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Imagine you noticed, one fine morning, a big crack in one of the concrete pillars that support the apartment you have rented. What would you do? Most likely, you would phone your landlord and ask him to get the damage to the concrete pillar checked and repaired. And, if necessary, the landlord will quickly move you to a different apartment until the repairs are completed to your satisfaction.Something similar has happened to the Delhi Airport Metro Express, which was set up to operate the 22-kilometre airport line connecting New Delhi with the newly built Terminal 3 of Indira Gandhi International Airport. Yet, the response of the organisations involved was somewhat different, with consequences that are potentially dangerous for the way the country plans to manage its infrastructure sector in the days to come. Sometime in June this year, the operators of the line noticed a few cracks in the pillars... Read more...
that support the elevated section of the tracks. Even prior to that, however, commuters had noticed that the trains on the route had begun moving slowly and the ride from New Delhi to the airport took much longer than the promised 18 minutes. So, what did the operators of the airport line do? Remember that the Delhi Airport Metro project was implemented on a public-private partnership (PPP) model. This meant that while the civil works for viaducts, tunnel and stations were undertaken by Delhi Metro Rail Corporation, or DMRC, everything else, including its operation, was under the charge of Delhi Airport Metro Express Private Limited, whose shareholders are Reliance Infrastructure Limited (95 per cent) and Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles, S A of Spain (five per cent). Since DMRC built the physical infrastructure for the project, it could not disclaim its responsibility. A joint inspection by DMRC and the concessionaire of the project was done. It became clear that the safest option was to suspend train services until necessary repairs were completed and all associated safety concerns addressed.Many other things had already happened to make the matter more complicated. In May, according to some reports, DMRC expressed its discomfort with the manner in which the airport line was being operated. A month later, the operator conducted its own investigation into the reported cracks in the concrete girders and found that running the train service was not safe. If the speed of the airport line slowed considerably in the few weeks before its eventual closure, it was due to the realisation that the cracks could lead to an accident if the trains ran on its usual speed of around 100 kilometres per hour.What stopped the operator or DMRC from immediately suspending service once at least one of them knew of the cracks and their likely consequences? It is the PPP model, with unclear responsibilities fixed on the various stakeholders, that caused such negligence — an act that could have led to an accident killing many people. If the operator stopped services unilaterally, it was in danger of incurring DMRC’s wrath — which, though responsible for only the civil construction, would have asked for a thorough inspection before agreeing to the suspension of service. That is precisely what happened, even though several days were lost.Worse was to follow. Even though DMRC and the Delhi Airport Metro Express managements knew of the cracks, they felt they needed somebody else’s approval before shutting the airport metro service. The Delhi chief minister was informed of the potential danger of running the service with the cracks. There was no decision yet. Then the matter was taken up at the level of the ministry of urban development, which oversaw such mega transport projects, and its minister, Kamal Nath, was briefed about the problem. The airport line shut from July 8 only after such high-level meetings and deliberations at the ministerial level took place. On an issue as serious as the safety of commuters, why would the managements of DMRC and Delhi Airport Metro Express wait for ministerial consent?There are other issues of concern. Who was responsible for maintaining the tracks, tunnels and viaducts constructed for the airport line? Did the PPP model used clearly identify the responsibilities of the operator and the provider of the physical infrastructure? Remember what happened to British Rail a few decades ago when its railway tracks were handed over to one entity, while the responsibility of running the railway service was vested with another? The quality of tracks deteriorated owing to poor maintenance and less accountability, while the frequency of accidents rose along with a marked fall in the standard of railway operations.The problem faced by the Delhi Airport Metro Express was somewhat similar. The physical infrastructure was built by DMRC, but the airport line was operated by a different company. In such a situation, it is necessary to have clearly outlined roles and responsibilities for all stakeholders. Without such clarity, the PPP model in transport projects can play havoc with safety and the quality of service. With more metro lines being taken up using the PPP model, the government should lose no time in enforcing a contract among all stakeholders in such projects. If a householder can fix such responsibilities on the landlord through a simple contract, there is no reason why the government cannot ensure this in mega transport projects that affect the lives of thousands of commuters.