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Economy

Indian subway boom promises smarter urban growth

Cities seize chance to add business while easing traffic and pollution

Passengers board Delhi's Magenta Line, which was recently expanded, at the Nehru Place station. (Photo by Go Yamada)

NEW DELHI/MUMBAI -- Indian cities are vastly expanding their subway networks to reduce road congestion and gasoline consumption while encouraging commercial and residential development as urban planning catches on in the country.

This year, the Delhi Metro opened extensions to such service as the Pink Line running from the capital's northeast to its south and the Magenta Line, which connects the domestic terminal of Indira Gandhi International Airport to Nehru Place, a commercial area known as India's biggest electronics district.

The Delhi Metro now has 9 lines and 231 stations on 317 km of track, surpassing Tokyo's 304.1 km. It is expected to reach 378 km this year, on a par with New York City's 374 km, currently the world's fourth-largest subway system.

Successful partnerships between the federal and state government, as well as smooth funding, have helped Delhi surpass Tokyo's sprawling system in the mere 16 years since it opened in 2002, said S.D. Sharma, director of business development at operator Delhi Metro Rail.

About 3 million people ride Delhi's subway each day, with 3.9 million expected to board as soon as early next year. Ridership has recovered from a fare hike last year that raised the minimum cost of a ride to 10 rupees (14 cents).

According to the Japan International Cooperation Agency, roughly half of the 1.27 trillion yen ($11.2 billion) project has been financed with about 650 billion yen by Japan's government. South Korea's Hyundai Rotem, Japan's Mitsubishi Electric and Canada's Bombardier are among the companies involved in supplying the train cars.

China Railway Rolling Stock has won contracts to supply metro coaches for the western city of Nagpur, Delhi's satellite city of Noida, and the eastern megacity Kolkata.

"After the recent metro expansion, my commuting time has been reduced from an hour and a half to one hour," said Niti Vijay, a 28-year-old woman who travels from her home in western Delhi to a marketing company in the metro area's south. "The air conditioners work well and I have absolutely felt safe (in the coaches)," Vijay said. In addition to clean carriages and friendly staff, she wants more trains added to ease morning and evening congestion.

Despite a population of more than 16 million across the capital area, Delhi still does not compare to the Tokyo metropolitan area's more than 2,700 km of rail. The municipal government is expected to approve 104 km of new track as the fourth phase of the project at an estimated cost of 456 billion rupees as it closes in on Shanghai, Beijing and London's networks.

Delhi Metro is also try to grow retail and other related businesses to stabilize earnings. Currently 22% to 24% of its revenue comes from sources other than fares, below the 30% target. The Epicuria Food Mall located in the Nehru Place station has become a popular spot for young people and families thanks to such establishments as a beer hall and Japanese restaurant.

In the real estate business, Delhi Metro is constructing a 1,000-sq.-meter commercial building near the Jantar Mantar ruins in the heart of Delhi and an office building with a restaurant area above the Bhikaji Cama Place station in the south. It will also set up shops and cafes in underground stations. In addition, the subway operator is leasing about 2 million sq. meters' worth of space around its stations to private businesses.

Sharma has said Delhi Metro is ready to wade into any promising business field. It has already started to build about 800 apartments in the suburbs, for instance. The company also created a busing subsidiary this year to link distant residences to subway stations and plans to own 500 buses, including electric models.

On the newly opened lines, meanwhile, advertisements are flourishing in stations and on train cars and platform doors. Delhi Metro has sold the naming rights for 42 stations to such companies as budget airline IndiGo, Honda Motor and state-run gas supplier GAIL (India) for 4 million rupees to 20 million rupees depending on the location. Exteriors can even be repainted as desired.

The Bhikaji Cama Place metro station was colorfully redesigned by state-run gas company GAIL (India), which bought the naming rights. (Photo by Go Yamada)

But other parts of the stations, like signs on the platform and subway maps, remain noticeably unchanged as the company tries to avoid additional costs.

Delhi is expected to surpass Tokyo as the world's largest metropolitan area by 2028, according to United Nations estimates. But expansion without an organized urban design process has left Indian cities lacking in vital transportation infrastructure -- not only public transit and highways, but also footbridges, crosswalks and even parking. These factors, combined with a surge in vehicle traffic fueled by economic growth, have made Delhi one of the world's most congested urban areas.

Delhi had over 10 million registered vehicles at the end of March 2017, up 7% from a year earlier. On top of the gridlock, the capital's many old commercial vehicles also spew air pollution.

Even as the rise of ride-hailing services saps subway ridership in such cities as Paris and New York, developing countries are turning to subways and urban rail to help address congestion and carbon emissions.

India is no exception. Hyderabad, for example, boasts the country's second-largest rapid transit system behind the Delhi metro. It began operating in November 2017 with 30 km of track, which will expand to 72 km once the first phase of construction is complete. Mumbai, a major commercial center, launched an elevated railway in 2014, and work is underway on two underground lines.

Most rapid transit systems in India are built and operated by joint ventures between the central and state governments. The Rapid Metro system serving the city of Gurugram, a technology hub near Delhi, is the country's first fully privately financed urban rail network.

Some projects have suffered delays. Construction of a bullet train line linking Mumbai and Ahmedabad has stalled as the government struggles to acquire the necessary land from farmers. The launch of a rail line in Noida has been pushed back to December from September due to trouble securing power.

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