Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Light-rail De-railed

Back in early 2013, a blog entry was posted here about the history of trains in Mauritius including a charming documentary. The post was about how the original network gradually fell out of use and how a new transit system would bring back trains to the island. At the time the post was written, studies were being undertaken for feasability.

By mid-2014, the government had decided that it was feasible and the Light Rail Transit (LRT) system became an important component of the national integrated transport system. The detailed design was underway and all details available on the Ministry of Public Infrastructure website

There was to be a nearly 25km. long line with 13 stations in the main Plaines Wilhelm conurbation of Curepipe, Phoenix, Vacoas and Quatre Bornes. Much of the LRT or Métro Leger would use the alignment of the standard gauge Mauritius Government Railways’ Midland Line (which closed in 1964) and serve existing central station sites in town centres. 

At peak hour, the light rail would take one from Curepipe to Port Louis in 32 minutes through 13 stations and carry 6000 passengers per hour per direction.  It was estimated that the system would transport 96,000 passengers per day so about 10% of the total population of Mauritius.

By October 2014, it was a 37km. long line with 20 stations and all was on track. The Ministry of Public Infrastructure had called for a tender and awarded the contract to a partnership - India-based construction firm Afcons and Spanish manufacturer CAF. The Indian government rather helpfully provided a Line of Credit for the project of USD 600 million and the remaining USD 250 million was to be raised on the local market.

But then in December, the light rail came to a crashing halt. Elections were held and the incumbents decisively voted out. The new government was elected with an anti-corruption mandate and put everything on review. In January 2015, the government programme for 2015-2019 was presented and  somewhere at the bottom of the list was the item:

- New Land Transport system for rapid access and connectivity throughout the country (Decongestion Programme; shelving of Light Rail Transit project)

The LRT had been quietly abandoned in favour of more road building. 

However, as the summer of 2015 continued, February and March saw a record amount of rainfall. New roads already commissioned developed cracks and had to be closed. One was blocked by a landslide. Traffic, particularly through Port Louis, got progressively worse. What seemed most apparent to even casual observers was that Mauritius, in fact, needed both an extension of the Land Transport System i.e. roads - as well as an extension of the Public Transport System beyond only buses. It was not a case of either/or.

Images: L'Express.mu (Feb 19, 2015)
For a tiny island of only 1.2million people occupying an area of about 2000 square kilometres and positioning itself as a regional hub and economic powerhouse (the investment 'Gateway to Africa'), it does seem to be strange that a significant portion of the working population now spends nearly 2 hours a day everyday in traffic with no respite in view.

Author: Shahana Dastidar

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