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:

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.





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:

It is a long, difficult climb for the disabled at India’s suburban rail stations

India’s urban train stations are disabled-unfriendly, in spite of 17 years of existence of the Persons with Disabilities Act (1995). With the need for mobility increasing for young and old, the absence of infrastructure such as lifts and escalators is felt acutely.

A man with a walking aid prepares for the long climb down – after coming up an equally steep flight of stairs at the Kodambakkam Railway Station in Chennai, September 18, 2012

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!


Chennai’s missing mini-buses: An idea for the AIADMK government

There is no clarity on the transport policy of the AIADMK government, barring the red and off-white colour to be used when repainting MTC buses. The mini-bus scheme is in the doldrums.  Fortunately, the Metro Rail work had started in the DMK regime, or that would also still be up in the air.

If this inflation-stoking government is interested in providing an alternative to citizens, it should think of transport options that use this form factor – a medium sized bus that can navigate the inner city areas, run on specified, numbered routes and collect regulated fare.

This is a Mercedes Benz Sprinter City series van, with obvious benefits for all passengers, particularly the disabled and elderly, thanks to universal design. Does the Tamil Nadu government care?

Can we fix plain old walking spaces in Chennai first?

A city can call itself civilised only if it has a reasonable walkability score, but Chennai is now notorious for not measuring up. The media carries many announcements on expensive plans for total renovation of roads and footpaths, but not the loss of spaces along road margins that can be cleared up with executive measures, not major investment.

I use the Station View Road to reach the Kodambakkam railway station a lot. Here’s what it feels like to walk to this important travel point.   (More Twitter Walkability handles on this list).

Frozen in time, can suburban rail find a renaissance ?

The Railway Minister, Dinesh Trivedi is presenting the Railway Budget today. It is beyond argument that the Indian Railways will remain the lifeline of a populous India for a long time to come, ferrying people across States by the millions, and keeping economic activity vibrant.

As a regular user of suburban rail in Chennai, I am aware of the tremendous impact that these services have on urban mobility. But this segment of our railways has remained in something of a blind spot. The photo below epitomises the problem. The clock on this MRTS platform at Fort station has stood still for years now, invisible to the Chennai Division of Southern Railway, and too remote for the average commuter using the trains to complain about.

In a blind spot: The clock in this picture has remained frozen in time for at least five years now. Fort Station MRTS platform, Chennai, India

There is a servicing unit for automated ticketing machines close to this clock, which is manned by Railway staff. Possibly, they have no mandate to do anything about it. Would not the members of various Railway unions be disappointed with this image of their infrastructure and service? Apparently not.

In some ways, this clock is symbolic of what is wrong with urban rail operated in various cities by the Railway Ministry from New Delhi. It shows potential, and, simultaneously, neglect. It could be good working vintage, but is dysfunctional. Several elements in the picture add strength to this view. The information system is poor. A timings chart on this platform has been torn up, so you can’t find information on the next train. Access routes are bad, crowded, dirty and unwalkable.

Poor service and efficiency have rendered some good old train lines unattractive in a country of fast-moving people, and robust economic activity.

Unfortunately, the marginal efficiency and the comfort of personal motor transport remains attractive enough for many influential people not to intervene and modernise the suburban rail system. Only a rude fuel price shock can shake us out of complacency, and hit the vocal classes where it hurts. Change can then be attempted more easily.

Will Volvo, Scania Citywide, Leyland Jan Bus change the way we see buses?

As a regular commuter on Chennai buses (once again!) one cannot help noticing the poor image that this form of transport has. On the one hand, most buses are not really…well, buses. They are crude bodies rigged on to obsolete truck chassis. Governments are not willing to replace all of the existing fleet with properly designed buses for various reasons. Buses also suffer a bad image, on the other hand, because of overcrowding.

So when you see a flurry of announcements on international models of buses coming to India in coming years, complementing hectic activity to build urban rail and BRT systems, you begin to think that there is some hope. The latest issue of Autocar Professional ( reports that Scania plans to bring its global bus models to India, although only in 2014.

The Scania Citywide bus. Photo: Scania web gallery

To be sure, both the Volvo 8400 and the Scania Citywide LE and LF look top class in terms of aesthetics and passenger comfort. They also offer low-floor access, which India’s ageing population will welcome. The same goes for Ashok Leyland’s Jan Bus, which was showcased at the Delhi Auto Expo 2012 (report in The Hindu here).

A source in Leyland Chennai pointed out that unlike the Volvos and other international buses coming to market, the Jan Bus is aggressively priced. When asked whether it would be in the Rs.40 lakhs to Rs. 70 lakhs band (the latter is the sale price for Volvos so far), we are told that it would be in the “lower end of the spectrum.”

This offers a lot of hope, as bus operators such as Chennai’s monopoly Metropolitan Transport Corporation have not gone in for fleet modernisation on a large scale yet. MTC used some meagre JNNURM funding to buy a small fleet of Volvos, which it operates more as suburban connectors and not essentially as intra-city services. The skimpy number is also coming in the way of regular, predictable patronage.

Coming up with a good strategy for 2014 is essential for Chennai bus operations. For one thing, the first Metro Rail lines will open by then. Again, there is pressure to introduce integrated ticketing, something that the MTC has resisted so far, and the Central and Tamil Nadu Governments have not insisted upon. Chennai’s Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority, which remains a still-born agency, has also not taken a view on this key question. The Urban Development Ministry in New Delhi, which has unveiled a new mobility card for India, has also not put any pressure, although it forked out JNNURM funding for Tamil Nadu. But with maturing transit markets, changing commuter expectations and more automation in fare collection, that scenario is bound to change.

The Jan Bus exterior. Image : Ashok Leyland

Which brings us to the question of how far the AIADMK Government will go to modernise Chennai transport, the ageing and rickety bus fleet in particular. At the moment, this is a dismally performing government, having not moved ahead with the mini-bus system promised first by the DMK regime, and refurbished by itself since Ms.Jayalalithaa assumed office.  This media report claims that the service will be introduced “soon” but that remains more of  a wish list item than a point of fact!

Update: On Sunday, February 19, we saw a brick coloured new city model Ashok Leyland bus, low or semi-low floor with doors, run “On Test” in Chennai, from Kathipara junction in Guindy.It will hopefully enter service soon.

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