Sucheta Dalal :The Skybus Solution For Congested Cities (20 Oct 2003)
Sucheta Dalal

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The Skybus Solution For Congested Cities (20 Oct 2003)  

One way or another, the Konkan Railway Corporation (KRC) has been associated with many of the biggest and most successful infrastructure initiatives in India. The Konkan railway itself is a marvel, in terms of the path it has etched over the treacherously varied terrain of coastal India. Its completion catapulted the then Managing Director, E Sreedharan, to national fame, which was further enhanced by his equally successful launch of the Delhi Metro Rail project.

But KRC’s present chief, the equally illustrious and affable B Rajaram has been fighting a far tougher battle for a chance to implement his dream project — the Skybus Metro. Despite holding a clutch of 11 patents in KRC and the approval of the great APJ Abdul Kalam himself (before he became President of India and was Principal Scientific Advisor to the PMO) for the Skybus, the project has invariably been sidelined because it hasn’t been implemented before. Part of Mr Rajaram’s problem (probably shades of the National Dairy Development Board dispute there) has been that Mr Rajaram’s predecessor, E Sreedharan, has called the Skybus project “unviable” and “misleading” at various fora. He has also disputed its lower cost estimates and its suitability for urban mass transport.

But all that changed perceptibly on October 15, when a prototype of the operational Skybus and sky station, developed in coordination with 34 Indian companies was unveiled by railway minister Nitish Kumar in Goa. The Skybus project is based on B Rajaram’s concept paper, presented at the World Congress for Railway Research in Italy, way back in 1989. Parts of the concept have since been patented and Mr Rajaram has made innumerable presentations to decision makers, planners, NGOs and other interest groups, in order to convert his dream project into a reality.

The prototype that was unveiled in Goa was certainly impressive. The fully air-conditioned coach comes with three-meter sliding doors, surveillance cameras, international class entry and exit facilities for the disabled and an automated, contactless, smart card based ticketing system.

Mr Rajaram promised that day, “the project will be of world class standard and will place India in the forefront of providing alternative transportation system, which is financially viable, environment friendly and synergising well proven existing cutting-edge technologies”.

And that is the crux of the Skybus system. Although its combination of technologies has never been put together to form the precise system envisaged by KRC, every element of the technology has been used, tested and proven somewhere in the world.

Its main advantage is that it is an ideal transport system for congested Indian cities. The suspended design allows it to be constructed with minimal land acquisition, and it promises a clean, air-conditioned commute at average speeds of 45 kms/hour at a cost of just 50 paise per km. It claims an ability to handle anywhere between 18,000 - 80,000 persons per hour, and its two-track system can be adjusted for maximum usage during the rush hours. Interestingly, the top of the Skybus track can also be used for pedestrian use or to generate revenue by creating cafes and business centres. The Skybus project still has to complete at least 10 kms of trial runs before it is cleared for safety. But if KRC is able to successfully implement the pilot project in the Mapusa-Panjim stretch at Goa, as KRC is confident it will, it stands a good chance of getting the promised funding from the Prime Minister’s Office or the railway ministry.

If successful, the Skybus is bound to be snapped up by several cities around the country, but until it crosses the first hurdle of finding the money for a pilot run, it is a chicken-and-egg situation. Fortunately, the railway minister seems keen on financing the pilot either through his ministry or as a joint venture with the Goa government.

After Goa, the Rs 45 crore/km project will probably be tested at Kochi, which is the only other state to actively support it, although 14 other states are watching the developments at Goa.

In fact, participants of Yahoo! Groups, such as the Delhi Metro Group have some interesting thoughts on Skybus locations. For instance, Sridhar Narayanan says that Tamilnadu is ideal for a Skybus pilot. It could provide a three-kilometre link to the new Secretariat being constructed at Kotturpuram, creating a mass transit corridor connecting T Nagar and the Beach-Tambaram line. Moreover the state government, he says, has a record of participating in mass transport projects and has announced plans for infrastructure spending of Rs 18,000 crore.

Even in crowded metropolitan Mumbai, the Skybus project, has received tremendous support from NGOs, urban activists and the media. Especially because it will cost less than half a traditional metro railway system, will not displace people and will provide comfortable and relatively inexpensive transport. The project only hits a hurdle when it comes to policy planners and government officials.

The obvious and ideal location for the Skybus pilot was the three-kilometre stretch between the domestic and international airport terminals in Mumbai. Despite decongestion attempts through flyovers, the road leading up to Mumbai’s international airport is a great national embarrassment. A modern, Skybus project connecting the international airport, which does not require land acquisition, is exactly what Mumbai needs if it is to be considered a global city. But it hasn’t happened.

KRC has also offered to build an Andheri-Worli-Nariman Point project, capable of handling 70,000 passengers an hour. The project will need an investment of Rs 1,500 crore and could complete the Andheri-Nariman Point commute in 40 minutes. It is also capable of offering a non-stop Nariman Point to Santacruz (domestic airport) trip in 20 minutes, which would be snapped up by busy executives, with car parking towers attached to the main stations to remove road congestion.

That offer too was cold-shouldered, even though KRC is located in Mumbai. One reason is that the Congress-NCP led government has hardly been at the forefront of initiating new infrastructure development in the state. The government hasn’t been able to progress beyond endless debate.

Infrastructure innovations, especially from indigenous companies such as KRC, which have a proven track record and are headed by a driven and committed team, need to be encouraged and funded if India has to find inexpensive and workable infrastructure solutions. Hopefully, Goa will give Mr Rajaram the space and opportunity to silence the doubters and the critics.

-- Sucheta Dalal