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Budget airlines, urban commuter trains gaining traction

India's budget airline IndiGo is gaining traction among the growing ranks of Indian air passengers with its affordable airfares and on-time performance. (Courtesy of Airbus)

MUMBAI -- Despite its economic growth, India is still lacking in well-developed public transportation networks in many of its cities.

     To further develop its economy, the so-called "sleeping elephant" is rushing to build an extensive web of public transportation services, including the use of budget airlines and urban commuter rail systems, all across the country.

     For years, India's underdeveloped public transportation systems have been a thorn in the side of its economy. There are more than 90 cities with a population of about 1 million in South Asia's vast subcontinent. It takes much effort to simply move from one city to another. Roads are perpetually clogged in Mumbai, Bangalore and other major cities, which causes air pollution and economic loss.

     But that is beginning to change, albeit slowly. With their competitive airfares and on-time performance, budget airlines are quickly expanding their service routes across India. Meanwhile, urban railway systems have increasingly gone into service in various cities to facilitate commuters' daily trips.

IndiGo's at the top

Indian airline companies were once bleeding red ink from high crude oil prices and excessive competition. But the recent falling oil prices have helped put their business on much firmer footing. AirAsia, which has joined hands with India's conglomerate Tata group, and other airliners have entered the Indian market, and local airline companies have added flights to regional airports.

     In particular, IndiGo -- a leading Indian budget airliner operated by InterGlobe Aviation -- controlled about 37% of the domestic air passengers in the January to November period last year, by far the leader in the increasingly tough domestic aviation market. The company made headlines last year when it placed a $27 billion order for 250 Airbus A320 airplanes.

     During a recent trip to India, this reporter boarded an IndiGo flight from Delhi to Mumbai to experience the Indian budget carrier firsthand.

     IndiGo's ground staffers were swift and appropriate in the usual services, such as check-in and passenger guidance. An Airbus A320 airplane can seat 180 passengers, all in the economy class. The seats must be a little too small for large passengers. Still, the 1 hour and 50-minute flight was a relatively comfortable one compared with low-cost carriers flying within Europe.

     Moreover, IndiGo is friendly to older passengers and physically-challenged customers. Unlike ordinary airlines, IndiGo uses a slope-like ramp, as opposed to staircases, so that even passengers in wheelchairs can easily get to the airplane door.

     Its airfares vary greatly from 2,784 rupees to 7,127 rupees ($45.07 to $115) depending on the time of a ticket purchase and departure time. IndiGo offers special tickets for Delhi-Mumbai flights in mid-March below 2,865 rupees, the price for a second-tier air-conditioned sleeper on the express train that travels between the two cities and takes about 15 hours one way.

     As a no-frills airliner, IndiGo charges for all its in-flight food and beverage items. For instance, a bottle of mineral water costs 50 rupees and a pack of sandwiches costs 100 rupees or more. Flight attendants clad in IndiGo uniforms -- in the same color used on the aircraft fuselage -- were friendly and came to take orders from passengers.

     In November, the company boasted an on-time performance rate of 89.2% at New Delhi Indira Gandhi International Airport. The domestic passenger terminal at the airport, revamped in 2009, has a number of food and retail shops, including Kentucky Fried Chicken, jewelry chain Tanishq and high-end clothing chain Fabindia. Passengers can enjoy browsing around while waiting for their flights.

     Families and business travelers were seen waiting for their flights, but there were some nervous-looking, elderly passengers who may have been about to take the very first flight in their lives. For many ordinary Indians, trains are still their first choice when it comes to long-distance travel. But the rise of budget carriers makes air travel affordable for many more Indians. Indeed, the number of air travel passengers rose by about 20% to 73 million in the January to November period last year, compared with a year earlier.

Mumbai's first urban commuter line

In Mumbai, the country's commercial hub in western India, the city's first Metro Line 1 went into service in June 2014. Currently, it travels a distance of 11.4 km from Ghatkopar, in the city's northeast suburb, to Versova, in the north, just above the north side of Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport. The railway tracks are elevated from the ground the entire way, so passengers have a view of densely-populated residential areas and commercial districts.

A Mumbai Metro Line 1 train is seen at Versova station in the northern part of Mumbai.

     Four-car trains are equipped with wide windows and an air-conditioning system. The seats are made of stainless steel for the sake of easier maintenance. A one-way ticket costs between 10 rupees and 40 rupees. Because few passengers had foods and drinks or spit while on board, the train was clean inside. This is a far cry from Mumbai's conventional commuter trains that are fully packed with passengers, including some clutching on from outside through opened doors.

     Inside the Metro Line 1, a young man who appeared to be a student started reading a thick textbook after he took a seat. While a group of female students were chatting, middle-aged businessmen were busy tapping away text messages on their smartphones. The line has an average of around 300,000 passengers a day, a small number given the fact that Mumbai has a population of 20 million. Still, nearly all the seats were full even during the daytime on a weekday.

     Mumbai's Metro Line 3 is slated to open around 2020, including its underground section. The Japanese government has agreed to extend a yen-denominated loan for this project.

     But some concerns have surfaced. The Metro Line 1 went into service three and a half years behind schedule. As construction of Line 3 will take place in urban areas, the project is likely facing various hurdles, such as land acquisitions and the relocation of residents to other areas. Such issues will most likely delay the construction schedule. 

     In addition, Mumbai launched the first phase of India's first monorail in February 2014. The monorail travels a distance of 8.9km.

Expanding rail networks

India's first urban commuter, Delhi Metro, has been in service for 13 years, bringing commuters' convenience and their train etiquette to a whole new level over the years. Analysts say the railway system has generated economic effects estimated at about 5.2 billion rupees due to eased traffic flow and other benefits. It already has established a railway network of more than 200km a year in total length, with daily passengers exceeding 2 million.

     Completion of phase 3 of the construction plan by the end of this year would extend the total length to about 330km, with a network of 240 stations. This would put the Delhi Metro on a par with the size of Tokyo's current subway system.

     The Delhi Metro has operated ad-wrapped trains, and it plans to create more food stores and commercial facilities inside its stations in stages. Moreover, it is looking to set up more platform safety doors. All these moves are aimed at offering high-quality services and facilities comparable to those in industrialized nations.

     Urban commuter train projects are also underway in other major Indian cities. In southern India, the Chennai Metro Rail launched its service in June last year. Meanwhile, a similar rail system has just started trial operations this month in the southern city of Kochi, ahead of its planned full-fledged launch at the end of 2016.

     In India's high-tech hub of Bangalore, its metro railway extended its route into the western part of the city in November last year. Other cities, such as Jaipur and Gurgaon, an industrial city southwest of New Delhi, have opened their own commuter rail services. Construction of metro railway lines is also underway in Hyderabad, Ahmedabad and other cities. Commuters in India might be looking at the dawn of a new era in transportation. 

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