Thursday, 12 May 2011

Utopia or Solution?

Metro Train in Kathmandu - Utopia or Solution?

It is time we did something to resolve the traffic gridlock of Kathmandu. An option is outlined in this writing with an intention to initiate further discussion. National news media last week reported that 16 international firms bided for the feasibility study to operate metro train in Kathmandu. Residents of Kathmandu will be keenly watching how this feasibility study unfolds and the project progresses in the days to come.

About 5 years ago, I scribbled an article putting together my thoughts about the concept of sub-ground railway network to address the ongoing and future traffic congestion of Kathmandu. However, every time I thought of publishing it, the idea somehow seemed so disconnected and distant from the reality of contemporary socio-economic and political climate of Nepal that the whole concept seemed fictional. The idea of a project like this still sounds remote from reality. However, the scale of the problem we have in our city begs for some immediate actions. Skepticism should no longer deter healthy debate on creative solutions. With this recent development about the metro train, I now find it timely to share how it all can develop in the future – Kathmandu with an underground rapid transit system!

A Hypothesis for the Future
One day in Kathmandu sometime in the future … Putalisadak, one of the major streets of Kathmandu

Every vehicle is following road rules; traffic is free flowing without honking. An old lady, in her seventies, is about to cross a road at the intersection. She forgets to check the incoming traffic; must be her age. The approaching vehicle carefully slows down, stops, and the driver gives way to the lady to cross the street. While crossing the road … a faint and distant yet powerful rumble shakes the ground underneath. It isn’t an earthquake; it is Kathmandu’s beloved metro train. The official name for the sub-ground rail system is the Greater Kathmandu Metro System (GKMS).

The Network of GKMS
Commuters in Kathmandu these days reach their destinations safely on time. GKMS carries seventy-five out of hundred commuters of the city every day. That means the road traffic and the pedestrians could afford to enjoy cooperation rather than competition for urban space. The metro network has completely changed the face of our city. It is one of the testaments to this metropolis’ ever-expanding size, livability, and most importantly success. Thanks to the reliable service and extensive network of the rapid transit system throughout the greater Kathmandu. Kathmandu has now sprawled – Geographically greater Kathmandu covers a region spreading across Sundarijal-Banepa to the east, Thankot-Naubise to the west, Shivapuri-Kakani to the North, and Chovar-Dakchinkali to the south.

GKMS’s network lines serve all corners of greater Kathmandu. Our Metro extends its lines from the central station, the KK (King’s Kross), located beneath King’s Way and the former Royal Palace. Each tentacles of the network spanning out from the central station are inter connected; weaving them together like a mesh. Key centres and traffic nodes such as New Road, Kalanki and Koteshwore have major stations that open up to the bustling city life above. Next to the train lines in the tunnels run the essential services such as the reticulated drainage, storm-water, electricity and telecommunication.
The present network in greater Kathmandu is only a beginning. The Metro network will soon link Kathmandu with other railway grids of the country such as the Birgunj-Kathmandu and the East-West railway. The mighty tentacles of GKMS are also the foundation for the integration of our national land transportation system with that of China, India and beyond.

The Nuts and Bolts of Success
The success of GKMS is greatly attributed to a robust process against which the whole concept and its implementation were constantly tested. The concept of GKMS was endorsed only after a vigorous but healthy discussion of stakeholders including the general public, local bodies and the central government. The network of GKMS was completed in multiple stages. Each stage benefited from wider debate among stakeholders and public participation. The first trip of the metro began only after many years of rigorous planning and assessment of multiple options. Among the works that were undertaken involved a feasibility study. This study analyzed, in great detail among many matters, our current and future transportation demand, growth trend of the city, and geology. The architects of the project benefitted hugely from the global wealth of knowledge of underground and surface railway systems, including those built more than a century ago in Europe and the recently completed ones in the Asian cities.

For the proud citizens of this nation, GKMS is more than a railway. In many ways, GKMS serves the entire nation’s society and economy. Our Metro’s service contributes massively in more than just getting people from the point of origin to destination. It, of course, helps our people move; transports freight faster and safer.  Revenue collected from users is redistributed in various community initiatives throughout the nation. It also generates significant employment at various levels. Right from its concept stage GKMS has brought together the creative capital of this nation, within as well as the expats. Our citizens are proud of this Nepali venture built by blood, sweat and tears of their own kind. Electricity generated from our own hydro electricity powers the nerves and veins of GKMS locomotives.

The economics of GKMS is also one of its kind. Our Metro is a public-private venture. The public has invested in it through shares and bonds. It is a contribution of the city dwellers for their beloved city. The public investment has created a healthy patronage and a feeling of ownership on behalf of our city dwellers. Of course, the economic model was subjected to a robust public process just like the whole project. Special care was taken to address the concerns of the public transport operators of the city. After sensible consultation with the individual operators and the trade unions, many of the operators now use their skills and experience to run the metro service.

Let’s Start Planning
Is this a mere utopian idea or a solution to one of our major problems of the day?

Urban planning is forward looking; cities are planned with time horizon of a few decades or beyond. Cities around the globe today are fiercely competing and planning to attract the creative and financial capital. For our cities where daily necessity such as electricity, drinking water and rubbish disposal matters, such ambitious virtue may sound ridiculous. There is no doubt that we need to sort our basic requirements first. At the mean time, we also need to explore bold concepts like the GKMS if we want our cities and the nation to catch up with the rest of the world. If we still chose the do nothing, conditions of our urban areas will get worse in the future as the cities’ resources are further stretched due to population pressure. We only need to reflect on the rapid decline of Kathmandu’s livability in the past few decades.

The layout of a city not only has great influence on how a city functions but also that on how its inhabitants think, live and move. Traffic network is the skeleton of a city’s layout. Let us have a look around Kathmandu today. The city suffers from the failure to plan for the unprecedented growth. The plight of degeneration is similar in the rest of the urban areas throughout Nepal. The Himalayan Shangri-La is asphyxiating in the stench, fumes and dust in our cities. We may still be able to revive it; but we have to act now. We cannot afford status quo anymore. Something has to be done.

GKMS in isolation is almost certain to fail. Further, it is vital to understand that a metro is not the solution to all the traffic problems of Kathmandu. It rather should be a sub set of broader sets of integrated urban renewal of our city. Urban renewal, generally speaking, addresses the maladies of unplanned urban growth in social, cultural, environmental and economic sectors of a city.

We must act now with a vision and start debating solutions such as GKMS. A commitment to deliver is a must to make this fictional locomotive a reality. The knowledge and capacity for a rapid transit project like the GKMS is out there in today’s world. There are plenty of competent Nepali professionals, within the country and around the globe, with skill set needed to plan and implement such a project.  If something like GKMS happens, we have taken a positive step towards decongesting the blocked veins of our city. If not, the city will gradually choke to death by thousand cuts. 

I can already see the tentacles of the Greater Kathmandu Metro System spreading its arms far and wide across and beneath the city of gods. 
End note: I practice urban planning in Auckland, New Zealand. Your comments and feedback are welcome. This article may be reproduced with acknowledging the author, and sending him a copy or link afterwards. I may be reached at

1 comment:

  1. BRT could be a more feasible option than a metro with the current population density of Kathmandu???