Kathmandu’s metro rail plan in limbo

Kathmandu’s metro rail plan in limbo

Every urban dweller dreams of a clean city, streets free of traffic congestion, and safe and efficient transportation. However, in Kathmandu Valley, the realization of these dreams seems unlikely in the near future. 

Recently, Chiri Babu Maharjan, Mayor of Lalitpur Metropolitan City (LMC), proposed to his counterpart in Kathmandu Metropolitan City, Balen Shah, to jointly build a metro train line in the valley. While residents have long been demanding a metro line for safer and easier transit, stakeholders are hesitant to support the proposal due to its potential high cost.

To explore the feasibility of railway services across the country, the government has established the Department of Railways, which has already spent tens of millions of rupees on various studies. However, the department has yet to develop a strong framework for building a rail network or release its feasibility report. Reports from different companies are gathering dust on the department’s shelves.

Raju Maharjan, the spokesperson for LMC, said a metro rail is no longer just a dream but a necessity. According to Maharjan, LMC conducted a feasibility study on metro railways and monorails shortly after the 2017 elections. “Some consultants have already prepared preliminary reports. However, due to the high cost of building a monorail, the plan was put on hold,” he added.

The study found that operating a metro railway is feasible in Kathmandu Valley. However, a single municipality cannot undertake such a massive project alone. While LMC is willing to prepare a detailed project report (DPR), other local governments in the Valley are not yet prepared.

Maharjan added that traffic congestion caused by KMC is affecting entry points of LMC, such as Thapathali, UN Park, and Koteshwar. He believes that a metro railway is the only solution to end these congestions. Maharjan also stated that the federal government should work with the municipalities in Kathmandu to build the metro rail. If necessary, foreign assistance should be sought to develop the project, he added.

Despite LMC’s proposal to jointly build a metro railway in Kathmandu Valley, KMC has remained silent on the issue. Mayor Shah has not responded to LMC Mayor Maharjan’s proposal. 

Ram Bahadur Thapa, director of KMC’s Public Construction Department, stated that KMC does not have any plans for a metro railway. Although KMC had launched a study on monorail after the 2017 elections, the chapter has now been closed. It hasn’t allocated any budget for studying monorail and metro railway in the current fiscal year. KMC closed the monorail chapter after a study conducted by a Chinese firm concluded that although monorail is feasible, it would require significant investment.

“KMC alone cannot build a metro railway, and there is confusion regarding the investment and right of way for the metro line,” he said, adding that he believes the KMC can only proceed with the plan if the federal government takes the initiative.

‘Metro rail is feasible’

The Department of Railways conducted a feasibility study for a metro railway in Kathmandu Valley ten years ago. “Many companies have prepared reports suggesting that metro railway is feasible in the valley. The studies recommend operating metro rails on routes such as Koteshwar-Kalanki, Kalanki-Maharajgunj, Maharajgunj-Koteshwar, Budhanilkantha-Suryabinayak, and Chabahil-Kalanki. However, a detailed study has not been conducted yet,” said Rohit Kumar Bisural, director general of the department.

Bisural added that although the government formed the department to conduct feasibility studies and operate railway lines across the country, all the work has been affected by the lack of a concrete plan and commitments on the part of the government. He believes that metro rail has become a necessity due to increasing population density and pressure of motor vehicles, and only a mass rapid transit can address these problems. “The local governments in the valley should lobby the federal government to conduct a feasibility study and prepare the DPR of the metro railway line,” he added.

Limited to study

There have been numerous studies on mass rapid transit in Kathmandu Valley, conducted by local governments and donor agencies, among others. However, the government has failed to develop a master plan for the same. In 2012, a Korean company completed a feasibility study for a metro railway line in the Valley, but the report has not been reviewed despite being on the verge of being phased out.

In 2017, the Government of Japan prepared a Transport Management Master Plan that proposed the construction of at least two metro lines by 2030. However, the government did not take the plan seriously. Despite multiple studies on mass rapid transit in Kathmandu, none of them have provided a detailed plan, including start and completion dates, the technology to be used, and implementing agencies.

The Department has conducted a preliminary study for a skyrail on the Maharajgunj-Ratna Park-Satdobato road, even though a consultant’s report concluded that elevated metro lines are not feasible in Kathmandu. JICA, a Korean engineering company, and the Railway Department have also conducted separate feasibility studies on metro railway, but none of the reports have been acted upon.

KMC, which conducted a study on the operation of a monorail, has remained silent on the issue of building a metro railway. In contrast, LMC has advocated for building a metro railway within the next 10-15 years. It has concluded that metro rail is the only alternative for easy and safer transportation in Kathmandu Valley which is projected to have a population of about 6m in the next 15 years.

International practice suggests that metro railways are feasible for cities with a population of at least 3m.

Estimated cost Rs 553bn

According to Prakash Chandra Bhandari, a senior division engineer at the Department of Railways, a feasibility study conducted 12 years ago estimated the cost of a metro railway in Kathmandu Valley to be Rs 553.20bn. However, due to inflation and other factors, the cost would now double if the metro rail were to be built according to the same study. The study concluded that building an underground railway in the valley was not possible, and that constructing an elevated railway would be difficult.

However, Aman Chitrakar, the spokesperson for the Department of Railways, argued that an underground metro railway was possible in Kathmandu, but acknowledged the need for a standard clearly specifying how deep ownership of land and property would be valid. Chitrakar also noted that it was already late to address the issue, as many big buildings have already started building multi-storey parking underground.

In February 2021, the Department of Railways assigned a Chinese consultant to prepare a detailed project report (DPR) for the proposed Satdobato-Rantapark-Maharajgunj line, but the consultant encountered problems in the initial phase of its study and is not currently doing any work. Bhandari stated that the consultant’s work has been stopped because it could negatively impact the valley’s cultural significance, geology, and beauty.

One obstacle to building an elevated metro line is the requirement for roads to have a width of 22 meters, whereas many roads in the valley are only 12 meters wide. For example, the Lagankhel-Satdobato section is only 12 meters wide, and the Lalitpur Metropolitan City (LMC) has stated that it would not be possible to construct an elevated railway line in this section as it could disrupt the Rato Machhindranath Chariot procession. Bhandari added that widening the narrow roads to accommodate an elevated metro line was also not feasible.

Despite the Department of Railways extending the study timeframe until February 2023, no progress has been made in addressing these obstacles. Chitrakar suggested that building an underground metro line would require a national consensus.

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