Delhi digs deep to ease pollution

India’s capital made tracks into the future on Sunday when its first underground trains began to run.

Designed to cut pollution and improve life for 14-million people crowded into the traffic-choked capital, the Delhi metro has been running an 18-stop overground service since March.

The underground service connects Delhi University to Kashmere Gate, one of the main bus terminals. By next September, another 23-station underground line will be opened, linking the main shopping district and the commuter belt, months ahead of schedule.

The metro is the first serious attempt to check traffic levels on India’s congested roads, with the aim of cutting air pollution by half in three years. Delhi vies with Mexico City as the world’s most polluted capital and two-thirds of air pollution comes from traffic.

The city plans to have nearly 64km of metro running by December 2005 with a capacity of two million passengers a day, theoretically doing away with the need for 2 600 buses.

India’s capital already has nearly four million vehicles, which is more than the figure in the three other major Indian cities of Mumbai, Calcutta and Madras put together.

Environmentalists have long called for public-transport improvements in Delhi, which, thanks to a booming economy, has 10 000 new cars on the roads every month.

Fares have been set deliberately low, with the journeys costing at little as six rupees (R0,78).

The Delhi metro is being built in three phases, the first of which will be completed by the end of next year.
By 2010, the plan is for the network to link 225 stations on 248km of track and connect Delhi’s centre, Connaught Place, to outlying districts currently dominated by shopping malls and call centres.

Clean, efficient, built on time and within budget, the metro has set new standards for India’s crumbling infrastructure projects.

The service is a far cry from the overbooked, sweaty carriages of the Indian railway system, where stations double as homes for the destitute.

Instead, the metro’s air-conditioned stations are constructed from marble and glass. Commuters mingle with Indian tourists who gape at the spotless and roomy carriages. Those who have never been on an escalator approach them as if they were mined.

Modelled on the Hong Kong system, Delhi’s metro is technologically 100 years ahead of most of the London Underground.

Trains arrive every four minutes and punctuality rarely dips below 100%.

“The trains could be driven without drivers, but India psychologically is not ready for it,” said Delhi Metro Rail Corporation spokesperson Anuj Dayal.

When the overground service opened in March, more than a million people tried to use the system on the first day. The project is costing 100-billion rupees (R13,4-billion), two-thirds of it lent by Japan.

It is seen as a vital test for a government that wants to attract more than R890-billion of foreign investment in infrastructure in the next decade.—Guardian Unlimited Â

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