Managing Director of the Kochi Metro Rail Limited (KMRL), Lokanath Behra

Will Loknath Behera's revival plans put Kochi Metro's finances back on rail?

Kochi: "I want to attract a minimum two lakh daily footfalls in Kochi Metro. The rest will be history.''

This was the proclamation of the new Managing Director of the Kochi Metro Rail Limited (KMRL), Lokanath Behra, when he took over the reins of the still swanky, but sagging public transport system which was built with a whopping cost of Rs.7,770-crore.

But will this dream of the former DGP and State Police Chief come true?

The metro rail may manage to chug along, as now, with less patrons. But the new MD wants to see a packed Metro everytime when it runs and for that matter, he wants 2 lakh passengers daily.

But the prospect for such a change is looking bleak by going through the available statistics we have with us. The daily loss is estimated to be Rs 1 crore. The daily passengers are only 20,000 to 25,000. Remember, before the lockdown days, the number of daily passengers was at least 65,000.

Early days

In the beginning, Kochi Metro was very dear to the people. But somewhere in the growth trajectory, there occurred some kind of public disconnect, which Behra now wants to reconnect. For this to happen, he wants to see that the imagination of the youth, senior citizens and the marginalised sections be linked with the Metro's scheme of things. He wants to have a complete overhaul. Reducing ticket rates is one thing. An attractive daily pass facility is another. Then comes passes for student's police, NCC and scout cadets. Reduction of fee on metro parking areas is also on the anvil.

He wants to see that passengers are feeling homely once entering the metro stations and its surroundings. But the moot question remains is will his grand ideas be okayed by the powers that be.

How Dubai Metro fared early

Competing with the Dubai Metro in profits or daily footfalls seems to be a tough proposition for the Kochi Metro. The average number of passengers there was 3.5 lakh when it used to run the Metro for 25 kms. Every 1.5 minute, there is one train there. There it is driverless drive. There are six coaches in a train. The distance between two stations is 1.5 km. But here, it is only one km between stations. Engine drivers man services here. There are only three coaches in a train. So, aiming for a two lakh crowd in Kochi Metro is quite unrealistic.

Realistic target

Aiming for one lakh passengers daily is realistic. Remember, the Kochi Metro had once seen 1.5 lakh footfalls per day. It was during Onam days in 2019 when the Thykoodam line was commissioned. But during that period, the return ticket was free. A 50 percent off for a two-and-fro journey was well received by the public. The timing was from 6 a.m to 11 p.m. The enthusiasm of passengers in seeing an extended line from Maharajas College station to Thykoodam also got reflected in the surge of passengers. But in later days, the footfalls dipped to 60,000. But now it went down to an abysmal 25,000 daily, resulting in a huge loss for the public career.

A slew of relaxations on the cards

Behra is focusing on a new experiment. He wants to take daily revenue to Rs 30 lakh. His logic is simple. The minimum fare is Rs 10. The maximum fare on the Aluva-Tripunithura route is Rs 60. The metro connects two towns of Aluva and Tripunithura situated in two opposite directions. The assumption is that people come from both the towns to Kochi City. So, the average distance a person travels is 15 km.

For a 15-km trip, the average fare is Rs 30. So if one lakh passengers travel daily, the revenue will be Rs 30 lakh. Another reasoning is that if more people travel through Kochi Metro, more non-ticket revenue will come to the Metro's kitty. So, reduction in fares will not only increase ticket revenue but also boost non-ticket revenue. The operation cost can be met by Rs 25 lakh received from the ticket revenue. From the non-ticket revenue, the Metro can achieve breakeven.

The rider profile

There are three types of Metro travellers. Committed riders account for 20 percent of the total passengers. The second category, around 40 percent of travellers, comprises those who frequented earlier, but are now keeping off. They left Metro for other transport services due to absence of attractive benefits. They can be brought back by introducing some sops again. The last category is those who do not have the habit of using the Metro trains. They account for another 40 percent of passengers. They will definitely start using the Metro once they feel that the train fare is attractive compared to other modes of transport.

Likely and unlikely patrons

Usually, there are five types of people who use various modes of travel. It includes the poor having income less than Rs 6,000 (students included in this category), the ordinary class, the middle class, the upper-middle class and the wealthy class. Among these groups, the first and the last categories will not opt for the Kochi Metro for their travel. So, the focus should be given on the ordinary class, the middle class and the upper middle class.

At present, there are six slabs for fares with the rates of Rs 10, Rs 20, Rs 30, Rs 40, Rs 50 and Rs 60. These should be reduced to three slabs (10-20-30-30-30). For a ticket worth Rs 60, a minimum 50 percent discount should be given. So, the rate will become Rs 30. With a 20 percent concession for Kochi 1 Card, the rate will come down again, making it equivalent to a bus ticket. This is how you can attract those who travel by bus.

Lack of beneficial offers

The Kochi 1 Card, a smart card issued by the Metro and Axis Bank, offers a 20 percent fare discount. On the trip card, there is 33 percent relaxation, but there are many riders such as allowing only two trips, ride from only one fixed point to another fixed point. All these restrictions have to go as few go on a frivolous ride these days.

Trip passes can be linked now only to the Kochi 1 Card. To do so one has to undertake KYC formality. But if this pass is converted into a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) card, one can do away with KYC formalities. Annual fee and recharge fee for this scheme should be abandoned. Trip passes can be redesigned later looking into the travel pattern of passengers.

Sops for non-peak hour ride

The non-peak time slots for the Kochi Metro are 6 to 8 in the morning and 8 to 10 in the evening. Daily-wage employees travel at this time, but they rarely board the Metro. Why not give this class a 50 percent discount on tickets? Another idea is to allow them six trips in 72 hours for just Rs 125. To attract women and elders, ticket rates can be further lowered to Rs 100 for this scheme. Later, these passengers can be lured to the Kochi 1 Card.

With the arrival of the Kochi Metro, private bus services were reduced to half, but this has affected students the most. Launching a point-to-point card (from the college to the place of residence of students) free of cost could be considered. Money can be charged for the cost of the card.

Corporate card too, an option

An RFID card valid for one month can be given to those working in the corporate world. For example, RFID cards can be issued for 100 employees of the Greater Cochin Development Authority. The money collected from them can be put in a revolving fund. When they take the Metro, money will go to the Metro's account. If not used, the money should be carried over to the next month. Many corporate firms situated along the Aluva-Pettah line can be roped in for the scheme.

Not all plans at once

Imaginative plans need not be implemented together, lest they hurt the revenues badly. A factor that spurred Kochi Metro to refrain from reducing fares is the professional image it has managed to acquire over the years.

Another season touted is that if the ticket fares are reduced it would affect the non-ticket revenue. But the reality is that with 65,000 travellers, this revenue was Rs 20 lakh daily, but now with 25,000 passengers, the non-ticket revenue is touching a mere Rs 75,000 per day. After going through the statistics, it seems that the new MD has understood the limits of slashing rates.

Another calculation of Behera is simple. If the revenue is Rs 20 lakh (Rs 20 each from 1 lakh-strong crowd) from ticket sales, then the rent charged for a tea shop on Metro premises can be hiked two times from the existing amount. Anyway, his plan is to run each new scheme for three months. Later, there will be a proper evaluation based on which it will be decided whether to continue or scrap a particular scheme.


Is the Metro for profiteering?

Even if one lakh people travel daily, it is impossible to get back the Rs 7,700 crore spent on the Kochi Metro project. Metro rails in other cities are also running at a loss. What matters is not profit alone. If you can reduce the use of 100 litres of petrol and diesel by opting for Metro travel, it will cause less environmental pollution. When roads get increasingly decongested due to the major shift of passengers to the metro trains, there will be less accidents.

How to boost non-ticketing revenue?

Akshay Kendras, Government offices and Passport Seva Kendras can all be launched on the Metro premises. Metro premises can be given to government offices for half the original rent. Floors can be constructed above the existing Metro parking areas. In Aluva, Pettah, Ernakulam North and South stations, railway ticket counters can be started. Tickets for the boat services of the Kerala Inland Navigation Corporation and Kerala Museum at Edappally can be sold through the Metro counters. When more people come to the Metro stations, more commercial establishments on Metro premises will be opened. Innovative products can also be produced and marketed by the Kochi Metro Railway Ltd ( KMRL).

The Kochi Metro should mould itself into a people' own enterprise rather than a mere fiefdom of some officials. Earlier, it had a people-friendly aura, but this appeal waned in course of time. Anyway, an effort is on to bring back people's involvement and thereby increase the revenue.

Hope Behera's dream come true by the time the city is no longer under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic.          

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