Where Chennai MTC Volvos go to die

This is the place that Chennai MTC does not want you to see. It’s where good buses are turned into junk, left to rust and die.

The Chromepet MTC depot, about a kilometre from the suburban railway station, is a ghost yard.

There are abandoned Volvos, which are at most 8 years old. There are of course scores of the less expensive buses from Leyland and Tata, which have departed from a useful life. Their rusting bodies just lie there, killed by some mysterious management disease.

On Monday, I was passing by and noticed these buses through the gate. I took the pictures that you see here, and that set off panic among a couple of staffers, one of whom had seen me.

I had walked almost one km further, when two men on a scooter came behind me, wanting to know why I took pictures.

“Who are you,” I asked.

“Staff,” said the rider. When I told them I was a journalist, they became a little cautious but were still pressing on that pictures should not be taken.

“Why, is it some secret,” I asked.

“No. No. Nothing. It’s full of bushes there. So just wanted to know,” the rider in a lungi said. His scooter had a crude MTC sticker on the front.

“What’s your name. Give me your phone number,” I demanded. He declined. The man on his pillion said he was not staff. Both went away.

Who sent these men? What does MTC have to hide, especially in the wake of the steep fare hike?

We need a judicial inquiry into the state of our transport corporations. A Volvo bus could not turn into junk in 8 years unless there is monumental corruption in this Corporation.

Why is not the DMK revealing the truth? What are LPF, its labour wing, and the Left Unions like CITU hiding? Are they involved in what’s going on?

The last photo is that of a disused MTC industrial training institute. Why is it abandoned? This was paid for by tax payers. Should it not be used to train some youth in skills? Even if they don’t go to work for MTC?

Update: Since the publication of this post, I got the following response from a senior government official, making the point that MTC buses have actually been used way beyond their “scrap by” date. Here’s what the official says (unedited):

A judicial enquiry into how buses that should have been condemned otherwise where allowed to continue to be utilised till the point of total breakdown – would be in order. I can be of help. Some facts : long distance buses should be condemned immediately after 3 years or 7 lakh kilometres whichever is earlier and other buses should be condemned immediately after 6 years or 7 lakh kilometres whichever is earlier. On both counts, the Volvo buses should have been condemned way beyond the time they were allowed to be in operation.

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How to get around the bus strike in Chennai

The MTC bus workers strike in Chennai since yesterday evening is pretty effective, and the impact is severe on some classes of commuters more than others, and some areas like the suburbs, over others.

Here are some possibilities of moving across parts of the city, while the issue gets sorted out:
20171126_150115-1238x1651 (1)

1. Check the distance to the nearest route where share autos – mini vans – operate. You can get one somewhere close in T.Nagar, Valluvar Kottam, Loyola College, Nungambakkam on College Road, Luz-Mylapore, Inner Ring Road near Ashok Nagar, Tirumangalam, Vadapalani junction, Mogappair, and Velachery-St. Thomas Mount.

2. Use the Chennai Metro if you are going from a point close-by from the limited service, to Kilpauk, Anna Nagar, Tirumangalam, Koyambedu CMBT bus stand, Vadapalani, Ashok Nagar, St. Thomas Mount, Nanganallur and airport.

3. Ola and Uber had regular operations since morning, and it should be possible to get a cab, including share rides. Try Ola Auto and you just may be lucky.

4. Suburban/MRTS trains are an option touching Central, Velachery, Tambaram, and other regular points ranging from Chengalpattu to Gummidipoondi. Download the UTS app and Rs.100 to it, to go paperless (e-ticket) on the Beach-Tambaram route.

5. For inter-city movements, check out an app like Bla Bla Car, taking care to check out the record of people offering rides. Caveat emptor: Do not use this option if you are doubtful, or if you think you carry a higher risk, like a woman travelling alone.

6. Autorickshaws continue to operate, but you need good negotiating skills and knowledge of distances to avoid being fleeced.

 

Safety: What a thug did on Chennai MTC route 25G on the last service

By G. Ananthakrishnan

How people perceive safety on public transport is a key factor that determines its popularity and use. This is an attribute that acquires particular significance in India, and other developing countries, due to poor connect between users and operators.

Safety is accorded low priority by State governments, since they look at public transport as an offering for the socially and economically backward, and not as a full-fledged mobility option.

I say this because an experience on an MTC bus on route 25G to Poonamallee from Anna Square on the night of November 24, at 11.20 p.m. makes personal vehicles seem a safer option than green mobility on buses.

A passenger waiting at Safire stop became belligerent, because the car in which I had come to the bus stop, he alleged, blocked his view. I alighted from the car to board the same bus. His charge was false, because a bus is taller than a car and it was right behind.

What followed was a series of abuses and threats from the offended man to me, which I had no choice but to respond equally vociferously – word for word, abuse for abuse.

The incident ended with one more verbal confrontation at Liberty stop, where I asked the thuggish passenger to come to the police patrol car to sort the matter out. He carefully avoided it. A policeman who came up looking at the scene merely ensured that nothing worse happened. The bus went on its way with the thug on it.

Although this is not a terribly threatening incident other than for the prospect of violence by the thug, who was in his forties, it pointed to several difficulties in the use of late night public transport in Chennai.

For one, MTC buses are patronised by many people of a dissolute background late in the evening. They are often nothing more than wastrels and thugs, giving bus crews also a hard time. Many of them are drunk.

In such a situation, it becomes important for the crew to act in the interests of passengers in general, and rope in the Police where necessary. Such enforcement holds the key to a strong perception that public transport is safe in Chennai at any time. In many British cities, buses are now equipped with CCTV cameras, just like newer Metro trains.

During the altercation on board the 25G bus, the crew kept away, not wanting to maintain order on the bus. No enquiries were made by the conductor, who is responsible for the smooth operation of the bus.

It should be the standard protocol to stop the bus at the nearest Police patrol car, and bring the incident to the notice of the personnel. Such an approach would prompt thugs and drunks to think a second time before turning belligerent. Genuine passengers would feel empowered.

Graham Currie and others write in this article in the Journal of Public Transportation that, “Overall, the research suggests that feelings of anxiety and discomfort associated with travelling with people you do not know is the most influential factor driving negative feelings of personal safety on public transport.” Moreover, they say, actual experiences influence perception even if the statistical evidence shows low rates of crime incidents.

Oxford Circus incident

Transport safety was, ironically, implicated in another incident the same night at the same time in distant London’s Oxford Circus tube station. An altercation on the platform between two individuals triggered an alert that was reported instantly around the world. Panic caused injuries and material losses to many passengers and even unconnected people in nearby areas, as they fell down or dropped their belongings to flee.

After what has happened in train stations in Brussels and a couple of German towns, and even in China, the apprehension of physical harm sets in among many users of public transport. The personal automobile then comes to represent a safer place, which causes severe harm to the environment and adds to congestion in urban spaces.

The very reasoning of public transport as a safe, comfortable and affordable alternative is lost.

Record the evidence

It is of course, interesting to consider what options are available to a passenger when faced with a situation threatening her personal safety, and at the very least, expectation of harassment-free travel.

In the Chennai incident, I think it would have been more productive for me to record the altercation on video, which would yield invaluable evidence not just of the immediate occurrence, but about whether the thug or criminal involved is wanted for other such incidents.

That opportunity was unfortunately not seized in the commotion.

If internet connectivity is not an issue, it would even be optimal to livecast the incident on Facebook or YouTube since it provides a new perspective and would alert everyone to an ongoing threat to safety in a public vehicle.

Of course, many bus stops in Chennai lack decent street lighting, making it difficult to even evaluate threats before a journey can commence after dusk.

Chennai’s popular ‘share autos’ operating illegally: Transport Dept to RTI query

Share autos, or 7-seater mini vans operating in the hundreds in Chennai are illegal, and cannot pick up and drop passengers at random, the Tamil Nadu Transport Department said in reply to an RTI query that I filed in March, 2017. The RTI application was filed to the Secretary, Transport, Tamil Nadu, who forwarded it to the Transport Commissioner, who in turn sent it to RTOs.

The response of the department exposes the lack of a regulated scheme for shared transport in Tamil Nadu, although such services have been operational for a few years now and are highly popular with commuters, especially women. Even the Chennai Metro Rail acknowledges the popularity of these services as feeders from some of its stations. The share autos also provide night transport till almost 2 a.m., which the State government has failed to.

The monopoly bus operator in Chennai, the MTC, has responded grudgingly to the need for small-format transport and introduced a couple of hundred 24 seater mini-buses (besides at least 12 standing passengers) which are also well-patronised. However, for apparently political reasons [not wanting to upset autorickshaw interests], the MTC has not expanded the scheme of mini-buses in a targeted fashion, connecting railway and Metro stations, residential areas and bus termini.

On the RTI query, when asked whether 7-seater or 6-seater vehicles could operate under any law in the city of Chennai and the neighbouring districts of Thiruvallur and Kancheepuram as ‘share autos’, taking passengers from the roadside for drop at random, the Regional Transport Office, Chennai (North West), Chennai 600102 said “No” in its response dated April 3.

So what action is being taken by the Transport Department to regulate the operation of such ‘share autos’ – currently seen operating from areas like Mylapore, Thiruvanmiyur, Nesappakkam, Porur, Chennai Central, T.Nagar, Anna Nagar and Mogappair?

“The Motor Vehicles Inspectors are conducting regular checks on these vehicles and booking for offences committed,” the RTI reply said.

Shared transport in Chennai
A 7-seater share auto in Chennai. Usually, these vehicles carry a minimum of 9 people, and at night, up to 13, charging between Rs.7 and Rs.30 per head for a 1 km -10 km ride.

The RTO (North West) also provided figures of how many 7-seater and 6-seater vehicles were given taxi permit for operation in the city of Chennai, Thiruvallur and Kancheepuram, within its jurisdiction.

The details of the taxi permits are as follows:

Year 7 SEATER 6 SEATER
2011 12 3
2012 05 01
2013 01
2014 05
2015 03 21
2016 02

Data from Regional Transport Officer (North West), Chennai, 600102

The RTO did not respond to questions on whether the Transport Department had any rules in existence or proposed any to enable the operation of shared passenger vehicles, using commercial transport apps for smartphones and on the internet, such as Ola Share and Uberpool. “This office is only a Regional office. Hence the question not related to this office,” the reply stated.

A similar response was given to a question on whether the Transport Department was taking steps to incorporate the Union Ministry of Road Transport and Highways report on Guidelines for Taxi Cab Operations in Cities for urban mobility, which MoRTH had published in December 2016 and which was sent by the Union Joint Secretary for Transport, Abhay Damle to the Secretaries of Transport in the States.

Need for answers

Both Chennai Metro and MTC are members of the UITP, the international association of public transport which will hold its summit in Montreal, Canada between May 15 and 17, 2017.

Forming a proper scheme to introduce regulated shared modes of transport in Chennai, besides expanding the static bus network of the MTC are major issues before the city. Delegates from Chennai will be called upon to explain their plan to meet these objectives during and after the UITP conference.

 

 

 

Chennai Metro fares may be subsidising station car parking

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.

chennai_metro_rail_at_koyambedu
A Chennai Metro train at Koyambedu station. Photo: KARTY JazZ, Creative Commons

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.

Chennai’s MTC starves S30 with solo weekend service

When they were introduced after a long delay, the ‘small buses‘ of Chennai’s Metropolitan Transport Corporation were intended to cater to congested areas that had little or no public transport connectivity – these places were at the mercy of autorickshaws that do not ply by meter. In some areas, they were meant to mop up the revenue being lost to 7-seater taxis that operate illegally, often overloaded to about 12 or even 14 passengers.

S30, operating from Mahalingapuram Ayyappan Temple to Ashok Nagar [Metro Station] via Kodambakkam, Rangarajapuram, West Mambalam and Ashok Nagar is one such small bus route.

s301
On a Saturday evening, there are too few people in this S30 service to Mahalingapuram, in West Mambalam. Photo: G. Ananthakrishnan (CC)

It may sound incredible, but MTC has reduced the number of buses on S30 on Saturdays and Sundays to just one. Yes, one bus.

On other days, there are 2 buses on the route, which means a frequency of approximately 30 minutes. Even on weekdays, if a bus breaks down, the waiting time may be doubled.

On July 2, I waited for this bus at the Ashok Nagar Metro Station for 20 minutes at 7.30 p.m. The conductor later said the route fetched poor returns, sometimes just Rs.350 per shift.

Not a smart move by Chennai MTC
The S30 waiting at Liberty Bus stop on a trip towards Ashok Pillar. Note the wooden board that obscures the LED route display. Photo: G. Ananthakrishnan

 

 

MTC management problem

But the problem with the poor collection and low patronage is of MTC’s own making.

The Chennai Metro Rail does not really go anywhere right now, so there are few passengers to take the small buses from Ashok Pillar or Alandur.  But there is another well-patronised train station that S30 and other buses could touch, yet do not: the Kodambakkam Suburban Railway station.

If S30 is re-routed via the Kodambakkam Railway Station rather than cover only Viswanathapuram Main Road, it will attract people who want to reach Rangarajapuram, West Mambalam and Ashok Nagar.

In the future, when Chennai Metro has a fuller service, those who want to go to Kodambakkam station or residential localities nearby can board it at Ashok Nagar. [Story on present ridership is here]

No data insight on passengers

MTC has also shown lack of data insight into the transport demand in Rangarajapuram, where bus connectivity had dwindled over the past 15 years. With better planning, S30 could have been deployed partly on Rangarajapuram Main Road, to create better access (as route S35 does in Jones Road, West Saidapet).

Historically, route 11 D to Parrys/Broadway that used to pass through Rangarajapuram, specifically Rangarajapuram Main Road, has been withdrawn, and refashioned as 11G which does not touch the area – it uses Brindavan Street instead, from Arya Gowda Road.

S30 could have provided some connectivity to the residents of Rangarajapuram area, helping them reach the Kodambakkam Suburban Railway Station in one direction, and the Ashok Pillar bus stop and Metro Station in the other.

These tweaks to the S30 route, together with an increase in the number of services operating on it, are vital to improve its viability. It would be a shame if the route was completely done away with because MTC has not made a proper demand study, and the choice has been imposed without consulting the public.

The pity is that Chennai MTC does not provide real time information on its services to passengers. If a passenger knew the time of arrival of a small bus, or its location, it would be easier to plan the journey.

MTC is the perfect example of India’s transport service providers not keeping pace with technological developments, and the capabilities of smartphones to deliver travel information, even in a major city like Chennai.

 

 

bus-mats
Mats for Yogis? India’s city buses are an interesting place to study the country’s transition. This mat seller found no difficulty in hauling his stuff up four steps into the rickety #Chennai MTC bus on its way to Broadway from Mangadu. Most times, such traders pay a small ‘luggage’ fare to transport their wares to distant markets. Because of lack of modernisation, bus networks in India, even in Metros, do not attract the middle class commuter.Photo: G. Ananthakrishnan (CC – attribution)

 

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.

 

 

 

Why do you think Chennai Metro is low on riders?

A report in The Hindu says the Metro operator, CMRL doesn’t know the reasons for low ridership. Obviously it doesn’t believe in commuter surveys even using their own website + social media.

metro
First world comfort, but poor connectivity. Photo: G. Ananthakrishnan (Usage: CC)
In my view, the Metro in Chennai, with only a small 10 km section in operation currently, and the full 45 km project terribly behind schedule, is more of a novelty because of high fare, lack of integration with the city’s major bus operator MTC (who should be running feeders from stations into the surrounding neighbourhood and to the suburban rail system stations). It was the same story with the MRTS in the early days when it ran upto to Mylapore. MTC did not care about such a facility being available.

I said some of these things on Twitter, as a discussion was sparked off by the news report on low Metro ridership:

One of the arguments was that if the alignment had been along the OMR, commuters in the upper echelons living there would have patronised the Metro more, as they could pay higher fares.

That is certainly true from a purchasing power standpoint, but OMR also needs mass transport connectivity because it is a growth corridor. It needs orderly development.

Since there is no one with responsibility to take a complete view of the city’s networks, all individual parts are neglected. Take my own case. I would like to use trains and buses more and feeders in between, but the costing is such that a shared taxi provided by an App-based company like Ola often does the job better, offering door-to-door ride in an A/C cab, at comparable rates during leaner hours of the day. At other times, they resort to surge pricing, which shifts the advantage back to trains and buses.

It is also interesting that in spite of losing customers to App-based taxis and unauthorised shared vehicles (“Share Autos” in local terminology), the state government networks fail to respond. There is no expansion, no demand assessment. That makes me think something is going on behind the scenes that I cannot see!

https://twitter.com/TheMetroRailGuy/status/720838728252395520

Meanwhile The Metro Rail Guy raised the unresolved issue of the Metro station in Alandur being hostile to the very people that it hopes to serve, with no facility to easily cross the wide GST Road outside the station. That’s something I have personal experience of!

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