Chennai Metro crawls, Bangalore prepares to steal thunder

Chennai is praised for being a modest city where everything goes on quietly, and unlike Bangalore or Hyderabad, it scores low only on the glamour quotient. That is arguable, and when it comes to running its transport networks, Chennai is not modest, it is simply backward. What has provoked us to resume this thread of discussion? Some media reports proclaiming that the first line of Chennai’s Metro will begin service in 2013.

Unlike the major cities in the country, this State capital has neglected its transport networks to the point where the only functioning rail links are those that are British legacies. The MRTS from Beach to Velachery is viewed by the Southern Railway as nothing more than a white elephant. What is worse, this cynicism and stubborn refusal to augment service is contributing to a vicious circle, of poor service leading to poor patronage.

Making things worse in this city is the disappearance of footpaths; after all, how does one use rail and bus services if one cannot walk to these comfortably?

To sum up our earlier arguments, the suburban rail networks are old, the stations decrepit, dark, and unattractive, the pedestrian infrastructure positively hostile (steep flights of stairs to reach platforms, no lifts, no information), and the rolling stock passably utilitarian.

Against this background, we have been hearing about the CMRL preparing to launch an ambitious Rs. 14,000 crore Metro Rail in Chennai. The official page of CMRL is here. We have earlier raised the question whether this city has the sophistication to run a Metro rail, since there is hardly any usable pedestrian infrastructure — you need that to enter and exit metro stations — and it is one of the dirtier cities with inadequate sanitation. Sewer refuse and garbage could very well flow into the Metro stations, after a heavy downpour. As regular travellers know, the suburban system is exposed to the elements, and rail coach seats get fully wet during the rains.

We now wonder whether the Dravidian Kazhagams (who always speak in a supremacist tone) are prepared to genuinely empower citizens, having such a dismal record so far.  For the record, this is the stated “mission” of CMRL :

Providing the people of Chennai with a fast, reliable, convenient, efficient, modern and economical mode of public transport, which is properly integrated with other forms of public and private transport including buses, sub-urban trains and MRTS.

The experience with the bus systems tell us that we cannot hope for much. And if the latest reports on the state of suburban localities are true, there is room for even more apprehension.

Both the DMK and AIADMK have a sense of feudal ownership of transport networks. For one, Chennai’s Metropolitan Transport Corporation bus system is still used as a captive organisation of supporters by the DMK and AIADMK. The crews have not mere Trade Union affiliation, which would be acceptable in terms of workers’ rights, but active political memberships which are reflected whenever the larger political system demands that they exhibit it. Even this would be benign and in a mature system, and serve some positive purpose to right anti-democratic tendencies, but the MTC crews use their collective strength as a hostile card against the commuter, who has no organisation to represent his interests.

At the policy level, the DMK Government has so far successfully fought off attempts to become accountable in service provision. Although the Ministry of Urban Development requires that the MTC produce a Detailed Project Report, and meet conditions on utilisation, Chennai’s bus network has failed to do so. That has not stopped the Centre from disbursing funds for augmentation of the bus fleet. Integration of transport modes under a Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority is among the conditions set for the grant of funds. That is too remote a concept for the MTC, and the DMK Government. There are media reports on this, advisories from the Union Ministry, nothing more. We can only ask, where is the UMTA?

Thus, we have a bizarre situation of the MTC not offering travel passes and even day travel tickets widely, although CMRL piously states on its website that there is increasing congestion on the streets of Chennai, and hence the need for a Metro. MTC passes are available on paper, but only under restricted conditions. And even this information is not advertised.

This being the case, can we expect a Chennai Metro to be run professionally? Doubtful indeed. What would happen to the crews of the new rail system? Will they also behave the same way as the intemperate and surly MTC crews? In any case, the last press statement issued by CMRL was six months ago. Just what has been achieved since?

As commuters consider these key issues, they watch the fast pace of progress with the Bangalore Metro rail. Although there are reports that CMRL will run one line from St. Thomas Mount to Koyambedu by 2013 (and it is not being built at the pace of the Assembly-Secretariat complex), can it substitute for a full rail network? Why is there such a slow pace of execution on the Chennai Metro to come up along Anna Road, Poonamallee Road. Moreover, even before the work has begun on these arteries, there are stories in the media about other “corridors” to be developed in the city periphery. What can such a move achieve other than inflate land prices?

We will ponder these questions as we go along.


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