METRONOMICS : An obsolete solution to an obsolete problem…

Voices have been heard for or against the ‘Metro Express’ project, which dates back to the 80s. This paper seeks to clarify various confusing definitions. Crucially, there also seems to be a lack of vision, strategy and analysis – the national debate being, as usual, hijacked by heated political standpoints, obviously to the detriment of what is best for the country’s future.
The London Underground (the Tube) is over ground in some parts. Line 1 of the Lille Metro in France is 13.5km long, of which only 8.5km is underground. The French TGV, as the Japanese Shinkansen, is a very fast inter-city ‘express’ rail network (around 500 km/h) but the Heathrow Express and Gatwick Express are both very slow in comparison. These airport shuttles are of a conventional rail design but the OrlyVal, South of Paris, is an over ground ‘metro’, i.e. light rail. It seems that the Mauritian Metro Express will be more of a tramway, the rails being on tarmac, alongside other road vehicles, as opposed to running on dedicated rail tracks. All of the above is part of the confusing debate and… irrelevant.
This author is not from the rail industry but is involved in Aviation Strategy and Planning, i.e. predicting and balancing demand (passengers) with supply (seats). Just as many believe that running an airline is just about buying aircraft, it may equally be believed that a rail project is just about acquiring the rolling stock and finding the sources of financing, with the billions involved fuelling emotions. The economic equation is, in fact, about how the capital expenditure and variable costs are to be covered by the number of passengers and at what average unit (per passenger) revenue. Estimates, when they are discussed, show a very wide range and thus do not inspire confidence. This is complicated enough per se but there is another dimension to this conundrum, a much more holistic one.
We should all embrace an efficient, electrified and non-polluting (if renewable sources are used) mass transit system, shouldn’t we? Remember the controversy elicited by the Bulk Sugar Terminal (‘Le Vrac’) in the early 80’s. Yet it was real progress. The redundancy feared from automation was thereafter mopped up by economic growth. But, far from being modern, is a rail system for the urban areas of Mauritius not already… redundant? Let us try to predict future forms of demand. By 2050, our population will have an inverted pyramid with a higher number of retirees, with completely different transport needs. Even the measures hinted at to boost our population include the settling of… more retirees from abroad. This indicates more varied, leisure, rural trips at less peak (office) hours. On the other hand, the nature of work itself is changing. Work is now becoming more and more about services (e.g. architecture, spas) or digital (anywhere, anytime) or home-based (programming, call centre agent) or requiring more international travel or all of the above. Tourism is often mentioned as potentially our first industry. If we do break the 2-million tourists barrier, it will call for a stronger transport network from the airport to all of our coastal regions, not the traditional Curepipe - Port Louis corridor. The gradual relocation of offices (private and even government) away from Port Louis (MCB, Ebene, car showrooms) and various shopping malls dotted around the country have already changed the shape of demand for transport. This trend is set to continue.  After the 10th Porlwi-by-light, perhaps we will have Tamarin-by-night one year and Mahebourg-by-night the next to strengthen our own cultural identity through our rich heritage from the inside.
The above constitutes the various forms demand can take – and how it can evolve. In terms of supply, a modern economy accepts and benefits from Uberisation (from Uber, an on-demand car transport service using private drivers and their cars, enabled through an App on smartphones with the passenger’s credit card details already loaded for automatic payment). Conventional, heavy systems are being challenged by very modern and slick, digital start-ups: micro-electricity generation from private producers (from wind, solar, tides, bagasse, waste) and even households instead of large, government-owned fossil-fuelled generators; Facebook instead of newspapers; Twitter and Snapchat instead of emails; Uber instead of buses, taxis and even private car ownership; Netflix instead of MGM, Apple Music instead of EMI, instead of Tesco or Carrefour, etc. One could even argue that Mauritius invented Uberisation before Uber with private tuition replacing schools but one should not be too cynical… Tesla, producing a few thousand electric cars monthly, is now worth more (on the New York Stock Exchange) than General Motors, producing around a million cars monthly. Why? Because Tesla is the future and GM is the past. So, with our various lobbies and political clientele, can we even have an Uber debate in Mauritius? We are not talking Silicon Valley here: Uber is already present in the Middle East (even Saudi Arabia, let us not even mention Dubai) together with a local start-up Careem. Iran has set up their own local version, called Snap.
Maybe a short but very efficient Metro or Tram line within the most populous areas but complemented by a fleet of electric buses serving the whole country would be the ideal solution. Buses are more fungible and capacity can be reviewed and re-deployed easily based on demand. Both the volume and nature of demand for transport are set to evolve greatly within the next 30 years. Funny how politicians concentrate only on projects involving billions to… serve the country, whilst shying away from the real, fundamental debate. The opportunity to modernise the country through the flexible nerves of a critically efficient transport system is being lost. A great opportunity has been missed to design a holistic ‘Plan d’Aménagement’ for the whole country, involving surveys, spontaneous debates and feedback from the population using the facilities social platforms now offer. The current project, as it stands, is an obsolete solution to an obsolete problem. At best, it is a partial solution to a partial problem.