Should we be cheering that the Airport Metro Express in Delhi is back on the rails after being shut for six months? Or should we instead be very angry that after all the waiting, this vital piece of passenger transportation will run at a drastically reduced speed of 50 kilometre per hour (kmph), against the 105kmph speed that it started with. As a matter of contrast, the Shanghai Maglev Train that connects Shanghai Pudong International Airport with the outskirts of central Pudong runs at a speed of 430kmph, covering the 18-mile trip from downtown to the airport in just eight minutes. A rail car in Alabama, made by the St. Louis Car Company, was capable of almost 160kmph in 1905. This, we need to remind ourselves, is 2013.
No one, not Delhi Airport Metro Express Pvt. Ltd, a unit of Reliance Infrastructure, the concessionaire of the line, not the Delhi Metro Rail Corp., not the Commissioner of Metro Rail Safety, and certainly not the government can escape the charge of complicity in this farce.
Sure, it’s only an airport express. Would it really matter if the distance from downtown in Delhi to the airport took 30 minutes instead of 18? The problem is, it is much more than just a train. It is everything that is wrong with our infrastructure planning and development. A complete lack of vision, poor implementation and a lack of pride have marred most large projects. Coming from behind, we need to leapfrog into the future, not chug along merrily at the Hindu speed of commute.
While the high-profile exit by GMR Group and GVK from two of the largest highways projects in the country is well documented, the fact is most of the other builders too would gladly exit the projects they undertook at some point.
Infrastructure projects in India are fast becoming a giant gauntlet of irrational commitments, massive debt which obviously compounds faster than the returns, leading up to a messy exit. Delhi Airport Metro’s problems started with its overestimation of demand. In the 18 months that the train ran, it carried an average of 11,000 passengers a day. While the ridership reached about 20,000 passengers a day towards the end, even this was a tiny fraction of the expected ridership. Now, with the number of fliers from and to the airport expected to decline over the next year, the concessionaire’s chances of increasing ridership on the trains looks further bleak. Of course, ticket sales are only one of the many revenue sources. But with another nearly billion dollars that will be needed over the course of the concession for maintenance and upkeep, Delhi Airport Metro’s lack of enthusiasm isn’t difficult to fathom. All infrastructure projects in India are fraught with unexpected hazards. There is now a clear India cost to operating them. The systemic and cultural glitches that beset projects mean that a company needs a special layer of margin to account for this India cost. Bidding processes and costs of these projects both need to be picked threadbare before awarding projects.
Last July, National Railroad Passenger Corp. in the US, popularly known as Amtrak, announced an audacious plan that would culminate only in 2041. Costing $151 billion it would cut short the travel time New York to Philadelphia to just 37 minutes, at speeds approaching 354kmph. Amtrak is a government-owned entity and by 2002, when it was clear that Amtrak could not achieve self-sufficiency, Congress continued to authorize its funding.
All infrastructure is finally a means to further growth; that is the first dictum that we tend to forget in the melee of quick gains. We need to disentangle it from the business interests of Johnny-come-lately, who look upon these as a quick ride to the golden pot.