Who pays for the construction of the parking lot at Chennai Central station that the Times of India says will have seven levels to keep 4,000 cars (story here) ? The other development of the Chennai Central tunnelling work reaching a milestone with the last of the TBM points forging through on Friday is reported here by ToI and here by New Indian Express.
In the absence of any differentiation in the costing of the Metro construction between core facilities and such add-ons that have no universal value, we must assume that the cost is distributed across the entire system – which means, it is loaded into the fare that everyone pays.
If this is not the case, Chennai Metro Rail Limited is duty-bound to explain how it is arriving at parking fees, in order to segregate the expenditure and cost recovery.
Since Japan, whose investors have funded the Metro, is also deeply interested in India’s car sector, having a thriving business in the country with its Toyotas, Suzukis, Hondas and so on, it is likely that there is a convergence of interest between the local car lobby and the decision.
Why criticise commuters?
Many people criticise bus, rail commuters for demanding better services at affordable fares, which are not anyway available. There is no effort at bringing link buses to the Metro stations. Even pedestrian access to the Metro stations in Vadapalani, Koyambedu, Alandur are crudely designed, and hence dysfunctional.
Secondly, while we welcome mass mobility systems, Chennai Metro Rail maintains an aloofness with users characteristic of all public services in India. It does not think public transport is a partnership, rather a top down offering to helpless users. Thus, its proposed Chennai Metro app (for Android) may not have real time information on trains, just static maps, an outdated model. The report on the app in The Hindu is here.
The world’s cities develop a culture of commuting, in which the trains, buses, stations, rickshaws and even pavements acquire a personality for the commuter.
I live in Chennai, where the transport landscape has been evolving without much help from the government. The Chennai Metro, a modern train system but one without a distinct identity – not even a bright logo – is experiencing a long gestation. In the case of the MTC bus system, the only help it received was during the JNNURM scheme of the UPA, when deluxe and air-conditioned buses were added to an ageing fleet. But the A/C option quickly vanished from core city routes and was either diverted to suburban routes or deployed in the upmarket IT corridor.
The other big cultural shift was towards shared transport, in the form of “Share Autos”, the description for 7-seater mini vans owned by entrepreneurs, most of whom have some political patronage. On paper, these share autos with commercial taxi permits are illegal, since they transport passengers just like the buses do, along a route, exhibiting major stops. After dark, some of them take even 12 passengers in space meant for 7. The culture of Chennai takes care of all that: the authorities levy a token fine almost everyday, which the Share Auto cabbie is happy to pay, and the passengers are grateful for the service in a global city where real bus numbers have remained stagnant for the better part of a decade.
These are familiar features of Chennai’s transport scene. More recently, Ola and Uber swooped down on the city, taking the hardened autorickshaw mafia by surprise. Ola even launched an autorickshaw service. The smartphone universe has loved all this.
But the promised icon of the Chennai transport universe, the Chennai Metro, remains a disappointment. It is not yet complete, and the first leg now in operation shows that it may be cold and aloof even in the future. Here’s what I think is making it obscure already: There is none of the excitement or pride of a major Metro rail system even among the people running it. In contrast to, say, Kochi Metro, Chennai has little visibility. No emphasis on identifying colour, no symbol. The only things visible are its barely-literate security personnel, who seem to have a sense of crude ownership of the system, especially since they are asked to do 100 per cent frisking. Like the MTC, they also feel they are doing passengers a favour.
Chennai is also unique in having a Metro with a First Class, in which you have to pay double fare – perhaps a global first, and an amusing decision, because Metro trains are intended to transport people quickly in a span of 10 to 20 minutes, rather than replicate long distance trains in which you sit for an hour or more.
What I would do
If I were running the Chennai Metro, I would have created a bright map by now, explaining to the public how it could be used in conjunction with the Beach-Tambaram and MRTS suburban rail lines. Nicely made maps are icons for the culture of the Metro systems, and I have had the pleasure of experiencing this in London, Paris, Berlin, Munich and New York.
System maps, and smartphone apps, of course, flow from a visual identity. There has to be an emblem for a system, but Chennai Metro has none. It has a funny logo that looks unfinished, is not adequately popularised and is simply not found anywhere in the city, even along the truncated route it operates currently [Koyambedu – Alandur]. That is a pity because Chennai Metro has comfortable climate-controlled coaches from Alstom.
I would also have had a few meetings with the user public, which would have effectively brought out the fact that the AIADMK government has not thought it necessary to properly integrate MTC bus operations with the Metro stations, particularly in Alandur.
The half-hearted operation of mini-buses from some of the stations like Ashok Nagar and Alandur should have been replaced by a well-supplied system of small buses going to the surrounding neighbourhood, specifically called Metro Link to brand them. Since no one of consequence uses public transport in Chennai, such integration plans spoken about in the early days of the Chennai Metro lie by the wayside. Things are, of course, worse with MRTS and suburban railways.
I use the description of half-hearted for the Small Buses of MTC because there is only one every 20 or so minutes, with no real time information on when the next one is expected. In some cases, such as S30 [Mahalingapuram to Ashok Pillar], there are only two buses in operation, so you might get one only in 30 minutes if you are lucky.
So currently, you have neither sufficient connectivity nor information about buses that connect the Metro stations, and the Chennai Metro itself is ‘App-less!’ Such neglect calls into question the commitment of our politicians to global goals such as reduction of carbon emissions and mitigation of climate change, through a “modal shift” from personal vehicles to public modes.
The culture of the Chennai commute is evolving under the influence of deprivation – of information, of service, of integration.
The time is approaching when we must choose a new government for Tamil Nadu. For commuters, the past five years under the AIADMK have been literally expensive in the following ways:
MTC BUS SERVICE IN LOW GEAR: In spite of rapid economic growth, the AIADMK government did not improve Chennai MTC bus service. The bus fleet in real terms remained stagnant, since there was no modernisation programme to run good quality buses that meet at least national standards, if not international ones. By contrast, bus commuters had to merely watch personal car use grow by leaps and bounds with the latest products hitting the roads, some of them made in the city itself – air-conditioned, plush, equipped with great audio, video and given the benefit of government-sponsored road space. It helped that oil price fell, and in spite of increase in pollution, the State government did nothing to encourage the use of public transport. Buses: 3,500 approximately, static. Cars and other private vehicles: a few hundred registered everyday. According to this policy brief put out by TERI in 2014 Chennai has the second highest ratio of cars to population at 100 per 1,000 people after Delhi, against the national average of 13/1,000. Both the DMK and the AIADMK have focused on the growth of car production, while not making significant improvements to bus mobility – despite the fact that Ashok Leyland, located in Chennai, has been announcing several new bus products over the years, including the Janbus. The only “modernisation” of MTC took place with funds from the Union Government through the JNNURM scheme in 2009, although even there, the standards for buses were diluted citing the recession.
HALF-HEARTED MINI BUS SCHEME: The small buses introduced by the AIADMK after much delay were actually the idea of the DMK, which announced the scheme in 2010. However, after the change of government in 2011, it took another two years before the concept became reality in a limited number of routes served initially by 50 buses, as this report notes. This figure went up to a total of 165 buses early in February 2016 (see this report) with the addition of 30 routes that connect some interior areas and in some cases, bus termini and train stations. It remains far from scientific, since there is no policy to connect mass transit stations through such a feeder service.
DELAY IN METRO OPENING: The AIADMK took its time to open even the small segment of the Chennai Metro between Koyambedu and Alandur, and overpriced it to the detriment of commuters – it does not attract any significant patronage as a result, does not apparently cut congestion on Inner Ring Road (Jawaharlal Nehru Road) on this stretch, and does not contribute to reduced carbon emissions, in spite of the heavy investment. The delay in the opening of the Metro robbed Chennai of clean air, says this report. It is even more frustrating for the Chennai commuter and the visitor, that the Metro work has repeatedly stalled during the five years of the AIADMK regime. Even if the factors were external, such as the Russian contractor walking out, the State did not really protest. By contrast, the government has been pushing for other works with great enthusiasm – the indifference to the Metro system (Ms. Jayalalithaa has a declared preference for mono rail), has clearly resulted in the delay and a representative of the Japanese funding agencies, Muneo Kurauchi, chairman, Japan-India Business Co-operation Committee openly criticised the Jayalalithaa government on this at the high-profile Global Investors Meet.
The failure of the AIADMK government during the past five years has hit the consumer in terms of inflation in transport costs, unpredictability of travel, inefficiency, risk of accidents, pollution and loss of quality of life. There is no law that compels State governments to provide a measurable level of public transport, both in terms of quantity and assessed satisfaction of users. The gaps in the system are filled by companies like Uber, Ola (with cabs, discounted shared cab rides and autorickshaws), and unregulated share autorickshaws that do a lot of service, but illegally, by operating cramped 7-seater carriages that carry up to 15 people sometimes.
We need a revamp of Chennai public transport. I intend to write more on this in coming weeks before the elections. Five years ago, I wrote this post on who would give us better wheels, Karunanidhi or Jayalalithaa? What do you think?
I often go to a particular part of crowded Saidapet, which has expensive real estate, great population density, but poor hyperlocal transport connectivity. This is a western corner of this old village close to the Adyar river, where the streets are sometimes just wide enough for a car to pass, and has over the years been heavily built-up to support small trade. There are thus no footpaths.
Until 2014, there was hardly any choice: you either walk, or use an autorickshaw to reach the interior parts of West Saidapet.
In such a large cul-de-sac, in spite of the island of middle classness that exists in the form of Parsn Nagar (some 200 houses), autorickshaws are not happy to venture. They usually ask for double the normal fare (no justification, of course). The Saidapet suburban railway station is about 1.5 km from here.
Last year, things changed a little. This part of Saidapet got MTC S35 – one of the mini bus routes reluctantly introduced as part of the new mini bus series, by the AIADMK government; the idea was originally that of the DMK government which was slow off the block.
It is a short route, starting at Ashok Pillar just outside the Metro station and terminating at Defence Colony. The small Leyland bus runs like a noisy bug, blowing an air horn, through Jaffarkhanpet, chock-a-block Jones Road, West Mada Road close to the Perumal Temple, Kothawal Chavadi Street, and on to Guindy industrial estate via the new bridge and then Defence Colony.
S35 touches a part of Saidapet that at one time was covered by an infrequent 18K Extension bus that would go up to Parsn Nagar (crossing the point where Annai Velankanni College of Arts and Science is now located). The service was withdrawn, probably because it cut into the neatly sewed-up autorickshaw monopoly in that middle class enclave. It was also a large bus that found it tough to negotiate the lanes.
So S35 gives you the opportunity now to escape the take-it-or-leave-it autorickshaw groups in the area. You just have to wait at the junction of Kothawal Chavadi Street and West Mada Road / Anjaneyar Koil Street for one to turn up. Many people do just that, and this service is never lean, even on a Sunday.
Sadly, the AIADMK government which is bidding for Chennai to be a #smartcity with funds from the Narendra Modi government does not provide real time information on the actual bus service operation (MTC does not have any such system in operation for any of its buses). So on Sundays, you might have to wait for 30 minutes for an S35, when in fact you should be able to look at the position of the bus on a map, and decide when to leave home.
My experience on Sunday was tweeted:
Once again, at Saidapet stop for MTC small bus S35, no idea where nearest one is. No GPS for buses in #smart#Chennai! But taxis have it.
It would, of course, help also to have one bus operate every ten minutes, but the prevailing economics in favour of cars will not let that happen. Even the prospect that people could move quickly to Vadapalani and Koyambedu bus terminus from Ashok Pillar using the Chennai Metro has not been explored. All you need to do is to call such routes Metro Connector.
Okay, from S35, I move to S30. This MTC mini bus service also starts at the Ashok Pillar Metro Station, and goes to the Mahalingapuram Temple via West Mambalam and Kodambakkam.
The route is a tourist’s delight. The bus exits the main road at Ashok Nagar, and enters the lanes of West Mambalam, squeezing its way to Arya Gowder road. Thereon, it moves to Thambiah Reddy Road, Station View Road close to the Suburban Rail Station of Mambalam, cheek-by-jowl with jasmine flower vendors, vegetable sellers, the popular Bakiya Fast Food hotel before turning into Lake View Road.
Since it does not really enter residential localities (again, shadow of autorickshaw lobbies?) the bus is often near-empty as it approaches Five Lights, en route Liberty and then Mahalingapuram Temple.
I have two observations here: If these services had been tailored to cover the suburban rail stations – S35 to touch Saidapet, S30 to touch Kodambakkam besides going closer to Mambalam – there would be many more patrons. It would serve a felt need for hyperlocal mobility.
Adding a layer of Information Technology to it in the form of a bus locator system would make it even more popular, since more passengers would arrive with certainty, and avoid waiting.
One more thought: Could MTC stop putting wooden route boards on these buses (and others too) that block off the LED route information that is already available on the bus? They serve no purpose because there are no lights to illuminate these dumb boards in the dark.
I have had the opportunity to look at the upcoming Vadapalani station of Chennai Metro Rail. Although it is in the segment from Koyambedu to Alandur (which is ready to be inaugurated as and when the AIADMK government stirs itself) the station is far from prepared as of today.
I found some work going on in haste this afternoon.
What really troubles me is whether it is fit enough for mass pedestrian access of the kind that Chennai Metro keeps talking about. The approach from the west (from the SIMS Hospital of SRM) is weak, there is no strong footpath to take a rush of passengers, and even the one leading into and out of the station is small. To the east, the situation is not very different. Even during the construction, Chennai Metro Rail Limited has not provided good pedestrian segregation here, and when it rains, this site is surrounded by water.
Apparently, cooperation between the State Highways, CMDA, Chennai Corporation and CMRL is weak.
By contrast, there seems to be a wide gap for vehicles on either side, one leading to a big shopping mall behind. Will this be used to operate feeder transport services or for use by assorted vehicles including private ones?
Here are the photos I have from today and the past couple of days.
This new MTC bus in Chennai from T Nagar depot is a design horror. I rode in it Saturday from Chennai Central, route 11 cut service. I was shocked to find the front left seats placed in such a fashion that one has to squeeze between the engine and the seat to sit; a crude black box is placed under the seat (partly seen in photo) – something of a storage container, I imagine. The alternative is to vault over the narrow space. MTC is brazenly violating the National Bus Code standard AIS 052 and is getting no flak for it. It was equally arrogant in the case of mini buses too. Also, it seems to matter little that MTC is a member of UITP, the international association of Public Transport which is campaigning for better quality transport. Who designed this monstrosity at MTC, which has used taxpayers’ money in a way that hurts them, literally?
That is the tweet I posted earlier today from the MTC 18 K Deluxe that I boarded at Thousand Lights. Although it has been in office for three years now, the AIADMK Government has not been able to improve the Chennai bus service. It is still operating buses purchases years ago, and not maintained well. So bad is the situation that several passengers are reporting injuries regularly.
In photo above, also note the crude use of bolts and screws in the bodywork. This is quite common in Indian bus services, and they cause a lot of injury annually, since many buses are involved in minor and major accidents.
This is the site of an important facility that pedestrians in Chennai’s Rangarajapuram and Kodambakkam areas look forward to – a walkway connecting Rangarajapuram Main Road and T. Nagar’s North Usman Road near Vivek’s.
Before the Rangarajapuram bridge with its two arms was built here, there was a railway gate here, with a guard to man it. After the gate has been removed to make for the ‘flyover’, the question of constructing a low-use subway for pedestrians and cyclists was taken up.
Some vested interests quickly tried moved in to demand that motorised two-wheelers and even autorickshaws should be allowed to use this small passage. Pedestrians have been protesting that there are other options for motorised vehicles, including the newly constructed bridge (which operates as a one-way access in the morning hours), with the default entry being from the T. Nagar side. It is not clear whether motorised two-wheelers will be allowed to ride through this mini-subway.
What stands out in this project is the lethargic pace of implementation.
As the picture shows, things have been lying in a morbid condition for weeks, and residents of several apartment complexes on Rangarajapuram Main Road have been unable to have access to their property. No one from the Corporation of Chennai seems to show much anxiety at this state of affairs. Contrast this with the 24-hour work cycle for the Chennai Metro Rail that is advancing that project so visibly.
Equally important, once this facility is completed, it will provide walkers a quick passage to T. Nagar.
It remains to be seen whether the subway will have sufficient space for walkers, with safe elevation of walking path, or whether they will be at the mercy of motorised road users once again.
One of the strange things about the Chennai MTC bus service is its general contempt for information systems.
It does not communicate actively with its few million riders.
Even its route boards on buses – though better than in some other state capitals – are difficult to read.
Take this one on a route 11H bus. Though the bus has an expensive LED board, someone at MTC thought it necessary to have a painted board over the LED. Since there is no illumination for such transplanted boards, it remains in the dark at night.
Can you imagine that MTC paid 230000 rupees for each of their boards!