Praseeda Mukundan and Aiswarya Krishnan
One of the most ambitious projects of the State of Kerala, the Thiruvananthapuram-Kasargod Semi High Speed Rail, also known as the Silver Line project, is likely to be considered and approved by the Cabinet in the coming days. But the question is whether the State needs it or ready to accept such a project.
The prime objective of the project is stated as the reduction in travel time between Thiruvananthapuram and Kasargod (a distance of 532 km) from 12 hours to just 4 hours. It is envisioned as a solution for major issues like traffic congestion, accidents, air pollution, etc. The future prospects of the project also include development of new urban areas and employment opportunities. Can Kerala afford to pay such a huge cost to deal with these issues? Even if the project is implemented, will it actually resolve these issues effectively? To determine the need for reducing the time of travel, we need to look into the commutation pattern and mobility requirements of people in Kerala.
The ridership forecast for the project, estimated to be 79,934 persons daily in 2025–26, needs to be relooked into. In another prestigious project of the State, the Kochi Metro Rail, the ridership forecast for the year 2015 as per the Detailed Project Report (DPR) was 3,81,868 passengers/day and 4,68,130 passengers/day for the year 2020. But the highest ridership achieved till date is only 1.25 lakh passengers/day on January 1, 2020. This may push the Kochi Metro Rail Limited into serious trouble of generating revenue to maintain its operations and question the sustainability of the project. Hence, it is evident that the need for a realistic projection of ridership might be the key for ensuring a healthy cash flow for the project.
|From||To||No. of Passengers|
Table 1. Average Number of Passengers Commuted Daily between the Stations for the Year 2019.
As per the reply to an RTI query (refer Table 1), the average number of passengers commuting daily on trains between major cities in the State (Thiruvananthapuram, Ernakulam, Thrissur and Kozhikode) from some of the minor cities/towns is 38,935. Though these numbers do not give a complete picture, the current demand for connectivity can be assumed from this. Also, it is to be noted that many of these stations are not a part of the proposed project, which can further lead to decrease in the travel demand.
The estimated cost of the project is Rs 63,941 crore, 52 per cent of which would be raised as loan and the rest would be funded by the Central Government, State Government and financial institutions. With the current pandemic situation leading to a forthcoming recession and subsequent lay-offs, the centre and the state economy would see a further fall in revenues. Amidst these unfavourable circumstances, prioritising the silver line project (the viability of which is already in question) will only exacerbate the economic crisis caused due to COVID-19. Non-Resident Keralites are one of the main contributors to the State economy through their foreign remittances. They are now faced with lay-offs due to dual shocks, one from COVID and the other from the collapse of oil prices, which will further lead to a long-term economic impact on the state. Hence, financing a capital-intensive project like this requires reconsideration.
The ticket fare is set at Rs 2.75 km/passenger which will be increased yearly at a rate of 7.5 per cent. When calculating the cost of travel between the State capital Thiruvananthapuram and the financial capital Kochi (220 km), it comes around Rs 1210 per day for a round trip. As per the Department of Economics and Statistics, Government of Kerala, the per capita income (per capita GSDP) of the State is Rs 1,41,396 (based on 2011 constant price), which is approximately Rs 387/day for the year 2016–2017. This will definitely go down taking into account the present scenario. Hence, a commuter from an average socio-economic background will have to pay a substantial amount and this may restrain people from availing the services. This shall again affect the ridership, thereby putting the project’s viability into question.
Various other rail projects have been identified or are under construction for improving connectivity within the State. Some of them are the Sabari rail project (project cost 2815 crore), completion of the 114 km double line from Kayamkulam Junction to Ernakulam via Kottayam (250 crore for pending civil work in that stretch), etc. The 116 km-long Sabari rail project was sanctioned in 1997-1998 which required land acquisition of 470.77 ha. But nothing has happened on the ground due to lack of funds for its implementation. Issues in acquiring land and lack of availability of funds remain major roadblocks in realising such projects. It is also mentioned in the official website of the Silverline Project that the existing rail network is not suitable for faster travel. The above mentioned projects will only need a fraction of the investment of the Semi High Speed rail project and could lead to considerable reduction in the travel time within Kerala.
The project is set to achieve other objectives including reduction in air pollution, road accidents and congestion. The Electric Vehicle Policy, 2018 was one of the major initiatives of the Kerala government for the reduction of pollution and has allocated Rs 12 crore for initiating it. Considering the National Capital region’s pre-COVID scenario of poor traffic as well as high level of air pollution—even with a high-coverage almost fully operational metro rail—we cannot justify the fact that introduction of high speed rail is sure to reduce road congestion, especially when it would not be restricted to city level, but regional movement. According to the Economic Review 2018–19, the total number of registered motor vehicles in the State as of March 2019 is 133.34 lakh. This illustrates that almost one among every 3 Keralites owns a vehicle.What requires immediate attention is an in-depth research to understand the reasons for increase in the rate of private vehicles, decrease in the number of public transport users and increasing rate of accidents in Kerala.
COVID-19 has now proven that with technological advancements physical travel could be substituted. Kerala is already in the forefront in implementing IT interventions and e-governance services in facilitating a paradigm shift in terms of commuting requirements through projects like Kerala Fibre Optic Network (KFON) Project and eOffice portal. Such efforts will surely lead to a substantial decrease in travel demand, thereby questioning the relevance of the project.
Praseeda Mukundan is Senior Research Associate and Aiswarya Krishnan is Project Associate at CPPR-Centre for Urban Studies. Views expressed are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.