19 May 2017

Mauritius: "The minimum the metro express will cost is Rs50 or Rs55 billion"

I knew Poorranarnenden Sungeelee, mechanical engineer and key member of the consumer association, Association des consommateurs de l'île Maurice, was passionate about the metro. But I did not to what extent and I had no idea which direction he was going steer the debate. When I met him for the interview, he came with a file full of documents and press articles he had carefully cut and painstakingly filed. He knew the dossier inside out and information was flowing out with such speed and in all directions. I have tried to make it coherent for you. 'Tried' I said.

He did not wait for me to ask a question. It's as if he had been brimming and could not wait for the opportunity to get it off his chest. "So what do you want to know about the metro," he asked, and before I had a chance to answer he replied to his own question: "The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God?"

Yes, I said but I am first going to put the questions to you. His smile betrayed restlessness and almost invited me to get to the questions quickly. Sort of 'what on earth are you waiting for?' So I had to be quick.

You are a mechanical engineer, and you have been following the statements about the Metro Express. Tell me, just to begin with, are you for or against this project?

Dead against. I am the first one to have written a public article for the people of Mauritius in August 1994.

Have you always been opposed to the idea? (I did not need to ask why.)

Yes. It's a stupid system!

Why do you say that? I mean, when you look at the road congestion and the cost to the nation, don't you think that it's the only solution?

(His answer suggested that he did not want to link road congestion to the Metro Express.) Road congestion and the light metro. Right, let's take the light metro first. It's a very slow means of transport. (He takes out some documents from his thick file). If you look at this, you'll find that the speed of a light rail transit (LRT) is something around 20 km/h - 19 km/h to be more specific.

The Delhi Metro and London Underground seem fast to me.

(He seemed amused by my ignorance.) They've got the mass rapid transit system and here we're going to have the light rail transport (LRT) system.

So, what is the Metro Express then?

Nobody knows. It's not 'express' to start with.

OK. Let's not stop at the name. What kind of project do you think what is called the Metro Express is? Do you think it will be like the London Underground or like the Delhi Metro?

(Shakes his head in disbelief.) Nothing like that! You can talk about the Croydon tramway, you can talk about the system they have in Strasbourg in France or the one they have in Tunis.

Is it a tramway?

Well, yes, a tramway! (Read: Which part of this don't you understand?)

Really?

(Sensing my disbelief.) Let's say that the LRT is more modern, a bit more fashionable and it has air conditioning. Apart from that, it's basically the same thing. Engineering-wise, it's the same thing.

You said earlier that nobody understands what the Metro Express is. How come you know so much about it?

Because I have been following it for about 23 years.

Is it the same project that we have been talking about for the last 23 years?

You can't get out of it because we don't have the means for anything more than that.

The original plan was going to be elevated like a real metro, wasn't it?

You mean, the stupid plan of the previous government? They would never have achieved that either. There are many countries where they've stopped the work in the middle. Brazil, for example, has stopped the project and now, they have two roads and they can't move from one side to the other. It's just derelict places all over.

Maybe Brazil doesn't have the money. We are getting a grant from India.

How much?

Rs9.9 billion and the project is going to cost Rs17.7 billion.

(He laughs heartily, shaking his head.) It's never going to cost that little. The minimum is Rs50 or Rs55 billion.

What? Where did you get those figures?

(Brandishing another document.) Look, before the last election, Nando Bodha (Ed- now minister of public infrastructure and land transport) wrote this. Read the last two sentences. He said the cost was going to exceed Rs35 billion.

That is just campaign talk!

OK, right, but the same person now cannot come to power and say that it is going to cost Rs17.7 billion.

(Sensing I was unconvinced, he pulls out another document.) The Goldcoast cost Rs72 billion, the Delhi Metro cost about Rs50 billion. In other places, the average is Rs57 billion. And that's the price in those countries. Now, when you ship the material to Mauritius, with the insurance and freight etc., the price goes up even more. Then add the engineers, the families and all those who are going to work here and that's going to add to the whole cost.

The government of India is saying, "We're giving you a grant of Rs9.9 billion, and you are going to put the extra money and we're going to send engineers and whatever skills you need to build the Metro Express." What is your reaction to that?

First, do you want a system of transport that moves at 19 km/h? You drive at 50 km/h in town, you drive at 80 or 110 km/h on the motorway. You want to ride in something that goes at 19 km/h?

Yes, if it's comfortable and there is no traffic...

Oh, you want to talk about comfort? Ninety per cent of the passengers will be standing!

Only 75%.

(Pulls out some brochures.) That's according to the government but let's assume that's true, in a bus, 90% are seated. So, these are the systems of transport that we are comparing.

I thought we were comparing the bus here with the London Underground and the Delhi Metro...

These are mass rapid transits. What we are talking about in Mauritius is the equivalent of the tramway in Calcutta. We shouldn't be comparing an MRT and an LRT. They're not introducing an MRT in Mauritius but the LRT. It makes sense in India because the congestion is so bad that they drive at around 7 kilometres per hour. Obviously, 19 km/h is paradise for them. You can't compare that to Mauritius. Do you remember Caudan before the flyover was built? That was a good thing that Navin Ramgoolam (Ed- former prime minister) did. Now that that part has been decongested, nobody is talking about it anymore. Once you get a flyover, the problem is solved.

Are you saying that if we build flyovers there will be no congestion anymore?

Yes. But perhaps flyovers are too cheap and therefore not interesting for some people. About 100 million rupees for the flyover at Caudan! For Rs1 billion, we could have 10 flyovers and that would make a huge change! That can be supplemented with a tunnelling system, for instance at the roundabout that goes to the harbour. For the traffic that goes to Plaine Verte, there can be an underground tunnel. Tunnelling is 15 times more expensive but when you tunnel, you don't disturb people. I'm not saying this is the best system but I am saying that these are things that should be considered.

Here's another point: With the metro, there are no accidents. So, considering the number of people dying on our roads, isn't that an incentive?

Compare like with like. With the metro, there is a dedicated lane. A bus has to negotiate its way through pedestrians, cyclists, motorcycles, cars, lorries and so on. So, there are bound to be accidents. You increase the size of bridges; that wouldn't even cost you one million. You have a dedicated bus lane. That would reduce the number of accidents tremendously. The metro is not feasible for this country. fFor a population of one million! What advantages are there?

Saving time and improving health.

You make too many jokes. Health you said? Let's see (reading from another study) damage to the neck, tearing of spinal disc, nerve related issues, varicose veins, muscle soreness, pain in the heels...

From sitting in the metro?

(He raises his voice to correct me.) From standing in the metro. Remember that 90% of passengers will be standing. On the other hand, if there is a bus rapid transit system with a dedicated lane for buses, the Curepipe/Port Louis trip will take no more than 30 minutes - 40 at worst.

Isn't that comparable to the metro?

No, excuse me! If you are taking the metro, you need to walk from your house to the bus stop. Let's say four minutes. You wait for the shuttle bus. Another four minutes. You travel in congestion to the metro station. How many minutes? Four, eight, 10 minutes? Then you wait for the metro. If you count all this, it will probably take you two hours.

How does this come to two hours?

(He continues.) In Port Louis, you wait for the shuttle bus. You take the shuttle bus and you travel. Then you walk to your place of work. Another 12 minutes again? So 12 plus 12 plus another hour and 26 minutes in the metro.

What?

At 19 km/h, what's the time to travel from Curepipe to Port Louis? The distance between Curepipe and Port Louis is 27.3 km and the speed is 19 km/h so it is one hour and 26 minutes.

Why does the Delhi metro not take one hour and 26 minutes?

(He gets exasperated.) There, it is mass rapid transit. Mass rapid transit is rapid. It goes 43 km/h, not at 19 km/h! We are talking about two totally different means of transport!

(He was already shaking his head in despair so I thought I'd provoke him a little more.) But the Metro Express is going to be made by the same firms as the Delhi Metro!

Yes, it's the same firms making buses, motorcycles, bicycles, cars...

Coming back to the cost, how much will the project cost, according to you?

We should be talking about Rs50 to Rs100 billion.

Where are we going to get the money from?

(Laughs.) I don't know, I am not the one saying to build it. If there is anything positive about the metro, you tell me. It's all spin: the MBC has been showing us people seated on the metro, which is elevated and therefore offering a bird's eye view all around. The reality is that most people will be standing on a metro moving on ground level at a speed of 19km/hr. That is the reality. And, instead of discussing real solutions like the bus rapid transit and transferring some services from Port Louis to other places, there is a one-way discussion by the government and the MBC!

But haven't the discussions about the metro lasted for long enough?

You know, it is through discussions that this government before it was elected had said that the metro was bad; now they are saying it's good. What made them change their mind? We need to discuss the viability of such a big project. What I am saying today will remain on record. When this thing does not work and there inevitably is a commission of enquiry, hopefully what is written in these papers will be used one day.

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