Last week, the Union Cabinet approved the new Metro Rail Policy with the aim of rationalising metro expansion in the country.

India’s first metro started operating in Kolkata in 1984, nearly 12 years after former Prime Minster Indira Gandhi had laid its foundation stone. In the 33 years since, nine other metro rails have been constructed at a cost of more than Rs 2 lakh crore. In all, a 370-km network carries about 42 lakh passengers a day, and another 537 km is being added to the network across different cities. So, in a few years, India will have a metro network of over 900 km.

The development of metro rail in India has a chequered history. After the Kolkata metro was launched, it took almost two decades to get another one in Delhi. But since the launch of the Delhi Metro in 2002, there has been a spurt in metro planning and construction, with seven of the nine operational projects opening in just the last five years. Currently, many cities are trying to build metro rail even if only for a few kilometres. The “metro aspiration”, in fact, has reached such a level that cities that don’t even have a basic bus service are looking at metro to solve their mobility problems.

The new policy, therefore, is a step towards finding a balance between wants and needs of metro rail in cities. While the policy is yet to be publicised fully, there are three key takeaways:

Need for Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority

Urban transport in India is nobody’s baby. The bus company has its bus network, the metro has a separate system, the public works department plans road and highways without thinking how these individual projects fit into the overall mobility of the city. There is no single agency to look at the needs of a complete origin-to-destination travel. Global experiences shows that cities with quality transportation have a strong lead institution that takes care of planning and development of all modes of transport. Transport for London is one example. The new policy proposes that every city should setup a Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority for planning and developing multimodal transportation.

Carrying out an alternative analysis

It is often seen that solutions are pre-decided and technical studies done later to “justify” the solution. Therefore, the need to carry out an alternative analysis is a welcome addition in the policy. It is a technique wherein alternative transport solutions are tested to solve a problem. For example, if a city wants to transport one lakh passengers from one area to another, an alternative analysis will look at cost-benefit of various options, and recommend the option best suited for it. The metros in Jaipur, Chennai and Kochi see ridership of less than 2,000 per km. In comparison, iBus, Indore’s Bus Rapid Transit System, carries around 6,000 passengers per km at almost a 1oth of the cost. Therefore, an alternative analysis done well can help in better system selection.

Looking at first and last mile connectivity

A big problem with metro rail projects in India is that metro companies are bothered mostly about transporting passengers from one platform to another. How they reach that platform has never been their concern. But it is a big concern for the passengers. Half-hearted attempts like the feeder buses in Delhi has not worked. Studies have shown that with less than 5% of the total project cost, metro systems can have high-quality feeder systems that provide complete end-to-end service. In Medellin, Colombia, the metro operator not only runs buses but also cable cars that connects low income neighbourhoods, situated in the mountains, to the metro network, resulting in an integrated transport service. The new policy proposes to look at a 5-km catchment area for providing feeder services through walking, cycling and para-transit modes. This is promising.

In addition, the new policy makes significant provisions for public-private partnerships, linking land use to transport via transit oriented development, fare fixation, alternative sources of revenue. It also attempts to look at metro development in a comprehensive manner and not in isolation.

Cities need multiple modes of transport to provide sustainable mobility. Creating a metro rail line, extensive or symbolic, will never be enough as cities must focus on safe infrastructure for walking and cycling, integrated public transport networks, and restricting private automobiles.

Metro rail is expensive, costing more than Rs 250 crore per kilometre. It will be beneficial only when planned right – and the new metro policy is a step in that direction.

Amit Bhatt is Director, Integrated Transport, World Resources Institute India.