Just how 'Fit for Purpose' are the Metrobus projects?

Published October 7, 2014
Pakistani tax payers should rightly ask why they are paying more than Rs 30 billion over international prices for an undersized transport system.
Pakistani tax payers should rightly ask why they are paying more than Rs 30 billion over international prices for an undersized transport system.

As an engineer associated with design and delivery of large infrastructure projects in the Middle East, including a Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) - or what in Pakistan is called Metrobus, I am used to the term “Fitness for Purpose” to describe whether the actual use of an engineered project fulfills the purpose for which it was built.

This term also addresses whether or not the project cost is in line with acceptable benchmarks and highlights under-designed and over-designed projects.

Also read: Islamabad Metro bus project cost may escalate to Rs50bn

During a recent trip to Pindi, I was asked if the Lahore and Rawalpindi Metrobus projects were Fit for Purpose?

To assess the project efficacy, we need to compare the Metrobus’s ridership with overall vehicular trips in Lahore.

With over 350,000 cars and 850,000 motorcycles on the roads of Lahore, congestion, pollution and safety are key issues, the stated purpose of the Metrobus project is to increase the share of public transport in Lahore, and accordingly provide safe, reliable transport.

For a city of approximately 7 million population as per the urban transport forum, based on surveys in Lahore, there were approximately 5.3 million trips/day vehicular trips – excluding walking and cycling (at 0.75 trips/person – this incidentally is half as compared to other cities in Asia).

A successfully designed public transport program should aim for at least 20 per cent ridership, whilst the actual daily ridership for the Lahore Metrobus is 180,000 trips/day or 3.3 per cent of the overall, the impact is therefore insufficient in reducing congestion in the city, expect perhaps on that corridor.

The most successful BRT project in the world is the TransMilenio in Bogota Columbia, which has a ridership of 2.2million/day and peak time capacity of over 37,700 trips/direction/hour. In Asia, the Guangzhou BRT has a ridership of 1 million trips/day with a peak capacity of 27,000 trips/direction/hour.

In both these projects, the buses run in separate corridors, mainly at grade without elevated sections. Based on my knowledge of designing similar infrastructure, in its current design format, the Lahore or Pindi metro may not achieve such capacities due to:

• No overtaking provisions at stations eliminating the possibility to use multiple services on the same route, limiting the number of buses per direction.
• Bus stops are not big enough to accommodate several buses within the same stop. Limiting the number of buses that can simultaneously run on the same line.
• Insufficient investment in the bus fleet.
• Insufficient city-wide coverage to attract passengers, it is not a network but only one line, it would have been better to have built a lower cost, but a wider network with more lines and reach across the city.
• No provision of a feeder bus system to ferry passengers not living near the route.
• No linkages with the city’s other mode of transport – bus, rail, air.
• No provisions for transfer stations linking with future lines, as some stations are elevated, building these connections now would be challenging.
• The Metrobus should be an integral part of the overall city transport network and should inform the future development of the city, future public transport corridors should be part of the master plan for all new developments, including DHA, etc.

According to the American Public Transport Association BRT infrastructure should cost US $2-18 million/km, the Lahore Metrobus’ infrastructure capital cost is more expensive as compared to international benchmarks. As per published figures, the infrastructure costs in US$ per kilometer (all costs escalated to 2014) for BRT for various cities are:

  • Ahmedabad, India $3 million/km
  • Dalian, China $4.5m/km
  • Guangzhou, China $6.5m/km
  • Istanbul, Turkey $10m/km
  • Bogota, Columbia (new phase) $13.3m/km
  • Lima, Peru $10m/km
  • Los Angeles, USA $ 14.4m/km

Given lower labour costs in Pakistan and averaging the above figures, a fair estimate for infrastructure costs should be approximately $5-7m/km.

Therefore, at $11m/km, the Lahore Metrobus cost wise is substantially higher than the benchmark.

Although there is no evidence of corruption or any wrong doing, it is the expensive design and accelerated delivery that may have led to the price escalation.

Also read: Metro Bus Project eats away Women Park

Once major projects are completed, a “lessons learnt” exercise is normally held so that future projects learn from and improve upon the previous one. The lessons learnt exercise should have included why earlier bus services such as the Lahore Volvo bus and the Pindi Varan bus are no longer running; was it due to a non-sustainable business model, high fuel costs, lack of spare parts and replacement of the fleet, poor governance or road congestion?

Unfortunately, this was not done and the newly started Rs 50 billion Pindi Metrobus project, seems to repeat the same mistakes as the earlier Lahore one.

Also read: Doubts cloud Islamabad section as Metro Bus launched in Rawalpindi

It is not clear how the Pindi Metrobus strategically fits in the overall transport master plan, whether this project is for commuters to Islamabad; or for residents of Rawalpindi and Islamabad? Globally 80 per cent of commuters use trains (both over ground and underground) as the preferred means of travel (trains regularly reach speeds of 100 kph and carry up to 800 passengers per train, unlike buses that travel at 25 kph and carry 100 passengers).

At current growth rates by 2035 Pindi-Islamabad will have a combined population of approximately five million, given that most of whom will not be able to afford living in Islamabad, and that the extended city would stretch from Hasanabdal, Fatehjang to Mandra, the transportation master plan should take cognizance of that in its design intent.

If we look at costs, as stated previously the cost of the Pindi Metrobus should not be approximately $6m/Km as compared to the actual estimated cost is Rs 50 billionn for 24.5 km or $20 million/km.

Based on surveys approximately. 200,000 vehicles/day travel from Pindi to Islamabad or 550,000 (persons) trips take place daily between the two cities, if we assume a 50 per cent capture for public transport then, today, the designed capacity of the Metrobus should be at least 300,000 trips/day as opposed to the current stated capacity of 150,000.

If we project this volume 10 years hence, it will underline that the Metrobus is significantly undersized and should be able to reach a capacity of approx. 500,000 trips/day.

Also read: Metrobus: mobility and sensibility

The Metrobus is an excellent idea and the Punjab government should be appreciated for its effort in initiating and implementing this project in a record time, but unfortunately it is also a symptom of a failing system whereby there is no independent regulatory authority to challenge the provincial government’s project intent, and safeguard public interest.

More time should have been given to studies (including environmental), planning and design rather than hurried implementation. The tax payers of this country should rightfully ask,

Why are they paying more than Rs 30 billion over international prices for an undersized transport system?

It may be still not be too late for the government to reassess the project and carry out a value engineering exercise to ruthlessly cut costs and maximise value for money, at the same time modify the design to maximise the systems passenger carrying capacity. It should also evaluate how this fits in the overall city master plan, assess actual current and future demands versus existing capacity in the proposed system.

In my opinion, the public hearing process should be strengthened, where in the hearings the business model is explained, to appreciate what additional investment would be needed to fund and operate the vehicle fleet, what is the correct ticket price and how an independent accountable management structure is in place to sustain this investment.

The regulatory system needs to be strengthened so that government entities are not allowed to brow beat regulators into hurriedly approving projects, Pakistan is a poor country and deserves affordable, properly designed, infrastructure that is “Fit for Purpose”.


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