Metro rail systems are emerging from the pandemic’s shadows, but businesses face long Covid 

File image of commuters maintaining social distance in Delhi Metro (File image: Twitter/@OfficialDMR)

File image of commuters maintaining social distance in Delhi Metro (File image: Twitter/@OfficialDMR)

In Lucknow, FM radio channels have been airing an unusual advertisement, wooing passengers back to metro rail travel, over the last few months. Across the country, metro rail public transport systems had been hit badly by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Over the last few months, however, some metros have been emerging from the shadow of COVID-19. In September and October, Lucknow Metro and Chennai Metro ferried around 70 percent to 90 percent of the passengers they had carried during the pre-pandemic period.

But, the Delhi Metro and Bengaluru Metro are still emerging from the pandemic slump, with traffic levels still at half the numbers recorded in pre-pandemic times. This is partly because of pandemic triggered rules, including physical distancing norms affecting capacity utilisation, continuation of the work-from-home (WFH) model by many employers, and people preferring to use private vehicles due to the fear of coming into close contact with virus carriers.

Even those using public transport systems may be opting for open window modes such as buses or pooled cabs or private car pools with known people as the virus is known to be highly transmissible in closed spaces, feel experts.

After-effects of the pandemic

In October, Delhi Metro, the largest metro network in the country, which traverses across Delhi and the adjoining cities of Gurgaon, Faridabad, Noida and Ghaziabad, clocked an average of around 30 lakh passenger journeys per day. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, it used to witness an average of 60 lakh passenger journeys per day, according to Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) data shared with this writer.

Passenger journey — a concept different from number of passengers — is arrived at by multiplying the number of passengers with the number of different lines used by each passenger. So, if a passenger uses two metro rail lines between origin and destination — then it is counted as two passenger journeys.

The ridership would have been higher if not for restrictions that barred people from standing and travelling in the metro till a few days back, feel Delhi Metro officials.

To prevent overcrowding, which could potentially lead to a resurgence in infections, the city has put in place regulations that bar people from standing and travelling in the Metro. This came about after Delhi faced a devastating second wave of COVID-19 in April and May.

Before the pandemic hit and upended public transport systems, it was a common sight to see commuters standing or at times even squatting on the floor (though squatting was not permitted) of Delhi Metro coaches while travelling.

“The current level of passengers is due to restrictions and not the real indication of ridership,” said Anuj Dayal, spokesperson, DMRC, days before the Delhi Disaster Management Authority (DDMA) partially relaxed norms, allowing 30 people to stand in a metro coach. DMRC believes that once restrictions are fully lifted, ridership will be back to pre-Covid levels.

Metro rail systems in other cities are also struggling, most times even without stringent physical distancing norms. Factors such as the WFH shift, particularly in technology-intensive sectors, are hurting the business of metro systems in general and IT capital Bengaluru in particular.

The metro rail system in Bengaluru saw a ridership of 59.95 lakh passengers in September, which was 50 percent of the pre-Covid passenger level recorded in September 2019 (1.19 crore), according to Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation (BMRC) data. “The WFH culture in the IT sector is taking a toll on the business of Bengaluru’s mass rail system,” an official said.

The metro rail system in Bengaluru has also seen a significant uptick in use of smart cards, which passengers have been preferring over tokens. About 72 percent of passengers used smart cards in September against 62 percent in the comparable period in pre-pandemic times, despite token sales being permitted a few months back.

Light at the end of some tunnels

Ridership numbers in metros of other cities are inching closer to pre-Covid levels. Chennai Metro Rail saw over 29.69 lakh passengers in October, which was about 91 percent of the passenger count (32.48 lakh) in October 2019, according to Chennai Metro data. Ridership in Chennai Metro has also recovered on a sequential basis from 18.46 lakh in July, the first full month of service after the resumption of service.

Lucknow Metro has seen ridership rise to 72 percent of pre-Covid levels (around September-early October) after running advertisements on local city media to woo back customers, particularly office-goers using three-wheelers and cabs, said Sushil Kumar-Director-Operations, UP Metro Rail Corporation.

Kumar told this writer that on November 21, Lucknow Metro ferried over 64,000 passengers, crossing the pre-Covid daily average of 62,000 passengers, indicating the advertising strategy is working.

Globally, too, metro-rail systems are facing passenger hesitancy. Singapore’s public transport ridership — comprising metro rail and buses — is at 60 percent as of September, according to media reports. Also, Singapore has seen an increase in preference for privately owned vehicles.

The trend is the same in many US metro rail systems, including Chicago, Washington and Los Angeles, where there has been a drop in ridership across cities from pre-pandemic levels due to telecommuting and a preference for private vehicles.

Ticket revenue, station retail businesses hit

Even though fewer passengers are travelling, those taking the metro are travelling longer in Delhi, indicate data. However, revenues from passengers and ticketing have plunged.

In October 2021, the daily average revenue from ticketing was around Rs 6 crore. This is against a daily average revenue of around Rs 9.5 crore in pre-pandemic times, according to Delhi Metro. Bengaluru saw revenues drop to Rs 14.37 crore in September, less than half the Rs 31.52 crore in September 2019.

Revenues from rentals, retail outlets and other real-estate sources in the metro station property ecosystem, too, have suffered a major blow, as fewer people travel in metros and those who do so avoid eating out or spending money at mass transit locations.

Delhi Metro has already lowered rents for businesses occupying its premises, hoping to retain existing businesses. “We anticipated the situation at the beginning of the lockdown and engaged with the vendors to find an amicable solution such as adjusting rents, etc. As a result, most of our licensees are continuing. Our attempt is to retain all of them,” says Dayal.

It will not be an easy task. This writer found Akshardham station wore a forlorn look, with some crowd-pulling shops such as Miniso and Market 99 shut, leaving behind empty unadorned walls. The reason for vacation was not independently verified.

Snack outlets at Rajiv Chowk station — usually a crowded junction — and other nearby locations say they have seen business dwindle to 25-50 percent of the value of pre-pandemic sales levels, with some staff yet to be called back for work.

Lucknow Metro is also facing significant challenges in recouping non-fare revenue from property development. Eateries and cafes at metro stations in Lucknow are a long way from recovering from the pandemic-induced business meltdown.

“Revenues from property development are going to take a long time to recover. Most of the shops are food outlets and getting people to change their behaviour towards eating from outlets will be difficult,” said Kumar.

Amid this business lull in metro ecosystems, some unexpected but small streams of revenue from passengers have opened up due to the pandemic. For instance, between the last week of June and October, Chennai Metro penalised 462 passengers for travelling without masks and collected Rs 92,400 in penalties.

Fare Play 

Faced with lower ridership revenues, metro rail systems globally are tweaking fares in varied directions to either bring back customers or shore up revenues from existing ones.

Cities in the US are planning discounts to woo back passengers, according to a Bloomberg report of October 25. Chicago has proposed to slash mass transit fares to attract more people to use the metro rail, Los Angeles is even considering a total fare waiver for mass transit, while Washington DC and San Francisco are offering select discounts. However, Singapore has decided to increase mass rapid transit charges with effect from December 26.

In India, Delhi Metro has approached the Centre and State governments to compensate for the losses. “DMRC has been writing to the government of India, National Capital Territory of Delhi, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh regarding the compensation of its operational losses from time to time. The last such communication has been sent to the four governments on October 1, 2021. We are hopeful of a decision on this issue in the days to come,” Dayal told this writer recently.

The total operational loss incurred by DMRC in 2020-21 was Rs 1,761.23 crore, and as per the terms and conditions in place, the respective government authorities have been requested for payment. DMRC also said that it does not expect its expansion plans to be hit by the revenue fall.

As to whether losses in Delhi Metro would lead to a reset in repayment clauses to the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), which has provided a considerable amount of funding to Delhi Metro, DMRC said it did not have any such update.