Wednesday, February 16, 2011

TREST -Trivandrum Engineering Science and Technology Park

Without much ado, another chapter in the illustrious history of Kerala's top engineering institution, the College of Engineering Trivandrum, was made today with the inauguration of the Trivandrum Engineering Science and Technology (TREST) Park at the College.

TREST will act as a center for Research & Development in fields related to Engineering and Technology by providing research space and supporting facilities and foster active cooperation between academia and industry to foster and incubate new ideas. This facility is being set up along the lines of the first institution-linked R&D park in the World, at Stanford. As far as I know, TREST will be the second one of its kind in South India after the facility at IIT Madras.

TREST has already attracted interest from technology & engineering giants such as Accenture, Infosys and Mahindra & Mahindra. Infosys CMD and one of Trivandrum's proudest sons, Kris Gopalakrishnan, was the guest of honor at the inauguration which was also attended by senior representatives from industry and academia.

TREST will leverage the presence of Technopark, Technocity,  IIITM-K, Kerala University, C-DAC and ISRO, all within a few kilometers of the park. There are a dozen or more world-class R&D and educational institutions in and around the city ranging in diverse fields ranging from biotechnology to high performance computing. This is a strategic advantage which is probably pretty unique in India, except maybe for Bangalore. The sheer impact of such a park is best exemplified by the biotech/clean-tech/technology cluster that has grown up around MIT, right outside my window, which is now considered the single most important center of R&D in the whole wide World and has given birth to several Billion-dollar biotech/genetics companies such as Genzyme, AmGen and Biogen.

This new facility has the potential to become one of the most important R&D hubs in India and will help to further consolidate Trivandrum's position as a knowledge center on the global stage. Hopefully, it will follow in the footsteps of Technopark which has emerged as the top technology incubator in the country. TREST will offer R&D facilities including access to CET's sprawling network of lands, incubation space, business-support facilities, office space, food outlets, guest rooms and so much more. Already, a budget of Rs 50 Crores has been allocated to the park, with Rs 10 Crores sanctioned in this budget to kick off operations within the CET campus.

Stay tuned for more, a lot more from TREST in the years to come.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

TDF meets the PM

If you want something done, better knock on the boss' door.....and that is precisely what TDF has done, in association with a number of other organizations with similar interests in promoting the development of our Capital city. Along with representatives of the Trivandrum Chamber of Commerce, Trivandrum Agenda Task Force and GTech, TDF's President, Ram, met the Hon' Prime Minister of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh and submitted a memorandum outlining top priority initiatives where the PM could make a real difference.

The details of the joint memorandum are available on the TDF website but the top agenda items were:

1. Development of Highway (NH 47) from Kazhakkoottam to TN Border
2. Extension of STPI Tax Benefits
3. Development of Vizhinjam International Transhipment Container Terminal
4. Development of Kochuveli Railway Terminal
5. High Court Bench
6. User Fee at International Terminal in Trivandrum

The Prime Minister's response was very positive and he has promised to take positive steps at the earliest. TDF will be following this up through the offices of the MPs representing Trivandrum as well as with the State Government. Let's hope for the best!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Volte-face on Volvos!

Ever since the JNNURM buses hit the roads in the State Capital, a few "sources" in KSRTC and a section of the media has been complaining about the buses running at a loss in Trivandrum and minting money in Ernakulam.

There have been quite a few bellyaching articles of this type.

We have been regaled by such choice observations as:
"The average income from Kochi is 42 per km while in Thiruvananthapuram it is only 28. The services has to fetch 47 per km to reach the break-even level. So chances are bright for Kochi to get more buses,” a KSRTC official said. Meanwhile, Volvo sources said that three more buses already delivered will be brought to Kochi within two or three days. “Nine more buses will be brought to Kochi by next week.  So, of the 60 buses that will be allotted in the first phase, 42 will ply on Kochi roads while Thiruvananthapuram will get only 18,” sources said. KSRTC has asked Volvo to deliver the remaining 20 buses by March 31. If delivered, these buses are also expected to be allotted to Kochi, sources said." 
Anyone who reads these sorts of reports would be given to think that A/C buses would never never break even in Trivandrum. This is a convenient excuse to divert the remaining buses to Kochi as has been made evident in the above article, something our dear Transport Minister seems not to be losing any sleep over. Of course, in recent reports, the "sources" remain anonymous whereas earlier they used to be attributed to top officials in the KSRTC.

Now, anyone who sees the Volvos running jam-packed during rush hours or carrying decent passenger loads even during off-peak hours would be mystified as to why this sort of revenue figure is being recorded. Very early on, TDF had filed an RTI with the KSRTC (in April 2010) to ascertain the information behind this and to see whether any scientific fleet management techniques were being applied to the Rs 100 Crore fleet of JNNURM buses. Not only did the response show that the claims about the poor performance of the Volvos in Trivandrum were unsubstantiated, it showed a shocking lack of professional management in the operation of the fleet. For example, KSRTC had made no effort to make schedule or route information available to the public via signs or leaflets nor done any traffic study. TDF appealed the RTI response to ensure that the KSRTC had to admit to additional facts that their accounting methods failed to take into account the fact that the Volvos in Trivandrum were 80% subsidized by JNNURM unlike those in Kochi which received only a 50% subsidy. During the appeal hearing,  one KSRTC officer even mentioned to me, apparently proudly, that "they didn't even have a single accountant in the company!" So much for functional expertise....

The fact that public organizations were following up on the performance of the JNNURM fleet in Trivandrum seems to have had its effect on the official stand of KSRTC. The day after the above report appeared, the same newspaper published a new report which not only contradicted the earlier one, it completely changed the view on the relative profitability of the buses in the two cities, quoting Mr Sharaf Mohammed, the Special Officer for the JNNURM buses.
It appears that the suburban population of the capital has whole-heartedly accepted the low-floor AC and non-AC buses under the JNNURM scheme. Two months since the extension of JNNURM buses to mofussil towns in the district, the initial collection from all the nine AC buses pressed into service in suburban areas is quite encouraging, according to officials of the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC).
Presently, the monthly average EPKM of all the 18 low floor AC buses in the district in January stood at Rs 40.9, whereas that of services in Ernakulam during the month was Rs 40.7.
Meanwhile, operation of non-AC low-floor buses is quite profitable in the district. For the profitable operation of these buses, an EPKM of Rs 26 is required. Presently, the 11 such buses operating from Peroorkada depot have a monthly average EPKM of Rs 36.9. The figures from other depots are: Pappanamcode (11 buses) - Rs 30.3 and Vikas Bhavan (13 buses) - Rs 28.2. However, the collection of non-AC JNNURM buses in Ernakulam district is not satisfactory. The monthly average EPKM of these services in Ernakulam are: Aluva depot (9 buses) - Rs 21.8; Angamaly (2) - Rs 25.7; Piravom (4) - Rs 20.5; Moovattupuzha (4) - Rs 18.7; Perumbavoor (5) - Rs 22.9 and North Paravur (6) - Rs 25.1.
In short, it has become evident that the AC Volvos are running at a better revenue level in Trivandrum despite being operated in a dispersed manner (all but one route has just one or two buses deployed) and little, if any, schedule information being available to the public. This makes planned ridership almost impossible because of the low frequency and the fact that one has to adopt a hit-or-miss strategy to catch a bus. The non-AC buses are running at a Rs 10/Km profit in Trivandrum which means that either the money can be used to subsidize the AC buses to over the break-even point or that the fares of the buses could be further rationalized.

The first article mentioned a revenue figure of just Rs 28 for the Volvos in Trivandrum and Rs 42 for Ernakulam whereas the truth was Rs 40.9 and Rs 40.7. So someone shaved Rs 13 or 30% off the actual figure for Trivandrum to make it look like the buses were running at a huge loss. Will the newspaper reveal its "source" since this is a clear case of fabricated facts and targeted libel against a whole city?The reality is that despite haphazard methods of operations, the buses in Trivandrum are running close to their break-even point (one which may not have accounted for the 80% capital subsidy!) Imagine how profitable the buses can become if concentrated into the most profitable routes, such as those to Technopark, Neyyatinkara and Vizhinjam (where the revenue figures are already pretty close to the break-even mark)and if schedule & route information can be made available to the general public. This does not even take into account  additional revenue generation methods like advertising which contribute significantly to the profitability of bus mass transit operations across the World, including in our own Bangalore, where over 700 Volvos are currently operating.

Most of us scoff at the mention of vested interests trying to block the development of our city and the betterment of our lives. Do you need more proof? Because, I have lots more, stay tuned. In the meantime, support our public transport system, take the Volvo next time and write into KSRTC, a newspaper or your MLA to make sure that we are not denied the services that we deserve and pay for.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Sneak Peek of the New Terminal

As we await the official opening of Terminal 2 or T3 of the Trivandrum International Airport on February 12th by the Prime Minister (and also while I keep working on a much longer post!), here are a couple of videos shot of the entry to the terminal and the terminal itself. The videos come courtsey my friend Nishanth.

This is the entry ramp and 6-lane elevate road into the terminal directly from the NH-47. Note that this drive is up the wrong ramp (and against the traffic) due to the correct ramp being blocked at this time.

And a more detailed once-over of the terminal which gives an idea of its sheer size!