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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XVIII No. 9, august 16-31, 2008

The Metro experience

(Shobha Menon)

Hailed as ‘a public transport milestone’, the Chennai Mass Rapid Transit System’s history can be traced to an area transport study done four decades ago. But Nesamani, K S and Ponnuswamy, in the Indian Journal of Transport Management, October: 647-658 (2000) on the subject of, ‘Improving the patronage of MRTS: through integration and fare structure co-ordination’ felt, “Chennais transport system has been developed [in a very haphazard manner,] with a mixture of public and private modes. The present route structure of Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) buses has been studied and it is observed that a large number of routes run along the proposed Mass Rapid Transit System (MRTS) corridor. Even after so much of investment, bus and MRTS run without any coordination.” ­Almost a decade later, coordination between the Railways and Metropolitan Transport authorities for a userfriendly integrated transport system still continues to be a big question mark.

A Chennai Metro station (Picture courtesy : S. Anvar)

A concerned citizen complains, “The Tamil Nadu Government is now talking of a new Metro railway system. Instead of spending millions of rupees on a new one, the existing system should be transformed into a world class metropolitan transport system. Right from the analysis stage to its finished product, nothing seems to have been done in a professional manner, judging from the fact that it is the only system that took nearly 24 years to get to the development stage. This is a world record!”

Integration of the two systems is in the State govern­ment’s own interest, transportation researchers say. But why are those running the two transport networks yet to work out modalities for providing inter-modal transfer facilities? One MTC official was over­heard recently, saying that intermodal transfer facilities would “cut into MTC’s revenue”. But traffic management experts point out that in Western countries bus services are reoriented as feeder services for rail traffic. This enables buses to operate in unserved areas, with integration also speeding up travel (as major distances are covered by rail faster and only feeder distances are covered by buses, or private vehicles). A lower accident rates and less pollution are other benefits.

Meanwhile, many of the older MRTS stations between Chintadripet and Tirumayilai are a picture of abject neglect and under-utilisation. With inoperable lifts and no toilet/ drinking water facilities, parts of the station are used as open toilets. But an official says,“Where Metro­water connection is not available, tanker supply is provided in some stations.” In the Chinta­dripet station, many private omnibus operators illegally make up for the poor utilisation of the space by the MTC. Meanwhile, commuters complain that MTC crew ask them to alight some distance away from stations.

Debris strewn around station areas and muck in the drains alongside is common. I see as I travel from Indira Nagar to Fort, talking to follow passenger “Privatised maintenance is available during the day, but power­cuts after dusk means total darkness! Campaus a Kottur­puram resident.

Kapali from Mandaveli feels there should be more late night services. “With the Velachery MRTS extension, there is four times more traffic than expected, and the Railways need to provide more passenger amenities,” says Srinivasan, a senior citizen. “Timings are good , but more security is needed for such a big infrastructure.” Dhanaseelan, a Port employee, says, “Earlier there was good maintenance, but now there is nobody even to complain to”.

The opening of Velachery station has meant that MRTS is “booming,” beams Vallaran of TCS. “Before declaring stations open, the Railways should have put in place approach roads and bus services. Early morning services could be more frequent,” says Devarajan, an engineer based in Salem. It is 10. 40 am at Chennai Fort, and the train empties out!

At 12.15, I’m on board the MRTS from Velachery to Triplicane. Many commuters have season tickets. The development process in and round Velachery has boomed with the opening of the station says M. Kumar, “The train always moves slowly till it crosses a particular culvert. I wonder if it was because of the soil stability issues that – cropped up earlier.” The pace picks up soon after, and we reach the Singapore-style skyline created by the Tidel Parks and the IT Corridor. Tiruvanmiyur station is filled with advertisements …If it’s Chennai it’s The Hindu! We fly along with cars below, alongside manicured landscapes and unused stylish over bridges, and into dilapidated Indra Nagar Station. This station seems to be eternally in the making. Kasturibai Station looks a trifle better designed; a circular dome like structures house the platform. Parallel to the Kasturibai Station are bus services. Display boards announcing the next train are seen in a few stations. Past the IT Corridor now, you move into real Chennai alongside Slum Board tenements and into Kotturpuram Station.

At Mandaveli a bevy of chattering women get in. Most commuters seem passive, unconcerned about any form of discrepancy in their surroundings. Life is Maya, anyway. What is some garbage and debris strewn around, when we can wish it away in our minds? Beside Lighthouse Station the water in the canal alongside is dark and murky; at Tiruvallikeni it is a brilliant green. “ That’s not our job, it’s the PWD’s,” says an official.

Alighting at Tiruvallikeni station, I go down a stairway with cobwebby roofs and dusty broken windows The officers’ resthouse upstairs has been leaking for the past one month and passengers seem to have gotten used to walking through the water up and down. On the left, beside the slum tenements, the drain is full of plastic waste it is also used as a public urinal. “The lights hanging above are so rusty they might fall on people,” says an official. “There is no water even in the toilets. No escalator also for the last two months. Even reporting a complaint does not help,” says Kamakshi, a homemaker.

Asks Ravi, a businessman, “Both the Triplicane and Lighthouse Stations turn into gambling dens after 6 pm. Why such large stations that make you feel insecure and unsafe? And why two stations, when one can suffice?” And a recent report talks of an MRTS station between Mylai and Lighthouse ( ‘just 1 km from Thirumayilai’) to be developed at a cost of Rs 35 crore, “due to representations from various groups”!

The MRTS, however, presents a particularly welcome opportunity, because it comes at a time when there are multiple concerns about the most efficient and affordable way of travel in a city that has 7.45 million passenger trips in a day (including modes like walking and cycling). It can also improve the system’s revenue performance for the Railways, having billed the taxpayer over Rs.950 crore; the investment in the second phase that was recently cleared for traffic is put at about Rs.706 crore by the CMDA. Trains between Beach and Velachery actually have a crushload capacity of a few thousand commuters each, at either point at peak hours.

Chennai’s Beach-Velachery MRTS has a potential capacity of 4,25,000 passenger trips a day, and will connect the central business area of old Madras with the high profile IT corridor; it is also a high capacity rail link that throws a transport lifeline to dense southeastern residential localities that depended solely on buses so far.

The first service begins from Beach as early as 4.15 am! If the Ministry of Railways integrates the MRTS with other suburban rail lines running to the north, west, and southwest, as it logically should and follows the same hours of operation, it can make a qualitative difference to commuting in Chennai. The three other major suburban rail lines in the Metro operate from 4 a.m. till midnight, terminating in towns in the neighbouring districts.

In the absence of active State government involvement, Phase I from Beach to Mylapore (Tirumayilai) predictably attracted few users. The fare was high, the section was too small at 8.55 km and the service frequency was too low to be useful. The Delhi-centric decision-making system for suburban rail did little to help. Many of the eight stations in the Beach-Tirumayilai section look decrepit and spaces intended for shops mainly lie vacant. The good thing is, unlike in the first phase, facilities are being provided in the second phase for bus stands, two-wheeler parking and link roads.

The Centre now wants to change all that, with its vision outlined in the National Urban Transport Policy (NUTP), which it expects the States to share in; only if the States agree, can they hope to get funds for development under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission. The CMDA, Chennai’s planning body, speaks the same language as the NUTP in its draft for the next Master Plan. Will the Tamil Nadu Government (which is a partner in the MRTS from Phase II) show sufficient resolve to align Chennai’s transport framework to the NUTP? But the reality is that car and two-wheeler use continues to rise, while the share of cycling, rail and bus trips declines. But the MTC seems to be expanding its fleet without any planned integration with rail, and the NUTP recommendation for an integrated rail-cum-bus ticket appears even more remote!

Chennai’s suburban stations are antiquated and in urgent need of repairs; they have no passenger information systems worth the name. “The MRTS can also achieve quick visibility if the new “made in Chennai” coaches (with energy-efficient coaches, GPS information systems and more comfortable seating and lighting) from the Integral Coach Factory for suburban railway operations in Mumbai are given to Chennai as well,” a regular commuter feels.

Railway Chief Engineer, Mr Agrawal says, “ Between Mylapore and Velachery, stations are being developed along with the State Government on a cost sharing basis. Construction commenced last November, and is going on at a steady pace. Bureaucratic hassles have meant some delay, and that was fan an unprecedented hike in thye cost of materials and labour.”

Raman, a Guard with the Railways for 39 years now, says progress is brisk, “When inaugurated on November 18th, there was no road to the Velachery station. But already there is a 2 ft high concrete road, in time for the monsoons, when the area is generally under water . Since April 18th, week-long services too have been introduced.” Station managers are however available only in Chepauk, Mylapore and Velachery. Outside the Velachery station, the two-wheeler stand seems to be overflowing onto the roads itself, so are a few cars and many autos. There has been Rs 60 -70,000 collection per day in Velachery alone. Computerised railway ticket booking facilities are already available in Tiruvanmiyur and Mylapore and will soon be in Velachery too!

A senior official of the Railways is hopeful, “Once the area is given for commercial utilisation, the presence of shops will ensure maintenance, and safety too. We are waiting for the RLDA to take the necessary steps …either they do so or empower us to do so! We’ve also asked for 60 home guards, for patrolling purposes. The planning is good, construction is good… for effective utilisation! “But G Dattatri, former urban planner associated with the initiation of the MRTS as a metro transport system, says, “It is shameful that the Railways have taken nearly 30 years to reach this point and that stations are constructed in such a way that they are unsafe, inaccessible and the system does not work effectively. It clearly reveals the inefficiency of the Railways and the apathy of the government.”

Though the concept of a Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority was mooted over a decade ago, it has made little progress. And already, everyone is talking of a Metro Rail! I wonder by when the MRTS in Chennai will begin to function like it should have more than a decade ago.


In this issue

A Heritage Act, please
'Stays' don't prevent...
The Metro experience
Less waterways width...
Escalators for Chennai...
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