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Monday, April 21

Trams: Outdated or Futuristic?

My idea of trams was that it was an antiquated mode of public transport until I debarked at Dublin, capital of Republic of Ireland.

A tramcar running through Dublin street

The elegant and sophisticated tramcars, as you see here, has revolutionized the once non-existent transport system of Dublin. The more I learned about them the more I became aware as to how wrong I was on the tram systems, particularly about it being an obsolete one.

For records, the Dublin tramlines (or the "luas" as they call it here) has just been commissioned in 2004.

My knowledge of this mode of transport was stereotyped, thanks to the one and only system of its kind in India; the Calcutta (or Kolkata for the traditionalists) trams. The setup became so outdated and inconvenient that the West Bengal Govt even thought of abolishing the system. Trams still run on Kolkata streets, all right, but mainly as a unique historical showpiece of the city.(see picture)

I was somewhat surprised as to why this system hasn't been adopted by any Indian city. Calcutta could be one reason. Or else the system itself was just not suitable for Indian conditions. Trams often go in conjecture with the mainline street traffic and under the helter-skelter driving habits exhibited on our roads, I wont be surprised if the system turns into a nuisance overnight. The dangers associated with narrow two-wheeler tyres getting caught in rail grooves would be another concern.

But all matters aside, I would love to see a trolley-system develop in India, especially in Kerala. My first argument would be that trams are simply more cheap and environment friendly than its counterparts, the monorail, skybus or a Metro. Apart from being faster than a BRTS, trams would enhance the image of a city, reduce congestion and pollution without affecting the aesthetics of an urbanscape.

I'd imagine, in Trivandrum the best option to develop a tramline is along the evolving corridors of the new city. It is too late and impractical to manipulate with the existing roads of Trivandrum. One of my friends who works in the real estate field mentioned about a study to develop a transport system exclusively for the Vizhinjam- Technocity corridor, all along the highway. I queried about the possibilities of such a light rail system on this strip, but he raised authentic doubts about it, mostly related to the tram-automobile nexus.

A luas stop and ticket counter in Dublin

Well, if planned properly this disadvantage could well be turned into an advantage. The road divider could essentially become the tramway. It just requires around 6-8 meters for placing all the necessary infrastructure, consisting of double rail-lines, ticket counters and bays. Foot overbridges or subways may be necessary to connect the tram avenue to either sides of the road. Automated signal control would be mandatory at junctions, and the initial mayhem would resolve once the population is familiar with the system.

This tramsystem would have Mangalapuram, Technopark, Enchakkal and Vizhinjam as bases/depots and preferably have branching routes to Sreekaryam-Medical College(via Eng College), Akkulam-Ulloor Road(augmenting with the Medical College line) and Airport(New Terminal). These corridors have the advantage of being in early stages of planning & development, allowing for incorporating the adequate berth for tram infrastructure.

This system could be built and operated at one-fifth of the expenses for a similar Metro System. This would cut down significantly the need for private transport and thus help reduce congestion plaguing our cities. Moreover, with the increased emphasis on environment, CO2 emissions and greener methods of transport, trams are likely to rejuvenate itself as a fashionable choice.

Such systems are already up and running in multitudes of global metropolises like HongKong, Melbourne, Zurich or Amsterdam, and I see no reason why it wont work in our cities. I was convinced at the efficiency of this system in a megapolis like Zurich, where the penetrating and efficient web of tramlines has minimised to a great extent the problems due to vehicle population.

After the successful establishment of a tramsystem in Dublin, the Irish are expanding the system in the city, and also planning new ones in cities of Cork & Limerick. Just for point, the luas covers the Connolly-Tallaght route in Dublin in 40 minutes sharp, always, when a bus takes you there in over an hour(if you are lucky).

This Wikipedia article elaborates on this mode of transport, and also points out that cities which harbored disused tramlines are rebuilding it.

Perhaps in the next decade I would be able to coast down the Trivandrum Bypass on a modern streetrail...

Related Topic:Birth of a new city!

Friday, April 11

Two too many...

Building airports in every nook and corner of the state seems to be the new 'developmental craze' in Kerala.

Already the expat-dependent state has three airports bestowed the international tag, with nothing more than a handful of flights each to feed its overwhelming population in the middle east. A fourth one in the Communist fort of Kannur is already taking shape(in papers), with the blessings of the political party. And if that's not enough here comes the plan to build another airport, that too International, in the serene countryside in Aranmula in Central Travancore!

Not finished, yet another one is proposed in the hilly haven of Idukki!! Mind you, these are not just airstrips for local tourist planes, but fully fledged International airports!!

So very soon we could become the first state with more airports than railway stations or bus stands...Something to cheer for the state...

Or is it?

Already there is a healthy(?) competition between the three airports in Kerala for the solitary gulf pie. The only other destination served by our airports is Singapore, apart from the Arabian nations. Make no mistake, this Gulf market is a lucrative one and it is what keeps our airports going. For a state where industrial production or exports are next to nothing, having more airports vying for the same piece of bone doesn't augur well. Especially in a small state like Kerala.

Last year Kerala airports served just under 6.5 million passengers, with Cochin Airport handling nearly half of those numbers. Interestingly, these airports carried just 2.1 million domestic travellers, a measly 30% of total traffic. In a big country like India, domestic air travel statistics will be a clear indicator of the economic momentum carried by a city. And the figures expose our sorry state of affairs. Trivandrum & Cochin are beginning to ride the IT wave, and with the ongoing developmental surge in these two cities the figures are all set to be revamped. Calicut, even though being the main city serving the bigger Malabar region fares poorly in the domestic front. The unsound lobby activities as well as an unfair chronic monopoly by Air India also spelt deleterious for this north Kerala airport.

This all means that our airports are still struggling to find their feet in the commercial aviation market. Building two more airports would only help in impeding their growth, and this would further retard the state's economic progress instead of augmenting it.

First things first, a new airfield is no magic-carpet to fly in more passengers. It is the airlines that bring in customers and being most optimistic I see nobody other than Air India touchdown at Kannur or Aranmula, that too within the next decade. Remember, even Calicut saw a foreign Int'l carrier other than Srilankan Airlines, only in 2008. And how could we expect domestic carriers to break even on these new sectors with poor economic background? Arguably Kannur has a mushrooming textile industry, all right...but even an established mega textile-industrial center like Coimbatore struggles to maintain a good airline load factor. That leaves Tourism as the final straw for the Kannur airport.

The proposed airport at Aranmula is also expecting to cash in on the enormous no of Keralites in middle east and also in Europe & the US. Well, it remains to be seen if Lufthansa or United Airlines would zoom in on Aranmula anytime before this century. Apparently, Lufthansa which operates from all 6 metros of India has landing permission in Cochin, the next obvious choice, but is still holding back from landing here. And unto this day, barring a few reports here and there nobody has made any worthy efforts for a direct Kerala -US/Europe flight.

Under the Airport Infrastructure Policy of 1997, an additional airport within an aerial radius of 150km of an existing airport is not permitted. A sensible directive, but as usual waived under political pressure. The proposed Kannur airport is just under 80km from Calicut Airport and 125km from Mangalore International Airport. Aranmula, too lies within 100km from Trivandrum and Cochin.

God forbid, we will soon have airports at Palakkad, Punalur, Perintalmanna and where else? Think about it, even Switzerland, a wealthy nation double the size of Kerala with showcase cities like Geneva, Zurich and Bern has only 8 Int'l airports(including 2 hubs for Swissair).

Isn't there a better channel to spend public money other than wasting it on such political drain holes??