What might be the solution?    


Delhi Metro patronage is very high mainly because the ratio of population to the length of the metro system is very high. In Delhi, roads are heavily congested. Citizens can afford high ticket fares whereas in other small cities, people are not so affluent and the ratio of population to the length of the metro is comparatively low. The solution is to reduce the metro fare so as to make it affordable and attractive to the common man. 



Projects like Bullet Train are being pushed by the Center. Is spending billions on bullet trains worth it? Or are semi-high-speed corridors a way out?


A vast country like India with long distances certainly need high speed trains.  They are prohibitively expensive now; almost  200 crores per Km. The present Indian economy cannot afford such huge investments. The same applies to semi high speed corridors which will not give the required returns on the heavy capital investments. Instead of investing in high speed or semi speed corridors, Govt. should improve and modernise the present Railway system so that the average speed can be raised by 25 per cent and the line capacity increases by 50 per cent. There are technical solutions for this such as automatic signalling, easing the curves and introducing EMU trains with high acceleration and deceleration.



Numerous ongoing metro projects are lacking the expected pace thus leading to delays. What, according to you is the cause of the delay and how can things can be speeded up.


The cost over runs and time over runs in metro construction are basically due to delay in land acquisition, delay in taking decisions and inept management. Metros are highly technical and complex. Therefore the leader should be a technocrat rather than a generalist.



The main challenges plaguing the metro construction projects in India?

The main challenges are:

a)     Serious delays in obtaining approval to the project from Govt. of India – average 2 years.

b)     Delays in lining up funds for the project and delays in releasing

   equity funds.

c)     Heavy costs and delays in acquiring land.

d)     Severe shortage of credible, competent and resourceful  contractors for execution.



Key insights we can learn from the construction of previous metro projects which can be implemented for the ongoing projects?


Govt. should not expect metro projects to be financially self-sustaining, particularly when the entire infrastructure costs have to be borne by the metro operators.  The Govt. investment on the metro projects should be raised from the present level of 40 per cent to at least 60 per cent, in which case PPP model can be made successful.  The implementation agency should be headed by very competent and upright technocrats instead of IAS Officers who stay in the post for a short period and therefore have no accountability and commitment. The construction industry in the country should rise to meet the challenges. Most of the metros are behind because of the failure of the construction industry. 



Your view on the current government’s approach towards metro projects?


The metro expansion in the country today is hardly 25 Kms per year, whereas a country like China makes 300 Kms of metro every year. The importance of having good metro systems in all our cities with more than 2 million populations has to be understood by the Central Govt.  The present metro policy is highly restrictive and seems to be intended only to ring-fence Govt. of India’s financial obligations.  Metros cannot give high financial returns for the reasons mentioned earlier.  Therefore expecting public participation is meaningless. They have to be looked upon as social obligations rather than commercial ventures. The fare system should attract commuters to the metro system. But, what we find is metro fares are kept very high as much as 3 to 4 times of the bus fares.  Ideally the metro fares should be only 1½ times higher than the bus fares so as to encourage more and more people to use the metro system.  The new metro policy which will enable the country to build at least 100 Kms every year for next 10 to 15 years is necessary. To reduce the cost of metros, Govt. should waive duties and taxes including GST which will bring down the cost of metros by 15 to 20 per cent. The land acquisition act should also needs amendment to make lands available faster and at cheaper cost.



Could you brief us on your future plans?


After crossing the age of 88, I have decided to withdraw from all professional engagements and activities in a gradual manner and devote my time for spiritual pursuits and socially relevant projects such as restoration of Dal Lake in Kashmir and rejuvenation of Bharathapuzha. (Provided my health permits).



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