Skybus Vs Metro: Mumbai Deserves The Best

The city of Mumbai is almost synonymous with its train network, the backbone of its bustling public

life. Mumbai’s suburban trains are said to be the most efficient railway systems in the world. Its

eminence & growing dependency has belittled the high price of human lives, the city is paying. In

2002, the Mumbai suburban railway system claimed 3773 lives, injuring 3,297 from the total 7070

accident cases. This means a death every 2.5 hours due to a railway accident in Mumbai, which is

probably the highest in the world! Mumbai’s bombarding train-passenger traffic of 6 million people is

evidently being reflected in jammed foot-over-bridges on railway platforms and in railway rakes with

people stuffed like cattle (by forced choice), challenging the walled limits. The commuting culture has

deteriorated to such an extent that even a routine inter-city travel can prove to be a near life

threatening, if not, fatalistic experience. It is quite nerve wrecking to dodge way or get stranded in

traffic jams on Mumbai roads, which has the highest density of vehicles per km at 696, while that of

Delhi is 137.

It is high time the city develops alternate modes of transportation to end its frantic dependency on the

suburban railway system and limit any kind of force, whether natural or man-made, to easily victimize

it. Rail and road accidents are only expected to increase unless the passenger & traffic load is

curtailed, diverted or divided on an urgent priority basis. Maharashtra State Government in its recent

pomp inauguration of Mumbai Metro for Versova-Andheri-Ghatkopar route, allegedly choose to snub

superior advantages of alternative technology – Skybus, which could have brought a quick breather to

the city. Seven years or even more is a long agonising wait, to get a Metro running in this city.

Sitting in a bogie and whiz passing the city, looking down on mere mortals stuck in traffic jams and

hundreds pouring out of crowded locals as one glides through … is not a scenario or a fantasy of one’s

imagination or an inspiration from a futuristic novel. Skybus is a “first-of its kind in the world” (even

Shanghai doesn’t have it), path-suspended (running below the tracks & 10 meters from ground), airconditioned,

mass & rapid railway transport system. The Skybus presents a perfect solution for

escalating traffic woes in this most populous and space-crunched metropolis of India – Mumbai, where

sq. ft. and headcount are antagonistic elements in its planning. If considered earnestly, indigenous

Skybus can be a reality in the immediate future.

The state government’s much-hyped Metro rail is being glamorised as having the desired & superior

technology, needed to counter Mumbai’s despairing traffic. But not many know, that the Metro, in

technology terms, is same as Mumbai’s very own local train, embellished with A/C coaches, swanky

hi-tech platforms with escalators and modern communication systems, running in a tunnel or over a

bridge – all of which adds to being extremely resource intensive & most of the times, a recurring loss

maker. A news magazine recently reported that out of 135 Metro corporations in the world, only 4 are

making operational profits. These include Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong & Delhi. Delhi Metro Rail

Corporation (DMRC) too, is said to fall in the trap of loss-making corporations with losses amountingto 76.33 crore annually, as reported by a leading daily. Even with such widely accepted figures, it is

outlandishly stupid by the government to brag about feasibility of the Metro, which exists as a huge

drain on the exchequer, topped with external loans or government subsidies, with long period of

financial returns (if any).

It is well documented that Metro has outlived its financial viability, forcing government to offer 20%

of project cost as gap funding or viability-gap-funding (VGF) to lure the private operators undertake

the project through BOOT (Built, Own, Operate & Transfer) strategy. For instance, Anil Dhirubhai

Ambani Group has demanded Rs 650 crore (about 26.7% & higher than recommended 20%) of the

project cost as VGF from the Maharashtra government for Mumbai Metro project. One may wonder

why a private operator like ADAG have plunged into a less lucrative deal if Metro was to be

financially unviable, as reports reveal. Well, it is neither corporate philanthropy nor building brand

equity. Its motives are purely & ruthlessly business profit making. Since the company would operate

the services before handling-over to the government, it would recover the costs by charging more from

the commuters. Train travelers in Mumbai are all-out waiting to expend more for a comfortable airconditioned

travel. So it is like a perfect win-win for everyone with no room for any controversies.

The question here is whether such a rosy scenario would be justified in the long term financial &

environment health of the city & its citizens. Long-term viability of a project like Metro inflicts not

only financial but also social and environment implications, all of which are essential pre-requisites for

increasing popular phenomenon of ‘sustainable urban development’. Not only the private contractors

or the government but also the people most of who live in meager means and are highly dependent on

public transportation, at least in this city, should benefit from a modern rapid transport system. The

state government, already burdened with a 1,00,000 crore debt, is ploughing in public money for

Metro and the public too is lured into its hype, knowing little that it will have to shell out much more

once the project is operational. The mindset conforming that public utilities especially infrastructure

projects can give minimal or no returns, needs to change.

Skybus offers a profitable proposition to the operator and cheapest travel to the commuters. Skybus

model starts giving a return of 24% on equity from fare box collections within the first year of

operation. For the commuter it only adds up to Rs 0.50 per km, drastically less than what has been

fixed by the Metro at Rs. 6 for a 3 km route. It is a sorry state of affairs, when such layman’s logic,

cannot be comprehended by our supposedly responsible, intelligent and accountable people holding

offices in state and apex infrastructure agency like Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development

Authority (MMRDA). Skybus involves “no” financial commitment through viability gap funding

(VGP) on the part of the government; on the contrary, it attracts foreign direct investments (FDI).

Government of Andhra Pradesh is in advanced stage of talks with Ministry of Urban Development &

Konkan Railway Corporation Ltd for pursuing Skybus project for its capital city Hyderabad. A

Malaysian business consortium is investing Rs. 20,000 crore in the project without a penny of

investment by the State. The state government, in keeping with its legacy of aggressive reforms, has

proven that clamour about its mass applicability & safety, although crucial factors, are always

workable and can never become impediments, if committed political will exist to promote tested

innovations like Skybus for mass benefit. Hyderabad has already snatched titles from Bangalore and

Mumbai to be the most wired & cleanest city of India. Now, it may soon position to become the first

city in the world to have a Skybus technology for public transportation. If Hyderabad had all the

reasons to commission Skybus, Mumbai had even more desperate ones to do so but its political

leadership found enough pretexts to reject it.

The claims of a technology like Skybus is coming from no amateurishly, new-aged prodigal source but

from reputed, government-owned Konkan Railways Corporation Ltd. (KRCL) backed by engineerscientist

B. Rajaram, former MD, KRCL & alumnus of IIT Kharagpur who has spent 15 years in

developing and commercialising Skybus technology. His anti-collision device is also a patented

technology, vested with KRCL and is being progressively used for safety in modern railways. It is

heartening to know that all the royalties, which the Skybus patent will earn through Rajaram’s Atri

Knowledge Embedded Infrastructure Lab. (P) Ltd., estimated by Pricewaterhouse Coopers at Rs

20,000 to 30,000 crore over 10 years with NPV of over Rs 8000 crore have already been written-off to

the Government of India though Konkan Railways. Yet, the government seems captivated to the call

of its key advisor, Mr. E. Sreedharan, the christened hero of the Delhi Metro project. Ironically, he had

also headed Maharashtra Government’s Panel, constituted to access Skybus.

One must question why the government appointed such a heavily biased panel whose

recommendations were well predicted? This was the second effort by the government to wear robes of

a participative decision maker, the first one being the Indiresen committee, which too was supposedly

constituted on the behest of Mr. Sreedharan. Prof. Indiresen, Former Director IIT Madras, who had

headed the technical committee, considered Skybus technology in the development stage and not a

finished technology for mass use. His report thus had killed its revolutionary potential for instant

applicability. However, the report positively concluded that – “If very strict standards that some want

to apply in this case (Skybus) had been applied in the case of Stephenson’s Rocket Engine, the world

would never have seen railways at all. We cannot live on borrowed technology (Metro) forever, and

should learn to develop our own inventions, and for that reason, learn to place confidence in Indian

technology.” Committee’s report reflects that although Skybus technology has impressed its members

to pass all their stringent criteria, but it could not give a categorical ‘yes’ and stand up against the force

backed by Metro. Based on such insider comments in the Indiresen committee report, the Ministry of

Urban Development permitted the Andhra Pradesh government to go ahead with its Hyderabad

Skybus Metro.

Policy makers can’t get over the basics in the Metro-Skybus debate to look into some exclusive add-on

features which only Skybus systems offers. Skybus creates bonus urban spaces at the rate of 9000 sq.

ft per km of route through its Sky-tops that can be exploited commercially. Skybus modifications

termed as ‘Skycons’ can carries container-loads & cargos from the heart of the busy ports or even

directly from ships thus drastically reducing truck & trailer traffic on the roads. Skybus can be

employed in city-keeping functions like garbage disposal and is even emergency-disaster enabled. The

city of Delhi opted for Metro, because it didn’t have any mass rapid transport systems in the first

place, and heavy Metro installations suited its less-constrained, ample-land topography. There is no

denying that the capital city underwent a transformation in the way it moves, but ditto doesn’t apply to

Mumbai as these cities inherently differ quite starkly. Mumbai has in-place a sturdy mass transport in

its suburban railway system, ferrying millions of passengers every day. What Mumbai needs is a

supplementary transportation system with similar capacity, catering to east-west connectivity &

untouched routes like Lokhandwala, Versova, Marol, Bandra-Kurla Complex, Mumbai University and

Powai. The Skybus would thus augment existing capacity, lower dependency on suburban railway and

provide future allowances through easy scalability. It is significant to add her that Delhi had no choice

when Delhi Metro was being contemplated; Mumbai fortunately has one, if it realises.

The proposed Metro route, initially from Versova to Ghatkopar is amongst the most chocked one,

characterized by intense traffic, narrow roads and dense population. There is barely any space in

Mumbai to accommodate Metro with its monstrous structures in the middle of lean roads, requiring

substantial demolitions & evacuations? Skybus can be built like a grid network on existing roadways

and flyways, offering point-to-point connectivity, requiring no land acquisitions and can be madeoperational in interior of suburbs, within a span of two years. Skybus works on the principle of

smaller units carrying smaller loads but at a high frequency, easily accessible from roads, just like a

bus stop, since its stations are mere 40 meter long with no crossings and signals. Skybus thus, matches

the passenger carrying capacity of 20,000 to 80,000 with that of a heavy Metro system.

Even if the opposition to Skybus over its comparatively lower passenger capacity than Metro, is to go

by, it is still an all-round justifiable option for Mumbai owing to its record cost. Skybus in Mumbai

would costs Rs. 60 crore per km, less than one-third the cost estimated for elevated Metro (@ Rs. 215

crore per km) and about one-sixth the cost for an underground Metro estimated at Rs. 400 crore per

km. Some transport experts are even speculating on the total project costs of the Metro presently

estimated at Rs. 19,525 crore, to be gravely under-projected while it may actually be three times

higher by the end of its completion period, considering Mumbai’s ground realities. In view of this

estimate, for the same route length of 146 km in Mumbai, Skybus can be achieved in about Rs.

6,000 crore, almost 1/12th the cost incurred for Metro. This is an alarming difference by any

standard to re-consider the case of Metro for the city.

The first & the foremost reason for rejecting the Skybus is that it is a technology in the mere

developmental stage and hence it cannot be equated with more established technologies like Metro, is

in itself, a malicious assumption. Skybus is not a scratch-to-finish technology but a simple

modification of existing technologies & hence an ‘innovation’, not a true invention. The term used to

ascertain the Skybus technology is – pre-certified (using same components as used in railways) and

therefore it should not be dismissed on technological grounds. The pre-certified components in an

integrated assembly of the Skybus system has already been granted world-wide patents & approved as

‘technology mature & safe’ for mass implementation by German Tuv Rheinland, internationally

renowned for technical-viability testing for aviation and transportation projects like magnetic

monorails. Also, Skybus is designated under the Tramway Act instead of Indian Railway Act, since it

moves along the existing roads. Once Skybus comes under the preview of the Railway Act, it would

receive RDSO (Research Design Standards Organisation) & Commission of Railway Safety

certification of the Ministry of Railways since it uses all pre-certified components used in railways.

Eminent scientists like Dr. Anil Kakodkar, Dr. P Ramarao and none other than President A.P.J Abdul

Kalam, together with Commissioner of Railway Safety have endorsed Skybus to be superior & safe

than conventional railway, ready for mass use.

Secondly, the Government of Maharashtra’s assessment that the Skybus is untested for safety and

preference for the Metro as a time-tested technology also needs a little more introspection. History is

witness to numerous rail accidents taking death tolls and injuries since its existence. In 2005 alone,

there occurred 30 train accidents worldwide, mainly collision and derailing, taking a death toll of more

than 1,105 people and injuring another 471. In India, there have been as many as 17 major train

accidents in the last 10 years in which over 1,300 people have died, mostly involving collision. Metro

Railway too has been accident-prone when 11 accidents were reported, injuring about 207 people and

killing one in 2005. Owing to the design features, Skybus is arguably much safer than railways since it

can ‘never’ derail or capsize to fall on ground, because of a secured connection between tracks and

coaches, a feature ‘not guaranteed’ in railways. An accident claiming one life, during the test run of

Skybus in 2004, has been used as a chief ploy to promote Metro. Aren’t trials meant for experimenting

and factor all such contingencies? Skybus was initially was designed to be computerised and

unmanned but post-trial it was improved to have a manual operator to control speeds. The accident

also proved that even under high speeds, which caused a technician hanging at the door-less bogie to

slam a pillar, the Skybus did not destabilised. Since the first trial of Skybus, 70 km trial runs have

already been accomplished successfully. Very recently, the Konkan Railways have bagged the

approval from Ministry of Urban Development to re-start the trial runs of Skybus, which was more or

less grounded after the incident.

Mysteriously, the ‘R’ factor is seemingly conspiring against the aspirations of this great metropolis.

Whether it is the (r)ain or the (r)iots or the recent te(rr)or attacks, these wheeling servers are brought to

a halt. Met(r)o, with the ‘r’ factor, is nothing less than a financial bomb. Ironically, it is being

marketed to be awaited – only to be detonated, drowning the state with more debts. ‘No government

funding’ for Skybus while massive capital flows from official treasury makes for a politicalconvincing

thumbs-up for commissioning Metro! Poor civic awareness and weak accountability

systems are attributes well played by the ruling whip. It is therefore, quite unlikely that politicians and

bureaucrats will face public wrath when soon other cities and even countries would embrace Skybus

technology, rejecting the very pretexts, which were given for dismissing Skybus. Skybus is a potential

world-class public transport system, an offing from India, becoming the object of interest & enquiries

by many developed and developing countries.

Mumbai had the wits and the mettle to embrace Skybus technology, be crowned and make the world

hymn its first glory. Ironically the city, complacently stepped aside as a flaccid witness while taking

pride in bowing down to foreign Metro, progressively being promoted as a lone-saver-solution to

urban traffic problems. Skybus is only kept at bay by prominent lobbyist & ‘procurers’ of Metro – a

transnational, too strong and influential force to be resisted by governments who are in the rut of

‘foreign made is heaven made’, while harbouring skeptical intentions for better indigenous

technologies. A promising, futuristic technology like Skybus seems unstoppable. It would soon be a

paradigm for public transportation, to instrument change in perceptions & mindsets on the way people,

commodities and services can be ‘moved’ in midst of urban chaos. Mumbai was blessed with a choice,

which it failed to capitalise, at least at the ripest of time.

Jaya Goyal is Junior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai

Posted in Main. 1 Comment »

One Response to “Skybus Vs Metro: Mumbai Deserves The Best”

  1. sid Says:

    it would seem that the skybus would heavily fall short to complement the 6.1 million + daily traffic , most of the 9 coach rakes have a capacity of 1700 but carry 4700 (source: wikipedia) during peak hours, so to alleviate the current railway situation of the “Super-Dense Cruch Load” atleast a third should be taken care of i would guess that is approx 2 million + passenger rides which is almost equivalent to the london tube system which is crushed regularly carrying 2.6 million , so imagine a london tube network over the mumbai city-scape just in form of skybus ?? all those small cars with high frequency would have to act like trains to cope with traffic , what a monstrocity that would be , utter chaos already on roads now same in the sky , it doesn’t add up no matter how cheap it is it is just too weak n shortsighted for mumbai.

    that doesnt mean subway:metro is the answer , infrastructural cost will put mumbaiites in debt for generations as the author has mentioned only 3 make profit , that too i would guess due to heavy taxation of private vehicles on roads and parking people are forced into it. but shallow water tables , outdated sewers and drainage can only add to the unseen problems , what about ventilation and the mother of all issues power supply . unless we get our thorium breeder reactors to start working before the metro the rising gas n oil prices will so conveniently reflect on the travel fares which will be much more expensive than current first class travel in local trains i’d assume .

    the only saviour i’d say is the bus network , it has a spread n infrastructure to cover the whole city as is seen whenever (if rarely) the trains have stopped , so it makes only sense to strengthen it; introduce ladies special, first class , A/C , in buses too watever introduce Bus Rapid Transit where only buses are allowed to run to the said patch of road , give them right of way n make them go faster than the traffic – bound car.

    i agree with the author on falsehood of metro when we have a strong rail service in place but i think the author is still focussed on a “world’s first” skybus novelty when people should be voicing about the strengthening the bus n train by undermining the car / flyover monopoly ….. but sadly everyone likes to start from new including the Govt. no one wants to clean the existing mess definitely not private profiteers of the fortune 500 circle we r definitely heading for more n more worse scenarios .

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