A painful ‘modal shift’ in Chennai, from MTC to suburban, MRTS

Manmohan Singh’s visit to Chennai for the Ramanujan 125th year celebration inaugural today provided the impetus to go car-free after a spell of ‘driving by compulsion’. As many drivers found out, the PM in town means agonising road blocks.

(Incidentally, his speech on the mathematician is here and an interview with his biographer Robert Kanigel in The Hindu is here.)

Back to the commuting issues, here are the learnings: Lots and lots of people have shifted from the bus to the suburban train, even though it has a limited catchment in terms of areas served. Jayalalithaa’s government has delivered a body blow to the commuting public with its usurious fares, and will inevitably be awarded suitable pain by the angry voter. People are also not going to pardon the MTC for failing to provide at least more and better service.

What makes the shift to the train even more painful, however, is the lack of suitable ticketing infrastructure on the suburban and MRTS railway system of the Southern Railway. At Park, for instance, there was a crowd of a couple of hundred people waiting to buy a ticket at 11 this morning. This is simply unacceptable for an urban train system, or any system for that matter.

To escape this long queue, what the Chennai resident should ideally do is to take out a monthly ticket, which costs roughly the equivalent of two or three autorickshaw rides. For those who drive personal vehicles, the pass costs the equivalent of about two litres of petrol. No one will find that a problem. Which means, if you ditch your car and do a train commute just once, you have saved enough for half a month, and if you have done it on two days, you have a full month’s pass in savings. The rest is naturally a bonus.

In my experience, if you decide to go car-free two days a week, it works nicely in terms of the economics. It also provides a health bonus in the form of a nice walk.

Evidently, the newspapers are unable to communicate strongly, the resentment of the thousands of people who have been thrown to the wolves by the DMK Government earlier (by failing to expand the bus system and instead allowing unregulated feeder taxis to take the place of new buses), and the Jayalalithaa government, which has put even basic mobility out of reach for the bottom rungs of the Chennai population. Both governments dangled the prospects of mini-bus services to meet demand, even produced a self-serving report through Anna University, only to put the issue in cold storage (pressure from the autorickshaw lobby?)

The Chennai Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority, the regulator (on paper) of transport remains simply invisible through all this.


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