Metro Express – On the Right Track

We take a look at Mauritius’s largest infrastructure project, and how it will help transform the nation environmentally and economically.

The Metro Express Project is the largest infrastructure project the island of Mauritius has ever seen. Featuring 26km of railway, brought about through 18.8 billion rupees (roughly 500 million USD) of investment, the Metro Express Project is being funded by the government of India through a grant and a loan while being developed, overseen, managed and operated by Metro Express Ltd.

Phase One of the project, which consists of the first half of the line, has been operational since December 2019 with a 12.6km track from Port Louis to Rose Hill. When completed, the Metro Express’s final track will feature 19 stations covering 26km, with six transport hubs at strategic locations.

Larsen & Toubro (L & T) is the EPC Contractor and RITES is the project Supervisor. Metro Express Limited is leading the project as the client organisation, Developer and Maintainer.

“We also have Singapore Cooperation Enterprise supporting MEL staff in contract management as well as SMRT who also helped MEL in operations readiness for Phase 1 start of operations. We managed to achieve successful completion of Phase 1 by working collaboratively with all these key players.”

It’s an impressive project in scale and ambition, but it’s also an endeavour that has been launched to combat a serious issue.

“The main motivation for the project is that congestion is a major problem in Mauritius,” says Dr Das Mootanah, CEO of Metro Express Ltd. “We have about 600,000 vehicles for a population of 1.26 million. They love their cars, whether they’re taking them to work or to go to the beach. So, the light railway gives them a choice to promote a shift towards public transport. Our target is a 10% shift from private vehicles to public transport, and a 20% shift from buses, etc.”

The goal is not simply to reduce car use, however. This project is also set to act as a economic growth stimulus across Mauritius.

“Urban regeneration is a major driver for the project. I’ve worked in the UK on the 2012 Olympics, where urban regeneration was a by-product of the event,” Dr Mootanah explains. “In the same way, a new light rail is good for bringing about urban regeneration. It’s environmentally friendly and increases connectivity.”

While the project is not yet completed, it’s already yielding results, with the completed Phase One already commercially operational and carrying in the region of 17,000 passengers per day from the outset and 10,000 passengers a day post Covid-19 period.

Now Metro Express Ltd is focusing its attention on the construction of Phase Two, which itself has already been broken down into two parts. The first of those is an additional 2.6 km from Port Louis to Quatre Bornes, which is a major city.

“We are targeting April next year for the completion of that stage,” Dr Mootanah tells us.

Full Steam Ahead

While the Metro Express light rail is eagerly anticipated, it has taken a long time for this project to come to fruition.

“A project built around this mode of transport has been in the pipeline since the 80s and it has taken this long to get it off the ground,” Dr Mootanah recalls. “The project has faced a lot of stakeholder challenges in that time, but thanks to the Government’s current vision and strong will, we managed to officially launch the project in 2016.”

Another challenge is that, like any large-scale rail project, the Metro Express needed to build positive engagement with the owners of the land the railway would be passing through. Moreover, with Phase One in action, it is becoming easier to persuade people of the efficacy of the project.

“We managed that through communication. People can see the trains are running and the level of customer service we provide,” Dr Mootanah tells us. “We have also learned many lessons from Phase One that have been useful for us for Phase Two. “

The project has also seen a number of technical challenges, and Metro Express Ltd has had to bring the full weight of its skills to bear. But more than that, it has had to ensure that a range of people with a diverse and overlapping set of areas of expertise were able to communicate effectively.

“This project has a great deal of complexity, with lots of interfaces between entities with different mandates,” Dr Mootanah points out. “We needed a special network to get all these people together in terms of road traffic safety, utilities, wastewater, police, among others. We needed to have them all in one forum to agree on how to get into the next step.”

Work has been done in urban areas going across major cities, so to finish the first phase in less than two years has been a challenge in itself, but Metro Express Ltd has delivered results.

“Currently, we are faced with the challenges COVID-19 presents our operations with. We are implementing the usual measures in terms of cleaning everywhere, checking temperatures, and keeping communication channels open,” Dr Mootanah says. “We’re facing a broad range of challenges and we’ve only been able to address those challenges by working collaboratively and having everyone involved from the outset. We’ve had the Minister of Land Transport and Light Rail, Honourable Alan Ganoo, himself to chair a lot of meetings, and he’s closely monitoring the project. We could never have achieved what we have without this collaborative approach.”

The Track Ahead

Metro Express Ltd (MEL) has come a long way from when it was initially launched in 2016. Dr Mootanah joined MEL in the year 2018 after working for the Road Development Authority, when it was only a team of six to ten people. Today, the company has a staff of over 240 people and is still growing.

“We will be operating the full length of the railway and there are already plans to extend the network,” Dr Mootanah says proudly. “People are getting used to it. It’s looking very positive and we are looking forward to it.”

Having brought the project this far, Metro Express is also being approached by other neighbouring countries namely Reunion Island, Madagascar etc, looking to learn from our experience.

“We’re the only railway company in the Indian ocean at the moment so we have had visits from transport ministers from Madagascar and elsewhere,” Dr Mootanah says. “In the future, once we’re operational over the 26 kilometer line, we will be thinking about ways to share our knowledge with places where there are similar projects.”

Looking forward, Dr Mootanah stresses that Mauritius, and indeed the transport sector as a whole, will need a combination of solutions and collaborative working with all other transport players.

“We will be using technology to integrate different modes of transport so everyone has a place under the sun and can contribute to bringing about this intelligent transport infrastructure,” he tells us.

Dr Mootanah wants the future to be a sustainable one, which is why Metro Express Project ensured that three trees were planted for every one cut while laying the tracks, and why the company has built an eight-arpents park at the centre of the new rail network.

“We’re doing that to integrate environmental sustainability. The Ebene Recreational Park is in the middle of the network and has over 60,000 plants already,” Dr Mootanah says. “It has recently been launched and is now open to the public. The future is not just about the mode of transport. It’s a new way of life.”

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