How Metro Express Limited is delivering the country’s first ever light rail system, a game-changing new network which is already opening up opportunities for Mauritian people
There is no doubt that Mauritius represents a tremendous economic success story since independence in 1968.
Now an upper-middle income country, the island state is home to 1.3 million people who continue to drive strong GDP growth, 2018 recording a 3.8 percent increase with a similar level of expansion expected to be confirmed for 2019.
Indeed, Mauritius is well on its way to becoming a high-income nation as it transitions to a knowledge-based, innovation-driven economy, although such rapid progression has brought some less desirable side effects.
Once of the most visible is the proliferation of cars on the island’s road network. Today there are around 550,000, almost one for every two citizens on what is a relatively small landmass, and the figure is rising by around five percent a year.
And there are economic costs too, with traffic congestion expected to cost the Mauritian economy around MUR 10 billion ($260 million) annually by 2030.
The solution? Encourage more citizens to make use of alternative, sustainable forms of transport.
This is where Metro Express comes in. Under construction since 2017, it is the country’s first ever light rail transit (LRT) system and marks the first investment in train travel since the old lines were closed in the 1960s.
Spanning 26 kilometres, once finished it will connect major urban centres from Curepipe to Port Louis via 19 new stations, six of which serving as multimodal transit hubs.
“This absolutely is a game-changer for Mauritius,” says Dr Das Mootanah, CEO of Metro Express Limited (MEL), the organisation spearheading the project.
“There are numerous challenges facing Mauritius which we are tackling.
As well as congestion, we have also seen increasing numbers of road traffic accidents, about 150 on average annually, so building alternative modes of transport is a matter of public safety.
“The development will also have an aggregate effect on the economy.
By building infrastructure and transport hubs through the five major towns, it will act as a catalyst for incremental growth and generate opportunities for entrepreneurs as well as job seekers.
“Mass transit systems also have inherent social benefits.
People will have a chance to get out of their cars and have a conversation while they are travelling either individually, in groups or with their families.
In fact, we have already observed this on our trains, especially on weekends, where young families often go out in the evening for leisure from Rose Hill to Port Louis.”
As Dr Mootanah indicates, Metro Express is already operational along phase one from Rose Hill to Port Louis, transporting more than 850,000 passengers to date.
This covers around 13 kilometres with 13 of the 18 trains already delivered, the rest of the line anticipated to be completed by the end of 2021.
Another socioeconomic benefit is the fact that the construction and operation of the LRT network itself continues to generate direct employment opportunities.
Metro Express Limited employs hundreds of people in areas such as project management, engineering, HR, finance, marketing, procurement, station operations, ticket inspection, train maintenance and more.
Meanwhile, major contractor Larsen & Toubro (L&T) employs more than 2,000 people across multiple building sites.
A collaborative journey
Dr Mootanah is the first to admit, however, that the project has brought with it some enormous challenges.
“This is among the most complex infrastructure development ever carried out in Mauritius,” he explains. “We had several challenging aspects and we quickly implemented exceptional and collaborative measures to achieve our objectives.
“For instance, passenger safety and customer service are two major themes in whatever we do at Metro Express Limited. Therefore we have several levels of assurance already embedded in our systems and way of working.”
The first involves thorough safety audits conducted by Larsen & Toubro as part of its contract, covering tests on the rail track and surrounding infrastructure, with train vehicle supplier CAF also conducting fitness tests on all units delivered to Mauritius.
Additionally, the Quality, Health, Safety, Environment and Risk Patrol is an exercise that brings together representatives of several bodies (including MEL, L&T and supervisory partners) on site each week to supervise the work and control environmental, health and safety aspects.
Safety was also a major consideration during the design phase of Metro Express, while global rail operator SMRT has been providing training to MEL staff and is present during testing exercises to ensure safety policies are properly implemented.
Further, authorities such as fire and rescue and the police, as well as ministerial authorities, have been collaborating closely throughout the project’s development.
Dr Mootanah also explains how collaboration with the public has been critical to the smooth delivery of the project, citing how L&T has set up information desks to dispense information and receive feedback from the public.
“Communication and engagement with the public was also a very interesting challenge to take on given the complexity of the scheme and the multitude of different partners involved,” he says. “We are constantly on the go and continue to engage proactively with the public.
“Nevertheless, it has been and still is a very rich experience. It is a learning exercise, especially for our communication team. But as you know, communication is about understanding your audience. In addition, it is now a 24-seven process with growing number of Mauritians on social networks.
“As it is a national project, people are passionate and share different opinions. This has allowed us to broaden our experience and competence.”
Likewise, communication and cooperation with suppliers has been equally fundamental to the success of Metro Express to date, Dr Mootanah praising the contributions of all companies involved so far, from major contractors such as L&T to other partners including Labolink, Frankpile International and Sika.
Looking ahead, such relationships will continue to be vital in importance as the project nears completion, and with the Mauritian government considering plans to extend the network east to west across the entire island, an exciting period lies ahead.
So much so that Dr Mootanah and Metro Express are encouraging other African nations to follow suit, the CEO concluding by reiterating the potential rail has to connect people and deliver prosperity.
“We have had ministers from Seychelles and delegations from Reunion Island and Madagascar visit the project to see what they can learn for their future transport infrastructure projects.
“Collaborating with African countries will be important for us. We should embrace our African identity and, in the future once this project is delivered, we will look to step up cooperation and collaboration with other African countries.
“I was recently in Madagascar which has such huge potential but is underdeveloped. It gives you an idea of how much can be done in Africa.”