Safe as the New Delhi metro
Peter Foster and Uttara Choudhury
Hong Kong Standard Weekend: December 18-19, 2004
India takes a giant step into the 21st century this weekend when the first stretch of a new underground metro system is opened in the capital, New Delhi.
Running for four serene kilometres beneath the rickshaw-clogged streets, the gleaming, air-conditioned system is being hailed as a symbol of India's rapid emergence into the developed world.
Just as impressively, the project was completed on budget and on time.
Modelled on the profitable Hong Kong network, the New Delhi metro will have the capacity to move 60,000 passengers per hour, reducing journey times by up to three-quarters.
It presents a great contrast with the Hogarthian chaos above ground, where motorists fight for road space with errant cows, handcarts and rickshaw-wallahs with a lethally over-developed sense of their own immortality. Each day five people die on the roads of New Delhi, some of the most dangerous in the world. Those who can afford the six-rupee (HK$1) fare to ride the four-kilometre line from Delhi University to Kashmere Gate will have the benefit of a state-of-the-art safety system.
The metro is expected to improve life for 14 million people crowded into India's traffic-choked capital.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will inaugurate the underground in the congested north of the city amid high hopes of cutting air pollution by half in the next three years.
The first stretch of New Delhi's metro opened in December 2002 and the second in October 2003, both on the surface in the northwest. The three sections cover some 38km.
"Engineers are working at a frenetic pace because there is a pressing need in Delhi for a modern public transport system to move millions of people," said Anuj Dayal, spokesman for the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation. (DMRC).
The technology used to run New Delhi's shiny new train system is so advanced there is no possibility of a train wreck like those that afflict Indian Railways, the chief of the project claimed this week.
"The best insurance against accidents is technology itself," said E Sreedharan, DMRC managing director.
"We have the most advanced signalling and operational philosophy. There is no chance of any type of collision."
His remarks come after 38 people died Tuesday in a head-on train collision in the north Indian state of Punjab because of a failure to co-ordinate traffic on a single railway line.
The capital plans to have 62km of metro running by December 2005 with a capacity of two million passengers a day, theoretically doing away with the need for 2,600 buses or 33 lanes worth of cars.
The construction is costing 100 billion rupees, half of it lent by Japan and South Korea.
"The metro will result in roughly 96.3 million litres of fuel being saved due to less vehicles on the road," said Dayal.
"Fossil fuels used for vehicles generate pollutants such as carbon dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, sulphur and particulates. The metro will cut New Delhi's pollution as there are no emissions during the running of the metro."
According to an environmental study, the completion of the metro is expected to decrease air pollution by 203,816 metric tonnes.
However, nearly 10,000 new cars hit the roads every month in New Delhi, which vies with Mexico City as the world's most polluted capital.
New Delhi has long lacked an efficient public transport system and has more vehicular traffic than India's three other leading cities - Bombay, Calcutta and Madras - put together.
"It's estimated in India that 60 to 70 per cent of air pollution is due to vehicles," said junior Indian environment minister Namo Narayan Meena.
"The Delhi metro should ease traffic congestion. The fares have been really low for distances of four kilometres to encourage people to leave their cars at home."
Sreedharan said the South Korean-designed coaches, now being manufactured in Bangalore, would operate at the rate of one four-car train every six minutes. If traffic picks up, the system can handle a train every two minutes.
A joint World Bank and Asian Development Bank study of air pollution for 20 major Asian cities between 2000 and 2003 found the level of suspended particulate matter, considered the most dangerous pollutant, way above World Health Organisation (WHO) safety limits in New Delhi.
The Indian capital recorded 350 micrograms of suspended particulates per cubic metre, sometimes spiking to 800. The WHO recommends less than 50 micrograms. The next worst city, Jakarta, registered 250.
For the most hazardous of these particles - those under 10 microns in diameter which can penetrate a face mask - New Delhi had three times as much as Hong Kong.
"The Delhi metro may have increased traffic snarls while under construction but the city will be grateful for cleaner air once it is up-and-running," said SK Tyagi, scientist at the Central Pollution Control Board.
Both the construction and operation of the New Delhi metro have run relatively smoothly, despite India's proneness to accidents.
By contrast, India's railway network transports more than 13 million passengers daily on its network that sprawls 108,700km across the nation of more than one billion people.
It records about 300 accidents every year, some of which have resulted in hundreds of deaths.
Sreedharan said he had not compromised on safety despite increasing the speed of the metro to 80 kilometres per hour.
"Passengers don't have to wear seatbelts or helmets while riding on the metro because we have installed Automatic Train Protection (ATP) equipment to control the train if signalling fails," Sreedharan said.
"There will be 256 trains travelling per day on one line between 6am and 10pm so we need to stress safety. This technology was not available in India. We've hired contractors to bring in the expertise. This is a turnkey project."
He noted the project was seven months ahead of its 51-month schedule because contractors advised them on problems such as how to move public utilities that were in the path of the metro and routing traffic above ground.
The ATP system puts automatic brakes on trains and brings them to a dead halt if train drivers speed or get close to another train.
Its reversible ventilation fans and automatic fire-doors are designed to keep passengers safe and cool simultaneously through the roasting Indian summer, while seismic sensors will warn of any impending earthquakes.
Several countries have looked at the New Delhi metro including Sri Lanka, Syria, Bangladesh, Iran, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan, Sreedharan said.
Sri Lankan authorities have accepted a feasibility study to build two ground-level suburban lines in their capital at a cost of US$1 billion (HK$7.8 billion).
Sreedharan gained a reputation as an efficient manager by implementing a new rail line in the 1990s from the financial capital of Mumbai to Goa through swamp and highland, on time and in budget.
He said the plan for the metro was to enable it to meet yearly operational costs, repay its loans and create a "metro culture" in the country.
None the less, New Delhi-ites need serious encouragement if they are to be persuaded out of their air-conditioned cars in which the middle-classes can escape the heat, dust and cancer-causing particulates. Some environmentalists give warning that the metro's green "savings" will be eaten up by India's booming automotive industry, providing super-affordable small cars that are now pulling on to New Delhi's roads.