Sunday, 11 April 2021

Mexican $8bn Maya train project in a logjam


Ramesh Kumar from Greater Noida

Infra projects and public protest are inseparable. It will be rare to see any mega infrabuild going unchallenged. There are no exceptions: be it a road or rail or coastal shipping yard plans. Not necessarily these agitations lead to the project scrap. Some modifications are conceded to placate the hurt sentiments of the few. The project is finally through. 

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is faced with such a dilemma now. His 1,500 8 billion American dollar Maya train project to complete before he steps down in 2024 has run into trouble. 

The train is intended to connect Caribbean beach resorts to the peninsula’s interior, with large Indigenous populations and ruin sites, in a bid to stimulate economic development around its 15 stations.

Environmental concerns, yes. Regional Indigenous and Popular Council of Xpujil or Cripex for short, a local non-governmental organization, is spearheading the agitation among other groups, wanting the project to be scrapped citing the impact of diesel engines on the rail tracks particularly on the endangered jaguars en route. 

An estimated 15,000 jaguars remain in the wild. There are only 6000 jaguars in the north and central America, half of which are found in the Calakmul region, which includes the southern Yucatan of Mexico and surrounding areas of Belize and Guatemala. It is estimated that there 500 jaguars in the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. This is the second-largest population north of the Amazon.

Not to be missed out is the architectural treasure through which this rail line would run as and when ready ferrying passengers and cargo. The Mayas formed a sprawling empire of city-states across Yucatan and Central America between 2,000 B.C. and A.D. 900, and their descendants still live on the peninsula.

Experts in Mexico said Wednesday they have detected more than 2,000 pre-Hispanic ruins or clusters of artifacts along the proposed route of the president's controversial "Maya Train" project on the Yucatan peninsula.

Anticipating trouble, Lopez has given the rail line contract to the military on which trains are expected to chug at 160 km per hour linking several tourist spots - the Mayan ruins to be precise. 

The project was flagged off three years ago and the old track is being torn off. Ecological crime, antagonists say while a section of govt critics hint at cost overruns. White elephant, say some. Not needed because the passenger and cargo projections are way off the mark.

The felling of trees to make space for a new rail track is being defused by President's Sowing Life program - a tree planting plan at 4,500 pesos a month for everyone. 

Agitationists warn of the risk to the karst geohydrological systems of the peninsula, characterized by their fragility and the existence of a subway aquifer, with severe problems of overexploitation and contamination in the most populated metropolitan area of the region. 

Diesel engine when the entire world is moving towards electric? ask some. Valid and pertinent question. 

This area runs the risk of being fragmented, not only by the construction of the railway facilities but also by the continuous passage of trains for the next 50 years. Besides, this territory is inhabited by a Mayan population that has not exercised its right to self-determination, under international commitments of the Mexican State.

A public hearing under the Escazu Agreement ratified by the Mexican government in January 2021 is demanded. 

Meanwhile, Spanish train-operating company Renfe opened an office in Mexico from where it will develop the so-called Maya Train. Renfe was awarded this 13.5mn euro contract at the end of 2020, together with another Spanish company, Ineco, and, DB Engineering & Consulting, a German company, to collaborate in the development of the three-year project. 

Mexico's richest man Carlos Slim has invested in this train project to be completed by 2024 looping around the Yucatan peninsula. China Communications Construction Company is also an investor. After more than a decade-long lull of nil investment in Mexico, China is slowly creeping in under the Lopez regime.  Former US President Barrack Obama is opposed to any Chinese investment in Mexico. The Joe Biden Administration has so far has not publicly said anything about the Mexican-Chinese investment scenario. 

Come 2024, will the controversial Mayan train be on track, enabling Lopez   return to power for yet another six year term? Just not Mexicans even the world will be watching, given Mexico's proximity to the United States geographically and the rising Chinese investment in the Central America. 

Saturday, 10 April 2021

The rise of Gorillas' grocery delivery biz

Ramesh Kumar from Greater Noida

Guess the name of a grocery delivery company...


Give up? Okay. No issues.

How about "Gorillas"?

Yes. That is the name of a Berlin-based grocery delivery business entity that recently attained unicorn status (1 bn American dollar valuation) with heavy Venture Capital/Private Equity participation. 

Gorillas CEO and co-founder Kağan Sümer is thrilled because the latest round of Series B funding is pure 100% equity. No debt at all. 

It operates in 12 cities: Amsterdam, London, and Munich. and offers 10 minutes delivery time to customers.  For this promise to be effective, it adopts the dark store model. Over 40 micro fulfillment centers are functional in Germany, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands. Over 1000 riders are on its rolls and it promises to reward its riders and warehouse staff with a 1 million American dollar one-off bonus. 

Gorillas was founded May 2020 in the  midst of pandemic by Kağan Sümer and Jörg Kattner. This German start-up has achieved unicorn status within the first year of its inception. Sumer is a passionate cyclist and rides to identify routes and study traffic patterns.

The founders maintain that the weekly grocery run is outdated. Today, there is spontaneous shopping habits are in vogue. The competition is getting hotter by the day. 

There is discontentment among riders of Gorillas over working conditions. 10 minute delivery time in a city ambiance is no easy task. Gorilla's hourly wage of 10.50 euro is the standard rate in Germany. 

All said and done, lots of money is pouring into last-mile delivery across the globe. Private Equity and venture capitalists see a huge business potential for this business. As and when the pandemic fear evaporates and normalcy is restored, will this business remain sustainable is a moot question. But... no one has a clear-cut answer to this tricky question. 

So far, so good. 

ALSO READ this ... Benetton's toll road sell off pangs

Here read .... SoftBank's Norwegian Warehouse Automation dalliance

Masayoshi's Norwegian Dalliance for Warehouse Automation

Ramesh Kumar from Greater Noida

SoftBank Chief Executive Officer Masayoshi Son is no stranger to robotics or automation in warehousing. He part-owns Berkshire Grey, a pure-play robotics company offering fully integrated, artificial intelligence-based software and hardware solutions. 

So, his 40 percent equity stake investment recently in AutoStore SA of Norway estimated 2.8 billion American dollars should not surprise anyone.  Son has been hearing Berkshire Grey shouting from the rooftops that only 5% of warehouses are currently automated. The upside is huge. The Japanese venture capitalist does not want to miss out on such an opportunity. 

Recently, South Korea's Coupang, part-owned by Son, got listed on the New York Stock Exchange. He also invested in Delhivery of India, one of the leading Ecom players. Therefore, when analysts predict that the market for warehouse automation will hit 48 billion dollars by 2023, he has no reason to disbelieve.

What is so great about AutoStore?  It is a leading global robotics and software company. Its automated storage and retrieval systems, coupled with its proprietary software, provide customers with high throughput, enhanced configurability, and high levels of flexibility to serve the increasing demands of today's supply chains. AutoStore's innovative cubic design allows customers to either store four times the inventory in the same space or all of their existing inventory in 25% of the space.

AutoStore's solutions thus "redefine space," enabling it to serve a range of markets as diverse as e-commerce, grocery, industrial, and healthcare in any warehouse, retail location, or other facilities.

Founded in 1996, AutoStore invented and continues to be the pioneer of Cubic Storage Automation, the densest storage technology. It boasts of more than 600 installations and 20,000 robots across 35 countries. 

AutoStore Chief Executive Karl Johan Lier hopes SoftBank investment will open up the Asia Pacific region for his wares. In Europe, AutoStore is a big hit already. 

Ecommerce's biggest challenge is optimizing fulfillment center capabilities. So long as manual labor is deployed, this challenge is unlikely to vanish. Amazon, the world's ecom behemoth's latest troubles from the workforce in Alabama in the United States is an indicator.

Meanwhile, the World Economic Forum (WEF) gauges that by 2035, just 35% of working hours will be spent on manual routine positions that right now occupy 48% of work time. Moreover, the assembling, coordination, and retail areas will have the most elevated potential for mechanization by 2027, says the World Economic Forum. 

AGVs are an introduction to the reception of undeniable AI-fueled innovations in any industry and as computerization makes progress, the AGV market request will stay consistent.

Bourses are lapping up the warehouse automation game. Daifuku of Japan saw its share price shoot up by 60%. Honeywell Automation India posted a 70% jump in its share price.

Analysts are predicting AutoStore, unlike other start-up gigs where SoftBank has invested, will post positive numbers in the shortest possible time. That will be sweet music for Son. 

Also READ this...about Benetton's Italian toll road network sell off plans

Friday, 9 April 2021

Benettons' toll road sale at crossroads


Ramesh Kumar in Greater Noida

It is troubled times for the Benetton dynasty of Italy. There are challenges in the East: Coup-hit Myanmar has forced Benettons to pause business, just like Sweden's H&M. That's on the fashion retail business side. 

Back home, Benettons face another hiccup. How many of us know this Italian dynasty's infra build business? There are also into the toll road network trade. 

The August 2018 Morandi bridge collapse in Genoa that killed 43 lives has led to an uneasy relationship with the state. That issue remains unresolved till today.

When the Italian government privatized the toll road network in 1999, Benettons jumped into the fray and control half of Italy's toll roads. It has 3,000 km under its umbrella. 

Autostrade per l"Italia - popularly known as ASPI - is Benetton's toll network under the company called Atlandia. 

Benettons' desire to exit ASPI is nothing new post-Morandi bridge collapse. ASPI is being valued at 10 bn euros. London-based Hedge Fund TCI has a 10% stake in Atlantia and ASPI has 88%. Italian government's investment fund is one of its suitors as part of a consortium consisting of Blackstone and Macquarie. 

Spanish construction group ACS is another suitor for ASPI. ACS is owned by Spain's richest man Florentino Perez. Significantly, ACS is also a business partner in Abertis, part-owned by Atlantia. Perez is also the president of Real Madrid, the renowned football club in Spain besides his huge toll road network business across the world. So he is already well versed in the toll road business and therefore a perfect fit to take control. 

The hitch is political. The key question is whether The new Italian prime minister Mario Draghi who replaced  Giuseppe Conte will pursue state activism? That is, will he follow the renationalization agenda of Conte? Not to be forgotten is ACS is a Spanish company. Therefore, a foreign business enterprise. Should an Italian business enterprise be handed over to a foreigner, though a close European neighbor? 

ASPI contract for the Italian toll road network expires in 2038. Perez has a 5 billion Euro bonanza from the sale of one of his industrial businesses. So where to park is his agenda. 

Building infrastructure is easier than maintaining the same. So there is a huge interest to close the lingering ASPI issue. Punters at the Milan stock exchange are anxiously watching the parleys. Will the state-led consortium be outbid the Spanish suitor? 

Benetton's would prefer a quick closure so that the Morandi bridge collapse will be delinked from their corporate basket. The new government's focus today is on tackling Covid and the recovery of the Italian economy. Where exactly the ASPI toll road sale sits in Draghi's laundry list is a mystery. 

Read .... Gorilla warfare in German cities 

Thursday, 11 March 2021

DRIVERS DUNIYA e-newsletter launch from March 2021

Dear Readers                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

 Greetings from DRIVERS DUNIYA.

 Until Corona hit the world, we were a regular quarterly magazine published March, June, September, and December since 2015.

The Chinese unleashed the virus, thus hitting the world without any exception. As a result, we have to suspend the publication.

Now the economy is on a recovery path. It may take a while because a new normal is restored.

The year-long wait has to end with or without advertising support. Knowledge-sharing can happen even without advertising support due to the vibrancy of a variety of publishing tools. Soft copy or e-publication is one such vehicle.

DRIVERS DUNIYA decided to hit that route without any further delay.

Instead of coming out every three months, we will be releasing with more frequency. Maybe with a single story. Or multiples.

As is our dharma, DRIVERS DUNIYA  will continue to publish original comments, opinions from us as well as experts on the logistics and supply chain domain. After all, the drivers are the weakest supply chain.

This will be hosted on ALSO for tracking and tracing. Support us by reading, commenting, writing, and sharing.

Not too much to ask for.

 Warm regards


Ramesh Kumar

Publisher & Editor-at-Large



Sunday, 12 May 2019

Visvanathan Iyer, trusted Tata Steel ally

Ramesh Kumar from New Delhi

The June 2019 issue of DRIVERS DUNIYA will be carrying an interview with Mr Visvanathan Iyer, believe me, Southern India Bureau Chief Sarada Vishnubhatla wrote in August 2016.  

Why such a long pause - almost three years before it sees the light of the day? 

Hence this preamble. Or is it an apology? Check it out...

I had met Mr Iyer in Chennai on a rainy day, at the behest of Harry Lagad, an invaluable resource for me in the world of logistics and supply chain. 

A phone call set the ball rolling. Iyer suggested meeting at 0800 hours sharp at the Woodlands, Mylapore, Chennai. 

I intimated him that my colleague Selvan Dasaraj of TransportMitra would also join at the venue. 

He had no objection. But he said, 0800 hours.

Selvan was residing with his sister in Perambur, on the outskirts of city. (Outskirts for a born-Mylaporean like me!).

On the scheduled day, it was raining cats and dogs since the previous night. I reached the Woodlands on time. Selvan did not. Met Iyer inside the restaurant where he was already perched and offered the opposite seat  to me. 

“Where’s your partner?” He asked.

On his way, I murmured apologetically and added: “Can we wait a little while…?
“No need. Let’s order food and discuss,” commanded Iyer. Punctuality is his other name!

He looked at the uniformed bearer, who nodded and left. No verbal order.

In a jiffy, plates of piping hot idli, vada, sambar, chutney came. Just for the two of us.

“Eat”, again he ordered.

We began. Between bites, we kept chatting. From how do I know Harry to my interest in trucking, travels etc.

Phone buzzed at 0820. 

It was Selvan. He was in the parking lot. I guided him to our seats.

He sat next to me and apologized for the delay.

Iyer took no notice of the apology.

He called the bearer and ordered: “The same.”

Selvan, looking into the menu looked up, said nothing.

Once the breakfast got over, he asked us to join for a visit to the Tata Steel yard at Thiruvallur, 40 km away, managed by him.

The entire journey lasting more than two hours via the rain-hit Chennai  thoroughfare was a super and dramatic educational trip. 

He was on the call constantly: Chiding some officials at times. Sweet talking some higher ups in some companies regarding load delivery. Proper directions to the office staff on financial transactions.

Yes, of course, in between we – rather, he found time to walk down his memory lane.

At the Thiruvallur yard, we saw two 40 TEU containers converted into toilet-cum-rest room for waiting drivers. Air-conditioned as well. Only cooking was not permitted. He meant every word he said about his concern for drivers welfare. Indeed, a remarkable person.

A few months later, we had an occasion to visit him at his tree-lined bungalow apartment in cool Bengaluru where we had at least two rounds of conventional south Indian “kapi”.

Everytime, I look at him or his photo, he reminds me of my transport guru late Chittranjan Dass ji. Carbon copy. Both remarkable personalities. There are many like them. It is just question of time, before I get to hobnob with them.
During my subsequent visit to Tata Steel, Jamshedpur, the logistics team knew of our meeting with Iyer. “He is an asset,” is what they simply echoed.

One last question: why Sarada’s piece submitted in August 2016 has to gather dust for three years. Valid, undoubtedly. I lost it in the deluge of input. Until one fine morning, I woke up when another old time school mate bearing the same name – Visvanathan -  buzzed. There the connect got reignited. Rest … you know it. Here it is… Sorry, Sarada!

It is not dated, except the drivers waiting for 3-4 hours at interstate borders. Now that is history, thanks to the  GST roll out.

Don't forget to read the full interview in DRIVERS DUNIYA. 

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Ramesh Kumar

Saturday, 6 April 2019

Why Islam Khan Went To Pune?

Ramesh Kumar from New Delhi

"Salaam alai kum... Have you ever travelled by Jhelum Express?"

It was a phone call.

No formal introduction.

No  need for it.

Because the caller's name was stored in my SIM. It was Islam Khan of Sushila Transport Private Limited (STPL), one of the well known two-wheeler & four wheeler carriers from OEMs to dealer points pan-India.

No, I said. Why is he asking?

"Sirji, am on way to Delhi railway station to go to Pune," Islam said, thus dispelling any confusion in my mind.

Okay, he was going to Pune to be present at the Jeep Transport Excellence Award event two days later and possibly to receive an award or something.

Going alone? Yes.

Will he able to manage?

Why this concern? Because he is visually-challenged from birth.

Who's he, by the way? Islam is Safety Counselor, if one may say so, working with  STPL since April 2018.

Visually challenged and Safety Counselor? Possible. It is. Having known him right from the day of induction in STPL and seen from close quarters, I know his calibre. His vision. His man management. Rather driver management skills. Amazing character.

In fact, DRIVERS DUNIYA magazine featured him on the cover in March 2019 issue. Sheer coincidence. Not plotted as such.

"Sirji, are you there?"

Uff. For a while, I got sucked into my own thoughts. Hence the delay in responding to his query.

"I never traveled in a train to Pune from Delhi," I told him.

"Haan, you're a truck man!" he quipped. Did I?

Few times: once from Chennai to Gurgaon in October 2010 via Pune. And a year later from Gurgaon to Bangalore via Pune. Of course, I  had to break the journey at Halol to visit Rinku Agarwal at Anand, Gujarat. He picked me up at Halol. Both times, with mint fresh passenger cars.

Islam convinced me that he had traveled alone  in the past also in train and hence, nothing to worry.

I knew nothing about the Jhelum Express (11078), running between Jammu and Pune covering a distance of 2,200 km. After an overnight journey from Jammu, it reaches Delhi 0945 hours and leaves half an hour later. Islam provided this vital input and added that it would touch down Pune the next evening.

On boarding the train, he called to confirm.

Two days later, I saw a few images of  him preparing for the Jeep event: black pant, white shirt and a black jacket. Of course, a naughtily worn neckpiece (tie)! No calls. Nothing.

A day later, again I saw few images posted in a  social media group of STPL.

FCA Head of Supply Chain Satyendra Lal is the primary cause for this "noble gesture" of recognizing someone like Islam Khan.

Lal, a great humanitarian, indeed. Known him almost for a decade now. Significantly, he had met Islam almost a year ago at STPL's Manesar workshop-cum-office when he had visited on a routine inspection of safety consciousness of his vendors who  ferry his 20 lakh plus Compass SUVs from Ranjangaon plant to multiple locations. That time, he attended the Daily Driver Meet held quarter to four in the Driver Rest Room where Islam was in full flow imparting gyan on safety and then general  tips on living. One has to be physically present to experience his zest and passion. 

Am sure, Lal would have carried a very positive image of Islam and his safety commitment. When post-event asked, Lal responded thus:

"During my last visit to all Transport Partners facility visit, I saw a man of positive attitude and confidence- Mohammed Islam , a driver trainer at Sushila Transport, Manesar. 

What I found that he beyond a trainer. He does a lot of early morning homework with tracking team for drivers who are coming back from l long haul trip, he understands how driver has performed his driving on road , speed management, neutral running, braking, etc. Then he prepare his self note in his mind and communicate the same to drivers during his session with them. 

He motivates not only on safety but also on health grounds during trip. His communication is manifold effective is such a way that drivers commit to implement for their future ride. Industry require such people. Though he is visually challenged yet a superb trainer - great cheers to  Hargobind ji and STPL team for giving employment to such wonderful person.

Of course, STPL owner Hargobind Pruthi's knockout selection of a visually challenged candidate who has had no experience in this arena to handle this tricky subject. Lal certainly  lauded Pruthi's drive. He also won an award from FCA.

Again, there was a call from Islam. This time, he was back in Manesar where he lives with his wife and kids, near the office.

Obviously, my question was: How did the event go?

"Bahut achcha tha, sirji!" The thrill and joy of being sent to a distant place and receiving an award was something unique in  Islam's life.

How was the train journey? I began.

It was a three tier sleeper and he got the lower berth. Co passengers were so cooperative that they wanted to offer food etc at their cost.

"I refused. Politely, of course. How can I when Pruthisaab has ensured that I travel with sufficient cash to meet my en route expenses?... I can understand their love and affection."

He was received by an STPL employee working in its Pune branch and put up in a lodge in Pune.

On the day of Jeep event, he got ready around noon, dressed for the occasion and reached the venue.

Again, a first time experience for Islam. Everyone around made him feel comfortable. "Lal saab spoke about me before handing over the trophy to me on stage. Bahut achcha laga."

Lekin ...

He could not deliver a short thanks giving speech which he had meticulously prepared! Ever since he was told about his participation in the Jeep event, he had been badgering me offering multiple versions of his thanks giving speech!

His return journey was by air. He flew into Delhi from Pune. First time again. His cup of joy was overflowing nonstop.

A flight ticket is akin to one of the long list of items ticked in his checklist. Islam certainly not a senior staffer in STPL. But a vital cog in ensuring the company's drivers were sagely counseled. To ensure Jeep vehicles dispatched for dealer points reach undamaged en route. And ensure STPL able to raise invoices towards logistics cost.

Thank you, Hargobind ji! Thank you, Mr Lal!

There was one more call from Islam, a little later..

"Before I forget, Sirji,  the pant, suit, tie, boots ... these were gift from Pruthisaab!... Pehle baar, I got to wear all these. I pray for well being of Pruthisaab and Lal saab," he ends in choked voice.

Ever grateful this chap is.

Such positive narratives make me feel that there are some good motormaliks too in the Indian transport ecosystem.

Why some?

Because there are some motormaliks who lock up drivers, unrobe them totally and belt them mercilessly for diesel theft. Lawless  and savage creatures.

Heartless, insane characters too. Kapish?