Bengaluru metro is turning into a white elephant – thanks to delays and bad planning

The Bengaluru metro, at its peak usage in 2020, used to see a patronage of less than 5% of the city’s population.
Bengaluru metro along the Central Business District
Bengaluru metro along the Central Business District

The Bengaluru metro rail system completed 10 years of functioning on October 20, 2021. Covering a total distance of 55.6 km, it is the third biggest metro network in the country. A decade into its functioning however, if one were to evaluate the Namma Metro’s performance, some would argue that it is becoming a white elephant – its costs overwhelmingly outweighing its benefits. While the high costs were expected, especially when compared to the existing bus system, the metro is failing to live up to its billing, and is also falling short of resulting in a significant drop in road congestion due to the present planning and operations.

The Namma Metro presently serves two corridors – green and purple lines. The purple line connects Baiyyappanahalli and Kengeri from east to west and the green line connects Silk Institute to Nagasandra from south to north. Both these lines intersect at Majestic. By 2025, the city is expected to see an additional 90 km of metro lines, according to the authorities, including two new corridors, one of which will connect to the airport.

But civic activists and experts are not hopeful given the past record of the metro. For instance, the entire phase one of the metro was to be completed in 2017, but was delayed by four years. The delays have proved costly with the entire project cost going up to Rs 14,500 crore from the initial sanctioned amount of Rs 6,395 crore.

Before the onset of the pandemic, the metro used to attract a daily ridership of little over 5 lakh (5.18 lakh in January 2020), meaning, less than 5% of 1.6+ crore population in Bengaluru used it. As life is seemingly inching back to normal with the waning of the second wave of COVID-19, the metro has seen the daily ridership touch only 2.5 lakh last month. According to metro officials, the figure should dramatically improve after the new year as most people will be going back to working from offices. But the daily ridership of over 5 lakh is also lesser than the 8-lakh ridership estimated in the original Detailed Project Report of the metro.

As things currently stand, operational costs are at Rs 1 crore a day. “We are running in losses of around Rs 45 lakh daily currently, but once we get back the 5 lakh+ per day ridership, we will be profitable once we get back to pre-COVID-19 levels,” Anjum Parvez IAS, MD of Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation Limited (BMRCL), told TNM. On the contrary, the Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC), with its ageing and inadequate fleet of buses, is currently serving 20 lakh (close to 20% of Bengaluru’s population) persons daily with an estimated operational cost of Rs 4 crore a day. 

In fact, according to a study by the International Association of Public Transport (IAPT), the BMRCL will need to more than double its ridership to 12.5 lakh to break even. These were among the many findings of the ‘Performance Of Indian Metro Systems: Lessons For Upcoming Urban Rail Projects’ prepared by IAPT.

Bad planning, doubtful profitability

According to activists, the less-than-projected patronage of the multi-crore metro project is no surprise at all. Sanjeev Dhyamanavar, an urban mobility expert at Prajaa, has questioned the Namma Metro MD’s views about making profit. He said, “Since January 2020, the length of the lines has increased and that will translate to greater costs. So, we will need more passengers daily for BMRCL to meet the daily operational costs. And going by the current pace of work of the second phase, the project cost will also likely go up. This situation has led the state government to compensate for the metro's operational losses. This is likely to stress the state government’s finances.”

He added that BMRCL will likely have problems in paying back the loans, including those from international agencies, as the project costs have already been overshot. BMRCL has taken loans from international agencies like Asian Development Bank, AFD (Agence Francaise De Development), European Investment Bank (EIB), the Japan International Cooperation Agency. The loans are all of low interest around 2% per annum with a repayment period of 20-30 years. The IAPT report said that the problem of financial burden is not a problem exclusive to Bengaluru but true for all metro networks of the country including Delhi. “Since all metros are in moratorium period of loan where they only pay the interest and not principal, they will face further losses in the post-moratorium phase,” it said.

“Delhi and Mumbai would need to increase their ridership by 27% and 35% respectively, to meet their originally projected ridership. If these targets are met, Delhi Metro can post profits while Mumbai Metro would need to increase ridership by 44% to break even. Bangalore and Chennai would require a much higher increase in ridership to meet targets: 266% and 685% respectively. Their ridership is likely to increase with ongoing network expansion,” the report further pointed.

In India, Bengaluru and Chennai fares the worst in terms of total recovery ratio of 0.4 when the break even recovery ratio is 1. Delhi comes closest with a total recovery ratio at 0.9.

Sanjeev also noted that the BMRCL has to figure out ways to increase its revenues – other than ticket fares – such as by advertisement. The IAPT analysis found Bengaluru’s metro has 79% passenger fare revenue share. Non-farebox revenue such as rental and advertisement was only 9% which was lowest among four major cities. Mumbai and Chennai have non-farebox revenue percentages of 14% and 16%.

“It hasn’t learnt lessons from the first phase. While the civil work for the traffic-ridden Whitefield and KR Puram patch (10 km) of the metro is ready, the work between Byappanahalli (existing terminal) to KR Puram is long from over,” he pointed out. He explained that in the absence of a connection between KR Puram and Byppanahalli, the patch between Whitefield and KR Puram also cannot run, which is a loss, because it could have been a source of additional revenue for BMRCL. “This is a mistake similar to one from the first phase when the areas between National College and Puttenahalli were ready but there was no preparation to run trains,” he added.

A design that’s likely to fail?

The metro planning also lacks a holistic approach which is a major flaw in its design, say experts. One case which demonstrates that is an ongoing one at the Karnataka High Court – environmental activist DT Devare had approached the court after he found out the binding conditions based on which the Union and state governments formed the BMRCL had not been met. This included the formation of a Comprehensive Mobility Plan (CMP) and an Integrated Traffic Ratio Rationalization Plan (ITRRP). Further, the petitioners noted that the state and Union governments did not pay heed to the other conditions that were agreed upon like adequate parking space at metro stations, a transit-oriented development and the first and last mile connectivity. Devare is seeking directions from the court that the Union and state governments follow necessary guidelines to implement the upcoming phases of metro.

Jaya Dhindaw, Director – Integrated Urban Planning, World Resources Institute (a global research non-profit), said, “It is important to recognise mass transit projects in the city as urban transformation projects and not just urban transport infrastructure projects. To this end, making the city compact, connected and liveable requires a robust plan for multi-modal integration and a holistic transit-oriented development-led city growth strategy. When phase one of the metro was conceived and built, this vision was lacking.” 

The petition highlighted that instead of relying on solid scientific mechanisms to prepare the metro plan, BMRCL relied on ad-hoc ones. As part of the case, the HC had ordered IIM-Bangalore to scrutinize the functioning of BMRCL to date as work on the second phase is continuing.

Even then, the BMRCL seem to be either opaque or incompetent in its planning to make the best use of investment. Since February 2021, in a RTI reply to Devare and subsequent appeals, BMRCL has refused to share details of a survey that is yet to be taken up on the travel time to reach the airport from Silk Board (phase two) and multimodal connectivity measures for the 30 stations. While the Asian Development Bank which is providing loans for the project mentions such a survey in its report, BMRCL in RTI replies has said that the final survey is yet to be ready.

Nagesh Aras, another activist, said the present metro routes were designed following old and inadequate traffic zones analysis data. “The metro planning did not take into account how the metro and other forms of public transport, like the BMTC and suburban rail network, other travel modes can work in unison to solve the city’s mobility challenges,” he added.

Rajkumar Dugar, Founder and Convener of C4C, said, BMRCL has been very unresponsive to citizen’s suggestions for unknown reasons when it comes to multimodal integration. “The Cantonment Metro Station was supposed to come up near the Cantonment Railway Station, acting as an integration point for the surface railway and the metro. However, the BMRCL changed its location towards Bamboo Bazaar despite stiff opposition from the public,” he said. He added that over the last three years and more, he has been approaching the BMTC about running a feeder bus service from Vasanth Nagar to Cubbon Park but to no avail.

However, Jaya said that in a paradigm shift, the government of Karnataka has expanded the focus of large-scale Mass Rapid Transit investments from traffic decongestion to instruments for building a liveable, compact and viable city by looking to adopt a parking policy, a unified transport authority, and a revised master plan that is reportedly in the works. 

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