An ‘App-less’ Chennai Metro, MTC

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.

metro-out
Nice Alstom trains, but too cold and remote. Chennai Metro at Ashok Nagar. Photo: G. Ananthakrishnan

 

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.

chennaimap
Schematic Chennai rail map by IRFCA, a voluntary effort 

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.

standard-tube-map-new
The London Underground is probably the best mapped system in the world. 

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.

Not a smart move by Chennai MTC
The S30 waiting at Liberty Bus stop on a trip towards Ashok Pillar. Photo: G. Ananthakrishnan

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.

 

 

 

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What users said about Chennai MRTS on Facebook

The Hindu’s Facebook page today asked Chennai residents for their views on the MRTS, after a robbery in the Velachery station yesterday. A woman clerk was robbed by two men after the last train had left. Here’s what the users said on the MRTS system.

On Saturday, The Hindu reported the reaction to the lack of safety on the MRTS with two pieces: Here is one as seen on Facebook.

The discussion on social media was itself summarised in this report:

How Chennai residents lose walking space

This picture of work being carried out outside the Chintadripet MRTS station taken today is a typical example of how Chennai residents are losing walking space to vehicular traffic. The stones being used to form the kerb carry the CC symbol, indicating that they are from the Corporation of Chennai.

Chennai roads are made for vehicles, subsidising them at walkers' expense
The new kerb is a foot and half closer to the wall of the Chintadripet MRTS station, Chennai. Walkers lose that much space.

With no thought to the impending increase in the number of commuters who will want a good footpath outside MRTS when it links up to the Metro line in the next two years, the Corporation of Chennai, obviously aided by other government agencies, is engaging in negative development.  This road has a not-so-famous name : Deputy Mayor Kabalamurthy Road, connecting Anna Salai and Egmore through Chintadripet. It is bang opposite the May Day Park. The MTC bus stop for Simpson can be seen at the far end of the footpath in the picture.

The story is the same in many other roads of the city. Walkers lose, vehicles gain. Is anyone talking about this massive subsidy given to vehicle users by the government and its agencies? Is not the car industry being aided indirectly with such prime real estate worth millions, at the cost of walkers? And the AIADMK government has no compunctions in making energy-saving commuters feel guilty for the avoidable losses of the transport corporations!

 

If Medellin can provide escalators, why can’t Chennai?

The Hindu had a picture this morning of escalators being installed in a less-than-prosperous neighbourhood in Medellin, Colombia to help people living uphill move about without torturing their knees and ankles. This video provides an even better feel of the new facility.

What crosses one’s mind immediately is the fate of pedestrians in Chennai, who have some of the most difficult walking paths anywhere. Regular commuter on the city’s suburban rail system and the Mass Rapid Transit System (MRTS) find the going even tougher. To switch from the Tambaram-Beach suburban line to the Beach – Velachery MRTS, the available transit stations are Fort, and Beach. You must use a staircase of the kind seen in the picture below.

But at both places, passengers must climb steep staircases. Passengers who are 40-plus find it particularly difficult, especially women who have begun to develop osteoarthritis symptoms. Although Tamil Nadu has been represented on the Union Cabinet by several Ministers of State for Railways, they have done nothing. Our much-travelled Home Minister  P.Chidambaram, who must have seen the Washington DC Metro many times during his visits obviously finds these issues uninteresting.

The Hard Climb
An old woman makes her way slowly up the transit staircase at Fort Station in Chennai, India

See the video below to understand what a climb involves, even for a person with not-so-severe disability.

The pantheon of Dravidian political parties considers walking on the road a clear sign of personal failure – they insist on riding in nothing less than an SUV, and will walk only in their own large houses or party headquarters. Their disinterest in pedestrian facilities is therefore notorious. Thus, they put up steep staircases in Murasoli Maran’s time on Haddows Road and Nungambakkam High Road, which nobody used. A lift was then installed at the latter location, working only part of the day.

Will the example of Medellin make them feel a little bit inferior, and do something for Chennai?

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.

Why Chennai Mini Bus tariffs are likely to be higher

A piece by Jarett Walker on the website “Human Transit” dealing with the economics of bus systems with particular reference to costs has relevance to us here in Chennai, India. The “Mini Bus” idea of the erstwhile DMK Government now being pursued by the AIADMK Government has the inherent issue of cost of operation, because there would be fewer seats to a bus, while labour costs would be the same as for the bigger MTC operations.

Tata Magic vans in Chennai. Click on Image to read article in The Hindu

This automatically indicates that the tariff for the Mini Bus would have to be higher than other services to compensate, although that would not be opposed by commuters who hardly have an alternative now, barring costly autorickshaws.

Moreover, the operational dynamics of the “Tata Magic” 7-seater vans indicates that such services would be viable only in the informal sector, with loose regulation (they are not ticketed, and are increasingly adopting non-standard operational routes for instance).

Isn’t this why Chennai’s MRTS makes a ‘loss’?

Last year, there was a report in the media about the likely takeover of the Beach-Velachery MRTS system by Chennai Metro Rail Limited, given its poor financial performance. As this blog has always maintained, the reasons for the so-called “losses” in the MRTS system stem not from lack of opportunity, but failure of policy.

From the very beginning, the MRTS system was not configured to be a full-fledged mass transit system, although the cavernous stations were designed for thousands of passengers entering and exiting constantly; there was no systematic feeder service, and no compulsion on MTC to run services via stations. Those who have lived in Chennai long enough know that the stations on the Beach-Luz section were put to incompatible uses. Their more expensive infrastructure such as aluminium staircases were ripped up and stolen. The takeover of a key transit station at the junction with Anna Salai (Mount Road) –  Chintadripet – by commercial interests is another important point.

What followed the opening of the system is a thoroughly shocking misuse of the station infrastructure. The short-sighted policy of creating shopping facilities was distorted beyond belief, and the spaces that should have been helping passengers were taken over by parcel-shipping services. They brought in heavy trucks, and transport operators turned the precincts into an open repair area. Passenger parking and commuter-oriented commercial facilities, such as a post office, ATM, essential articles, phone kiosks and so on never made an appearance. Not even refreshment stalls and newspaper vending kiosks, which are usually found in suburban railway stations, were available.

Unused space in the Chintadripet MRTS station. This neglect is a major reason for lack of revenues. Compatible use of the real estate is important.

After a prolonged legal battle, which the Chennai media generally covered in a disinterested manner, the parcel services were ordered removed. As the accompanying picture shows, those offices are mostly gone (a couple of them still continue on the front side), and their walls have been broken down, but the Chintadripet MRTS station is going to seed.

The Chennai Division of Southern Railway owes us an explanation on why it has done nothing to make this prime real estate socially useful – to passengers, to government agencies who are in need of prime real estate, and to weaker sections. Self-help groups, handicraft and textile co-operatives, could be given the opportunity to market their products. This will bring more people to the station and enhance passenger safety. Will the Railway Ministry and the Government of Tamil Nadu wake up?

In Chennai, no railway for old men (or women)

Two pictures from today’s commute to show why the Chennai suburban railway system is a dinosaur in the age of modern, fast-paced public transport. The photos were taken at Fort station, which is a key transit station for the Beach-Tambaram and Beach-Velachery MRTS lines.

The staircase is so high, that most people take the risk of crossing tracks. On average, two or three people die everyday in train accidents on Chennai rail lines.

The picture shows that ageing citizens, many of them nursing painful knees and creeping osteoarthritis, as well women with similar problems, are ready to violate the rules and cross the tracks, at great risk. The irony is that most shopping malls in Chennai now have escalators that run continuously, reliable lifts, and charge nothing for entry. That’s the neoliberal approach to transport!

Okay, here’s another picture that also tells the story quite strongly.

This man climbed the steep staircase suffering great pain, virtually pulling himself up each step, clutching the banister. Here he makes his way down. Fort Station, Chennai.

Are we so poor that our tax revenues do not permit modernisation of suburban railway systems? The Southern Railway has been doing great service but its Chennai Division has performed badly on the suburban section and MRTS for years now. Incomplete stations, unsafe, cramped parking slots, rudimentary ticketing infrastructure, bad lighting and lack of good information systems bedevil the suburban railway – MRTS network of Tamil Nadu’s capital. Read this interesting piece on “The Crisis of Public Transport in India” by John Pucher, Nisha Korattyswaroopam and Neenu Ittyerah (who, incidentally, served as CPRO of Southern Railway, Chennai, well after the piece was published by the Journal of Public Transportation in 2004.)

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