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 Thus, its proposed Chennai Metro app (for Android) may not have real time information on trains, just static maps, an outdated model.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


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.

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!

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!

A Chennai pedestrian facility that is taking ages to build

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.

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

Chennai continues to have the worst walkability score

Chennai, India has, arguably, the worst walkability score in the country. Pedestrians and vendors must compete for the space that now remains, after gross subsidies given to motorised road users by successive DMK and AIADMK governments. Walkability Asia has assessed this dismal state of affairs. We need an organised campaign to reverse the trend and reclaim lost walking spaces.


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!


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.

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