4 May 2018

Mauritius: "If the metro were on stilts, it would be the best case scenario"


With construction for the Metro Express making the headlines by causing havoc in Rose Hill, Weekly speaks to Sidharth Sharma, Group CEO and executive director of Rose Hill Transport, to find out what the new transport system will mean for the future of buses. Through his very politically correct answers, Sharma sheds light on the necessity for overhauling public transport and decongesting our roads.

If there is anybody following the progress of the Metro Express most closely, it has to be you as you are the first one to be affected by it. How is the situation evolving?

The Metro Express has affected us to an extent and then we have the phenomenon of illegal operators. These are an opportunistic bunch of people who use their private cars to transport people against some kind of consideration.

Don't these people intervene only when you cannot offer a good service?

That is not correct and that is why I use the term 'opportunistic'. It is impossible for us to offer transport for everyone in a customised way. We have tried to get licences for taxi services. That was not possible. On certain lines, we transport 5,000 people daily. And there is an equal number being transported by illegal services by 900 taxis operating there. So my view of the metro project is that the government is putting in an enormous amount of money in it so they will have to make it work. By ricochet, things will have to improve in the sector at large. If you look at the explosion in the number of cars, it's not sustainable. I believe the vehicle population is 525,000 and, on average, each vehicle is four metres long and, in 80% of the cases, from Phoenix to Port Louis, there is only one person it. Do the math. We don't have 2,000kms of roads in this country.

How is this metro going to solve this problem?

If you look at bus transport, clearly, we have not been able to offer a strong value proposition.

Why haven't you?

Well, because we are such a disparate band, there are so many of us and not everyone has the same philosophy. We have invested in excess of Rs300 million in fleet renewal and set high standards for ourselves. And this should have been done across the various touch points in the industry.

What have you invested in as a company that the others did not?

There are three areas that we put our money in. The first is equipment, better quality buses, semi-low floor buses, enhanced technology with fail-safe systems. And we have reviewed our processes. We now have a driver checklist, panic buttons, a control centre to monitor our fleet and procedures for cyclones, fire, emergency response etc. We are an ISO certified company. But what transporters like us would like to see is incentives for companies to offer quality of service.

Whenever the Metro Express is up and running, are you conscious that it's going to take bus commuters away from you rather than perhaps car drivers? What's your plan for when that comes?

I think the best times for public transport are yet to come. I believe that obviously it will affect the way we do business. There is no doubt that we will lose a substantial number of our passengers to the metro.

Are you worried about that?

Yes, but we have our plans. We want to bring a strong complementary service to the metro. We are looking at bringing in electric buses to be synchronised with the metro timings. The metro cannot exist without a good feeder network. The developers will have to ensure that the metro has some offloading factor that will guarantee viability.

But being a feeder bus to the metro is not enough, is it?

No but we are looking at different ways of operating...

Something better than the metro?

We see our role as a multi-level operator. We want to federate taxi services, we are investing in infrastructure, we are part of a consortium to develop the urban terminal in Port Louis and to invest in the Ebène car park. We are looking at the infrastructure, at the integrated transport system... We are not working in isolation. We are looking at demand management. The metro is here to serve a certain purpose; it's not a showcase. We have to address congestion. I see no problem with car ownership, but with car usage. We will have to be a bit more responsible. We cannot all go in our individual cars to Port Louis at the same time.

Isn't that what democracy is all about?

Democracy is also about taking responsibility for your decisions. I believe the congestion cost is Rs4 billion; that's a staggering amount of money.

You know and I know that the person taking his car in the morning and travelling in comfort and privacy is unlikely to change his habits, is he?

He will change if the offering is of a high quality. Right now, it's not but it will be. The metro will be of an international standing.

In the metro, most people will be standing. In your car, you are sitting.

What we are being told is that the commute time will be much less. We are also talking about our buses which are going to be incredibly comfortable and will offer a door-to-door service, where ideally people don't have to walk more than 100 metres to get a feeder bus and don't have to wait more than two to three minutes.

But a tram is not like a bullet train. So the travelling time is not likely to improve substantially, is it?

The advantage is that you will be able to accurately predict your itinerary because these trains will be running to the second. I am not clear yet about how the feeder system will work, but I assume that there will be dedicated lanes for these feeder buses so there will be gain in time. I will take my own situation: I live in Curepipe and my commute time has increased every year by 10 minutes. Now I am spending more than an hour one way to come to Rose Hill. That should improve. There has to be a strategy of demand management. If we are putting billions into this project, we will have to say that if you want to go to Port Louis, there is going to be a congestion charge; you will have to pay a premium.

Do you mean penalise people for not using the metro?

It's not a fine; it's just that your choice has an implication and you have to be made financially accountable for your choice. We have to look at what Singapore is doing: they want zero growth in their car population. They have a system of balloting that is paying to go into a lottery to be eligible to buy a car. We are a densely populated country; we cannot go on building roads. Look at the death per 10,000 inhabitants; we have the dubious distinction of being in the top 10.

That's because we got rid of the penalty points system which was forcing road users to be more responsible.

I don't think it was just that. We have to look at the situation holistically. Most accidents are due to two wheelers, a large number due to pedestrians...

They are the ones who get killed; those doing the killing are still in their cars not necessarily respecting the Highway Code.

That's not necessarily the case. There are cases where the two wheelers were not wearing helmets and basic safety precautions were not taken. There has to be a complete rethink. We are in a situation of conflict and everyone is trying to maintain a certain patch on the highway. If you see a cyclist in front of you, you don't overtake him and turn in front of him. So there are a lot of things that are in progress, it will take some time to get there.

You seem to see the metro as something that will solve all our road problems.

We are on borrowed time; we have policymakers who have taken a decision. We are part of an industry and for us the best option we have is to adapt. We have to do it; we have two years before the Metro Express is up and running to do it in the most effective way. This also gives us the possibility to reimagine things. I think that if we could get more people on the public transport network, that would help people like us.

In the meantime, everything around Rose Hill seems to be chaotic. It's total chaos everywhere. Commuters are frustrated, traders are on the streets protesting as we speak, where is the planning? Where is the communication? And, most importantly, how are you dealing with this?

I think it would help if there was more communication happening. Safety should be paramount and the situation at Place Margeot is not ideal...

That's an understatement!

(Laughs) We are monitoring the situation closely and we have put our reservations to the regulator and it's affecting our revenue; it's a challenge. First of all, we have to acknowledge that we are in a densely urban area and ideally we would have liked to have found a place to relocate the operations of Place Margeot and give a clear access to the metro team. Some compromises have been made, but we have to be careful about safety issues. What I want to say is that we have to commend the police; most of the time they are criticised, but this time they have really taken the lead.

The earlier plan for the metro was on stilts; the new plan is on ground level and has cost us Roland Armand Promenade, among other things. Don't you think it would have been better if the original plan had been maintained?

Clearly, if the metro were on stilts between Rose Hill and Port Louis, it would be the best case scenario. But due to budget constraints, the government has not been able to do that. I imagine that once the rails are put in, we will have the traffic management unit and the police will have to work on a scheme that ensures that the metro vs. people vs. other vehicles conflict is minimised.

When will we be able to take the first metro in your opinion?

The date that has been set I believe is September 2019. From what we have seen, it's been raining quite significantly, and the number of productive days would have gone down. I don't know, we have not had any interaction with the builders but they have been under pressure. As of now, there is a significant effort to catch up with the days they have lost with the weather situation and all.


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