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.

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 Thus, its proposed Chennai Metro app (for Android) may not have real time information on trains, just static maps, an outdated model.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.


MTC Small Buses waiting for smart moves

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.

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. Photos: G. Ananthakrishnan

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:

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.

Chennai Metro Vadapalani station April 19, 2015
The alignment of the Chennai Metro Vadapalani station on the elevated track.

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.

Waiting for the Chennai Metro – Ashok Nagar station

Here is a view of the Ashok Nagar Metro station near the Ashok Pillar today. Chennai waits for the first leg – Koyambedu to Alandur – of the CMRL to be opened.

The Hindu carried a review of the stations this morning. Read that here. Some existing MTC mini buses operate from outside this station. Ironically, similar mini-bus connectivity is not available from most suburban train stations in Chennai.

There is no clarity yet about the nature of feeder transport that the CMRL will arrange from its stations. Chennai does not have a functioning transport regulator, and the AIADMK government has not moved ahead with demand-based services in the form of shared vans, mini buses and regular buses, both to extended destinations, local catchment and to connect bus and rail stations. That lacuna includes lack of advance planning for the upcoming Metro.

Ashok Nagar Chennai Metro station.
The Ashok Nagar Metro station. Note the pillar placement on the footpath that leaves a narrow space at left. Photo: G. Ananthakrishnan

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.

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.)

Chennai Mini Bus Scheme may offer too little

The Hindu today returns to the issue of Mini-Bus service in Chennai with this story: Mini buses likely on city roads soon . You might ask how a “likely” service can be promised “soon”, but that is not the primary concern here.

According to the report, the experts at Anna University have given much thought to the need for mini- bus service for this city of 7 million people and come up with the recommendation that there is a need for 100 routes and a fleet of 200 mini buses.

To our mind, that would translate into an allocation of 2 buses per route even if this is to be just a token start. With that kind of fleet, you would have to wait for a bus for one full hour at any given point, since it takes about 60 minutes to cover the route length, traffic, stops and all. It somehow seems difficult to believe that it takes an expert to come up with this suggestion. This is an outmoded service model straight out of the 1970s.

There is a clamour for mini-buses in suburbs and interiors of city localities of Chennai alike, as Tamil Nadu is one of the three most urbanised states along with Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh as per the provisional Census 2011 findings. The price of petrol has risen sharply from the time the Tamil Nadu government talking about mini buses.

It is possible that the AIADMK government, which has a history of allowing laissez faire transport operations to weaken trade unions and breaking strikes, will choose a model that will set high benchmark fares and be loosely regulated. That model has been in vogue for long, in the private inter-city bus sector in the State (referred to as omnibus operation).

The ideal mini-bus size would be such as this Mercedes van, with large windows, high clearance, features that Tata Magic type vehicles lack
The ideal mini-bus size would be such as this Mercedes van, with large windows, high clearance, features that Tata Magic type vehicles lack. Photo: Mercedes Benz

If the AIADMK government is sincere it should set the terms of operation and invest in mini bus networks that are either owned and operated by MTC, or by a whole new public sector corporation, or at least by individual entrepreneurs who meet standardised, transparent norms. What is good for Cable TV should be good for bus service as well.

We need dependable connectivity from main roads in all residential localities to bus termini and railway stations.

But the mini bus idea is a half-measure, since the Jayalalithaa government is silent about augmenting overall bus fleet strength in Chennai, engaging in ticketing reform to sell bus passes for one week and one month widely (as cell phone SIM cards are sold), and integrating buses – including the promised mini buses – with train operations. For all this, it would have to take the lawfully constituted Chennai Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority seriously, and treat transport as a professional service, not as charity. The full text of CUMTA is here.

Before the Tamil Nadu Assembly elections, we had asked the question, “Will Karunanidhi or Jayalalithaa give us better wheels?” – Although it is the latter who won, there is no indication that things will significantly improve.

If you would like to suggest a mini-bus route for Chennai, visit this page on Ushahidi’s Crowdmap and enter the destination information in the form provided. Alternatively, you can put it out on Twitter with the hashtag #chennaiminiibus

Bangalore on world transit map with “Namma Metro”

The Namma Metro system in Bangalore (Bengaluru) was opened by Union Urban Development Minister Kamal Nath on Thursday, October 20. It brings modern transport to the bustling city and earns it a place in the Metro cities of the world. Importantly, it provides a cushion against petrol price hikes. The bigger challenge will be to form an integrated transport arrangement in Bangalore, as in other Indian cities.

The BMRC has a card offering that it says works on both buses and Namma Metro. Details are here

Here are some media reports on the opening of the new system, starting with a TV clip

The Hindu has a slideshow on the Metro after the inaugural run and this report on South India’s first Metro. This report in The Hindu further makes the point that the Metro stations are disabled-friendly.  The fare structure for the Metro is provided in a graphic on this page.

This report in the Business-Standard provides a fairly good overview, and highlights the Wi-Fi enabled status of the Namma Metro.

Minister Kamal Nath’s announcement that a Rs.6,000 cr Centrally-funded airport line will be taken up by BMRC is reported by the Times of india.

This Financial Times Blog by Neil Munshi refers to the IBM Commuter Pain index and asks whether the Bangalore Metro really represents progress or is a white elephant, having missed many deadlines. (Is that kind of sentiment inspired by the car lobby? How would you describe clogged roads built at great cost, fleecing all tax-payers?)

AFP reported the Bengaluru Namma Metro inauguration too.

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