In August 2023, an independent think-tank in India called The Infravision Foundation got together with a couple of professors from IIT Delhi and published a whitepaper. It pointed out issues with India’s metro rail network. No one paid much attention to it initially. But then, UK-based publication The Economist picked it up last week. And suddenly, the government of India felt the need to provide a rebuttal.

So in today’s Finshots, we tell you what’s the fuss around India’s metro rail network.

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The Story

You can’t deny the allure of a metro railway. Sleek carriages quietly whiz along a structure in the sky. It gives cities an aura of development. And not to forget the promise of getting to your destination avoiding the traffic snarls. It’s too good an opportunity to pass.

And India is on overdrive with metro construction. We’ve earmarked around ₹90,000 crores for it in the past decade. We’re commissioning 6 km of new track every month. And we will soon have the second-largest network in the world. We’ll be just behind China.

But behind the glitz of these metro projects, there seems to be a problem too…

The riders are missing!

Yup, a whitepaper by a couple of professors at IIT Delhi looked into the ridership numbers and said that all the metros in India operate far below projections — it’s at 47% in Delhi, it’s 30% in Mumbai and Kolkata, and Bengaluru sees a measly 6%.

What?! That is shocking!

And when The Economist picked this news up, it created a massive furore. The government issued a statement and claimed that the daily metro ridership figure now stands at 10 million. And as for Delhi, it has beaten the ridership projection for 2023.

Now it’s worth pointing out a couple of things here.

For starters, the whitepaper didn’t say that the absolute numbers were appalling. Rather, it simply said that metro projects were predicated on a certain number of riders using the service daily. That’s how the massive costs to set up the networks were justified. That’s the reason they got the green light in the first place. But when those projections fail, it could put the metro projects at risk. It means the metro may not be earning enough to sustain itself financially. And if this continues, the financial viability of metros could be under threat.

Secondly, it’s not just this whitepaper that has brought this ridership issue to the fore. The government’s auditor, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), had questioned the Delhi Metro a couple of years ago. It pointed out that by March 2020, the metro ridership was way behind what it had projected in its initial report. A parliamentary committee looked into Lucknow’s metro rail and said that the project needs 200,000 daily riders to repay loans. But it only had around 85,000.

So yeah, the problem does seem to be genuine, no? And it’s no wonder then that experts have pointed out that most metro projects in India aren’t profitable.

This begs the question — don’t people like metros?

Well, they probably do. But, there could be an issue of last-mile connectivity.

See, for many Indians, it might not be easy getting from one’s home to the metro. Or from the metro station to the office. Everything is dispersed. So you might have to walk.

But India’s not a walking city. And by that, we mean that we lack wide footpaths and amenities to make walking a habit. So getting to a metro station might involve taking an autorickshaw. There’s extra money involved in that.

The only way out is feeder buses — the ones that operate with the sole intention of connecting public transit locations with other major stops. And unfortunately, most metros in India have failed to pay attention to this. Here’s something from the CAG report about Delhi again: “…Bus services were available only on 44% of the total approved routes due to the shortage of buses.”

This tiny inconvenience would dissuade even more people from using the metro.

Another reason, as the recent whitepaper pointed out, is that metro rails make sense for longer commutes — of more than 10km. So if you live in Bengaluru, the metro could be a game-changer if you commute from say your home in Mysore Road to your office in Whitefield. That’s a distance of roughly 30km. But the problem is that nearly 70% of the metro rides in India are less than 10km. So the allure of saving time isn’t as great anymore for short distances. Especially if you tack on the time it takes to pass through security at the station, wait for a train, and then deal with last-mile connectivity issues.

But despite these issues, we’re pumping money into these fancy projects and probably ignoring its humble cousin — the bus. A couple of years ago, Rohit Chandra, another professor at IIT Delhi, wrote this for The Morning Context:

As transportation expert Geetam Tiwari points out, if the number of tax exemptions and interest-free subordinate loans made available to the DMRC [Delhi Metro] was given to the Delhi Transport Corporation (which runs Delhi’s buses), it would impact a lot more people — almost twice as many — in terms of daily ridership. In fact, if you were to compare costs, the aggregated total cost of Delhi’s buses would be about 5% of the investment required for the Delhi Metro while carrying 40% more passengers. Tiwari also points out that the aggregated greenhouse gas emissions by Delhi’s buses — powered by CNG — over their lifetime are lower than that of the Delhi Metro because of the massive emissions from initial construction.


Lower costs — check

Fewer emissions — check.

So, should we abandon these metro projects and opt for buses, you ask?

Well, not so fast. Because as the government pointed out, if we had to meet the high peak-hour ridership of 50,000 people on the Delhi Metro along some routes, we’d need 715 buses all travelling in one direction. And the time gap between these buses should be just 5 seconds. That’s quite an impossible endeavour, no?

That's why the Metro is an enticing prospect. It does have the ability to pack in more people in one journey and you just can’t beat that.

Also, the whitepaper doesn’t say we should end all metro projects. Instead, it simply says that metros are very attractive for longer trips. And that for large cities with more than 8 million people, metros along with a feeder-bus system for connectivity can do wonders. In other cities, improving the bus system might be the way to go.

So yeah, it’s not really a debate of ‘this or that’. It’s more of a ‘this and that’ scenario. And we’ll do well to remember this as we ferociously expand our metro connectivity.

Until then…

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