Pie in the sky

The skybus, currently being test run in Goa, can revolutionise city travel. Prashant Sood gives an update on the brainchild of B. Rajaram of Konkan Railway.

Skybus on test track at Madgaon, Goa
Skybus on test track at Madgaon, Goa

All it takes to move from the underground to the overhead is a bit of big thinking. That’s what B Rajaram, Managing Director of Konkan Railway Corporation, did and he came up with the skybus. The development promises to transform urban travel adding a new, elevated level to mass transportation which has already been redefined by the Metro. The skybus may be the answer to all those traffic bottlenecks and vehicular pollution that are a feature of our cities.

Konkan Railway’s skybus technology, on trial in Madgoan, Goa, is awaiting the official nod of Central authorities to proceed beyond at the 1.6-km test track.

B. Rajaram
B. Rajaram

The skybus is a modified rail with overhead tracks on the underside of a concrete structure at a height of about 10 metres from the ground. The concrete lane is supported by columns rising from the central verge of existing roads. The sleek 9.5-metre coaches can go up to 100 kmph. The scheme does not envisage crossings as a traverser would be used to shift the sky coaches from one track to another.

Rajaram, who has conceived and developed the technology, says that in metros, skybus can eliminate trucks as it is capable of carrying containers too. The skybus is also free from risks of derailment. "The skybus would run at a fourth of the cost of underground metro and half the cost of an elevated metro," he says, adding that the risk of derailment is almost nil.

The air-conditioned travel in the skybus, with its wide windows, and gliding comfort, could be superior to any other mode of city travel. The skybus coaches being used for trials on 1.6 km test-track in Goa have been made by the city’s small-scale industry. "Every part of the skybus is made by small entrepreneurs. Ordinary men of our country are capable of producing something for the world," Rajaram says.

The skybus does not need long stations. Being an overhead system, the skybus metro does not require huge land acquisitions for construction.

Rajaram says that only a rail-based mass transit system over existing roads can solve problems of urban congestion and pollution. "Roads cannot improve beyond a point. When you have more fly-overs, the congestion gets transferred to them." The capital on the skybus project, Rajaram maintains, can be recovered in five to seven years after which residents of the city are entitled to free travel after a one-time payment of Rs 15,000. "The skybus project is financially sustainable," he asserts.

Several state governments and cities in the country have evinced interest in skybus. Konkan Railway has invited bids for technology licensing of the skybus from private parties. The successful bidders will be required to take up the projects on the finance build operate transfer (FBOT) basis. They will be required to pay Rs 5 crore royalty per kilometre as a one-time payment to the KRCL.

However, there is still some way before the skybus becomes a reality. The Ministry of Urban Development has constituted a high-level committee chaired by P V Indiresan, former Director, IIT, Chennai, to look into the techno-economic feasibility and safety of the skybus system. The committee has on board senior officials from the CPWD, Ministry of Railways, RDSO, RITES and CSIR besides the Commissioner, Railway Safety.

Though Indiresan finds parts of the skybus system interesting, he is not yet willing to make an authoritative comment. "Every system will have its advantages and disadvantages and every new concept faces some teething problems. Though we want to support the skybus system in all possible ways, a considered comment can be made only after proper evaluation," he says. Other experts in the committee are yet to give their reports to Indiresan. The final report is expected in about a month.

There is also the question of which law will be applicable to the proposed mode of travel as it does not entirely fit into the rules marked for tramway or railways.

Not too happy with this debate, Rajaram says that the country should get out of rule-based system of the colonial period and make its own rules. "It is time we made our own rules. In five years, we can make 20 Singapores," he says.

A "freak accident" in September last year in which one person was killed forced the KRCL to review its safety systems. "Seventy kilometres of trial run has taken place. All safety norms have been followed," Rajaram points out.

Initially, private companies, including Tata and Jindals, showed keenness in the skybus project by investing Rs 7 crore in the prototype. Later, the Railway Ministry authorised KRCL to spend Rs 50 crore to put up the test track. "Market exists in the world for financially viable urban transport and the country stands to gain," he says.


Dedicated technologist

The Managing Director of Konkan Railway Corporation Limited (KRCL), B Rajaram, who will retire at the end of this month unless given an extension by the government, presented the paper on the concept of skybus at a world congress on railways in 1989.

An M Tech from IIT Kaharagpur, Rajaram became Managing Director of the KRCL in 1997 after serving the corporation in several critical posts during the eight-year construction period of Konkan Railway. He presented the skybus technology to the government in 2000-01. President APJ Abdul Kalam, who was then Scientific Advisor to the Prime Minister, is among the country’s top technocrats who found the skybus proposal technically sound.

In total, 17 worldwide patents have been filed for various innovative technologies assigned by B Rajaram to the KRCL. Three US patents (including the skybus and self-stabilising track system) have been registered. Rajaram has encouraged the KRCL employees to get karate training as part of efforts to evolve a different security concept. The Corporation has developed systems like networked anti-collision device, railway software package and rolling stock health analyst.

The KRCL hopes to earn royalties of about Rs 10,000 crore over a business plan of Rs 1,00,000 crore.

After the commissioning of Konkan Railway in 1998, a lot of technical staff became redundant. Rajaram evolved a policy where the surplus staff was trained for jobs like those of station master. No one was axed.

It is felt that disturbing the present status of the KRCL and merging it with the Railways may not augur well for the research being done by the corporation. With the KRCL completing 15 years in July, the government is to take a decision on the merger soon.