Transport Infrastructure: A roadmap for the future: By E. Sreedharan

For one of the world’s oldest civilizations with a culture spanning centuries, sixty years is not a long time. But as a nation, the last six decades since India became a republic have been truly momentous as the country has witnessed far-reaching developments in many spheres. However, development of transport infrastructure was probably not given the importance it deserved initially as our planners did not realize that investments in transport sector come back to the nation manifold fueling growth in many other sectors.

As time passed, it was realized that mobility is an important requirement for economic growth of the nation as economic activities flourish in areas where accessibility is good and mobility fast. Gradually, the spotlight has shifted to development of transport infrastructure.

Urban Public Transport

Since Independence, India has undergone a fundamental change in the way its citizens live and work. A primarily rural society for countless years, India has seen a spurt in the pace of its urbanization. Since job opportunities have increased in urban areas at a much faster pace than in villages, attracting millions to the already-overcrowded cities, the proportion of urban population went up from just 17% in 1951 to 28% in 2001, according to the latest available Census figures. Currently, the proportion of urbanization is estimated to be about 35% and this figure is likely to go up to 45% by 2020. Thus, by that year, more than half a billion people will live in India’s teeming cities.

According to recent Government estimates, 14 cities already have populations in excess of three million while seven have more than five million residents. However, urban public transport facilities have failed to keep up with the rapid rise in population. Public transport is fully road-based in almost all our cities with the exception of Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata where sub-urban trains play a limited role. The result is that our roads are heavily congested with an explosion in the number of vehicles, causing heavy pollution and keeping the average speed of vehicles low. The most disturbing effect of the dependence on road-based transport is the high fatality rates on city roads. According to estimates, almost 120,000 people die every year across India in road accidents, including 2,000 in Delhi alone. A possible solution is to increase the capacity of roads but cities are already so congested that there is little scope for this.

Metro systems

The only way out, therefore, is to plan high-capacity public transport systems that are energy efficient, do not encroach on the limited road space available and connect commercial and residential areas effectively. Across the world, public transportation systems in heavily populated cities are rail based Mass Rapid  Transit Systems (MRTS) or Metro systems, as they are the most appropriate since they can carry up to 90,000 passengers per hour per direction of traffic (phpdt).

At present, India has only two cities with MRT systems – Delhi and Kolkata. Mumbai has just started.  The construction of the Kolkata Metro overshot its target schedule and cost and the resultant problems for citizens, perhaps, acted as a dampener for the Metro culture to spread to other cities.

This negative perception about MRT systems, however, changed with the coming of the Delhi Metro. India’s largest urban intervention in the transportation sector since Independence, this mammoth technically complex project is being completed ahead of schedule and budgeted cost.

The Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) has introduced India to a truly international transport system which is safe, fast, comfortable and reliable and is today acknowledged as a resounding success. Many Indian cities have lined up to take advantage of DMRC’s experience to build Metro systems.

However, many hurdles remain before Metro systems in most of these cities become a reality.

Institutional arrangements in the form of active support of the Government are vital. At present, the Urban Development Ministry is entrusted with the task of expanding the Metro footprint and it is performing exemplarily. A National Metro Rail Policy has already been drafted which has been considered by the Committee of Secretaries. Legal cover for Metro projects has also been provided by enacting the Metro Railway Amendment Act, 2009, to amend the Metro Railways (Construction of Works) Act, 1978 and the Delhi Metro (Operation and Maintenance) Act, 2002 and extend these Acts to all million plus cities in India.

However, the need of the hour is a major policy thrust by the Government to spread the “Metro culture” and this is a full-time job which cannot be performed well by appending a small team to the Ministry. A separate Ministry for Metros has become essential.

There are other vital issues to consider. Today, taxes and duties account for about 15% of the total cost of Metros in India. This is totally avoidable expenditure that can easily be saved by exempting Metro systems from the ambit of these taxes and duties. Moreover, property development has to be allowed on a large scale which can help augment the Metro incomes and help keep their fares low.

Trained manpower is essential if the hundreds of kilometers of Metro networks planned now are to be executed. It is true that DMRC personnel have gained considerable expertise while working on the Delhi Metro project, but they are few in number and too focused on the expansion of the capital’s network to provide more than consultancy services. DMRC has collaborated with the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, to start a post-graduate course in Metro Technology and the Executive Trainees will be absorbed as Assistant Engineers in Delhi and other Metros. Such courses can be started in other IITs and engineering institutes as well so that the experience of DMRC personnel can be better utilized.

There is a particular need for standardization and indigenization of technology to be used in Metro systems across Indian cities as bringing in new technology and designs for every project is neither necessary nor desirable as it would only push up costs and time. The advantages of standardization are apparent in Russian and Eastern European cities where Metro systems could spread fast because no time had to be spent on finalizing designs and finding vendors. Countries such as the Czech Republic and Yugoslavia have standard rolling stock (trains) and signaling equipment because of which their maintenance and services are much better. This is the model that should be followed in India as well and this important aspect should not be left to innovation and individual initiative. Only the Government can ensure that standard gauge is used by all Metros in India in the future as this is the norm across the world.

The Government can utilize DMRC’s expertise for standardization and indigenization. Already, two units to manufacture rolling stock have been set up in Bangalore and in Salvi near Vadodara to service DMRC’s needs. These units can easily meet the requirements of other Metros provided they get necessary Government support.
One unexpected problem that DMRC had to face while executing its project was resistance from regulatory and local bodies of the Government itself. While municipal bodies often fund Metro works in other countries, DMRC had to contend with delayed clearances and demand for property tax from local bodies in the city such as the Delhi Development Authority and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi. Government bodies working at cross-purposes will definitely not help the expansion of Metro systems and the authorities must step in to ensure that there is no interruption in the Metro work.

Suburban Trains and Buses

Besides modern high-capacity systems such as Metros, there is scope to develop sub-urban railway and bus rapid transit (BRT) systems such as Metros, there is scope to develop sub-urban railway and bus rapid transit (BRT) systems in some cities to a limited extent but these avenues have not been fully exploited. For example, Delhi has a wonderful surface Railway system converging not the city from five different directions and inter-connected with a Ring Railway. Unfortunately, this Railway network carries only 2% of the city commuters. Strengthening, upgrading and modernizing the Railway system are low cost solutions to attract commuters to the suburbs and to de-congest the city. Unfortunately, Railways’s unwillingness to run more suburban trains and Government’s helplessness or inability to tread on Railways’s possessive turf is preventing any improvements to the suburban system.
As for BRT systems, these are good options in cities where the passengers per hour per direction of traffic (phpdt) is around 10,000. In fact, DMRC has itself recommended BRT systems in Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode. However, BRT systems are not suitable for cities with large populations as it is not possible to run buses with a frequency of less than 30 seconds (though the actual will probably be around 2-3 minutes). Thus, a maximum of 120 buses can be run per hour which will have a capacity of 12,000 phpdt. A system like the Delhi Metro, on the other hand, has a capacity of 75,000 phpdt.

National Road Network

India is a vast country and roads fulfil the majority of its transport requirement by carrying more than 70% of goods and population. Reliable and safe roads are, therefore, essential for economic growth. For many decades, the focus remained only on development of the national highways but the rise in vehicular movement has meant that the pressure on these has increased manifold. A lot needs to be done to lay down new roads and improve and widen existing ones, including the national highways. The golden quadrilateral project is a beginning in this direction and, hopefully, such projects will gather momentum.

One such project which has great importance for the nation is the ambitious Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY), a part of the Bharat Nirman programme. For decades, lack of infrastructure, particularly roads, prevented the rural economy from developing which perhaps forced more and more people to go to cities. The PMGSY was started to address this problem but sadly, it has managed to achieve only 49% of its target for new roads and 55% for upgradation of roads. Clearly, a lot remains to be done. The main obstacle to the scheme, possibly, is that there is no centralized command and state governments are responsible for the actual work. If the Government can bring the PMGSY under a single administration under the charge of a leader chosen on the basis of merit, integrity and track record the scheme would definitely be far more successful. Of course, there are legislative constraints which will need to be addressed before this can happen.

The Indian Railways

The Indian Railways are perhaps the most beneficial legacy of the British Raj but unfortunately, little has been done to improve the system in post-Independence India. The only notable projects to expand the rail network in the last 60 years have been the Konkan Railway and the ongoing work in the Kashmir Valley. The Railways have also not adequately utilized available technology for improvement in services and an ordinary train traveler from the 1930s’ would probably not see too many significant changes even today.

Therefore, an aggressive policy for modernization and improving the safety record of Railways is the urgent need of the day. At present, the focus of the Railways is on dedicated freight corridors and a separate corporation has set up for their development. However, priority should be given to the development of dedicated high-speed passenger corridors to which all mail and express trains should be diverted. The capacity thus released will be more than that is needed for freight movement.


India’s aviation infrastructure leaves much to be desired, considering its growing economic clout and the sheer volume of passenger movement. Happily, the Government has taken steps to upgrade major airports such as Delhi and Mumbai. But, the policy makers still do not seem to be looking at the future. The country needs modern airports and at least three to four times more than the number available today. Greenfield airports are coming up at Devanahalli near Bangalore and Shamshabad near Hyderabad, but many more such projects, especially in remote areas, are required so that air connectivity to all corners of the country becomes a reality in the future.


In the last 60 years, India has emerged as one of the major economies of the world with its growth rate second only to China. It needs to be pondered that China has invested heavily in its transport infrastructure while India has failed to keep pace. It’s time to devote adequate attention to development of our transport infrastructure if we want our country to take its rightful place in the comity of developed nations.