By Mrinal Roy
There is an imperative need for a holistic and coherent approach which encompasses and addresses national challenges such as the drastic reduction of the costs of road congestion, pollution, fossil fuels, daily man hours lost to the economy. Is government losing the plot through lack of rigour and coherence?
Unsurprisingly, the coming into operation of the Metro Express has enthused people and triggered a heightened enthusiasm for this new mode of commuting in the country. Hundreds of thousands of passengers have already travelled on the Metro during the fortnight of free travel. Akin to a new highway cutting across the unexplored countryside, the Metro has also opened up the scenic beauty of the hidden hinterland and panorama of the country to the awe of the travelling public. The marketing of the Metro to assure its viability must therefore build on the momentum of this patent thrill for the Metro.
There have however been some flagrant hiccups and mixed signals from government. We must not forget that the core objectives of the Metro project are to provide an efficient and rapid mass transit system of commuting to the travelling public to decongest our highways and roads, significantly reduce commuting time and polluting carbon emissions, the more so in a context where every country and the world must urgently take every mitigating action necessary to prevent an impending climate change catastrophe. It also aims at drastically cutting down the enormous amount of man-hours lost daily on congested roads and traffic jams and improving road safety on the main highways and roads of the country.
Ideally, the Metro, as is the case in London and other major cities of the world, should offer a rapid, safe, eco-friendly, convenient, pleasant and efficient alternative mode of daily travel to hundreds of thousands of people commuting daily on the main Curepipe-Port-Louis thoroughfares and in particular wean those daily travelling in their polluting cars to work to use the Metro instead.
We must however remember that the capacity of the Metro project to meet these objectives depends on the manner the project was conceptualized and implemented. As the Metro is still work in progress, the government, the Minister of Land Transport and Light Rail and those assuring the implementation of the project should be open to learn from the operational shortcomings of the Rose-Hill-Port-Louis leg of the Metro project and take the necessary corrective measures to remedy them. As the Metro Express is a costly project, we need to take any remedial actions necessary to correct any shortcomings now as we will not have a second shot to do so later.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating. It is evident that in the conceptualization of the Metro project, some key choices were made by government which shaped its form and determined the costs of the project. For example, the decision to replicate the routing of the rail track used by the pre-independence Mauritius Railways until the passenger service was terminated in 1956 as the planned route of the Metro project, despite the fact that population densities and the pattern of daily flows of commuters have changed significantly since that time affects transit time which is a key element of a rapid mass transit Metro system. The Ebene city, for example, which draws a substantial share of commuters and causes tremendous parking problems in the Ebene enclave is left out by the Metro routing. Similarly, the decision to run the Metro at street level in some sections of the metro rail track causes the metro to clash head on with the smooth flow of road traffic in, for example, key thoroughfares such as the Beau-Bassin Royal Road.
This has already led to a narrow escape on 26 December shortly after the Metro started operating as the Metro train captain had to brake suddenly to avoid an accident with a car. The flow of road traffic which clashes with each passage of the Metro on its rail track is currently being managed by police with the utterly preposterous use of a tape held across the road to hold the road traffic! This current makeshift traffic control system operated by the police is obviously fraught with serious risks. It creates a major bottleneck on one of the main thoroughfares in the area. This unsatisfactory situation and its inherent risks will worsen once the frequency of the Metro train increases and the time gap between the passages of each Metro train on the rail track decreases to the stated 6-8 minute service frequency from the current 15 minute service gap. This will heighten the risks of accidents and road congestion. How can the objectives of significantly reducing the commuters’ transit time to work and road traffic congestion through the Metro system of commuting in the country be attained against such a backdrop?
It is obvious that urgent remedial actions must be taken to prevent the risk of clashes between road traffic and the smooth operation of the Metro on its chosen routing. It is therefore imperative that government take the necessary steps required to eliminate from the Curepipe-Rose-Hill leg of the Metro routing any similar street level clash between the Metro pathway and road traffic. Shouldn’t government therefore urgently envisage elevating the Metro track over the thoroughfares used by road traffic in such cases, albeit at a cost, as is the case in Rose-Hill to eliminate such bottlenecks and help render both road traffic and the transit time of the Metro more rapid and fluid?
Mixed signals and incoherence
The approach of government towards achieving a significant reduction of road congestion, commuting time to work, the country’s carbon footprint, air pollution, road accidents, fossil fuel costs, the wear and tear of vehicles, medical costs related to stress and its related policies seem all muddled. There are too many conflicting and mixed signals.
Government cannot profess to fluidify road traffic and reduce road congestion and accidents if it allows more and more vehicles to be imported and the unchecked number of imported second-hand cars to exceed imported new cars. From latest figures available, 4584 second-hand cars were imported during the January-June 2019 period compared to 4335 new cars imported in the same period. This is a quantum jump from the 3889 second-hand cars imported in the January-June 2018 period. The importers of second-hand cars have even been allowed to organize their own car show to promote their sales at the end of last year. The upshot is that there were some 568,879 vehicles registered in the country as at June 2019 compared to 556,001 at the end of December 2018, i.e. an increase of 12,878 or 2.3% over a six month period. More importantly, cars which numbered 117,890 a decade ago in 2009 have increased by 107% to 244,074 in June 2019.
To crown it all, as one of its electoral carrots, government has proposed to grant Rs 100,000 to existing and new taxi drivers to renew or buy their taxi cars. If the proposal had been linked to the purchase of electric cars instead, there would have at least been some semblance of coherence. Such a wanton approach is blatantly at cross purposes with the objectives of cutting down the enormous costs of road congestions, road accidents, carbon emissions and enormous quantum of man hours lost during daily commuting, etc., to the economy. There is an imperative need for a holistic and coherent approach which encompasses and addresses national challenges such as the drastic reduction of the costs of road congestion, pollution, fossil fuels, daily man hours lost to the economy. Is government losing the plot through lack of rigour and coherence?
The continuous and growing increase of vehicles on our roads as well daily evidence of rash speeding and reckless driving on our roads, despite the oversight of the costly Safe City project is probably one of the main causative factors for the significant rise in road accidents and the 144 deaths on our roads in 2019 despite the costly measures put in place by the government. Too many drivers overtake over white lines or at bends on the road using the ubiquitous flashing of the car lights to force at breakneck speed their way through under the nose of the gawking Safe City smart cameras and other pointed video surveillance systems.
The Metro Express company also faces the challenge of assuring the viability of the venture costing some Rs 18.8 billion, enormous social costs as well as nuisance and annoyance for those living near the chosen Metro track. This can only be achieved if a critical mass of commuters opts to travel on the Metro on a daily basis as their preferred mode of commuting to work or travel. Beyond the novelty of this new mode of travel in the country, the key factors to determine this choice are its safety, rapidity, predictability, transit time, comfort, cost, convenience, eco-friendliness and secured parking facilities for those who want to leave their cars to travel by the Metro. Judicious decisions must therefore be taken to create the operational conditions necessary to enable the Metro to attract the critical mass of daily commuters required to assure its viability within an established timeline.
Matters can easily get out of hand if the Metro is not efficiently managed. The history of government run public transport in the country attests to that. It is therefore essential that government and the Metro Express rigorously monitor its performance and swiftly iron out any impediments to ensure that its viability is on track. Not to do so could have dire economic and financial consequences for the country.
* Published in print edition on 10 January 2020