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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MTC fails on climate change goals, with ‘new’ obsolete buses

Campaigners on climate change are hoping that more people will switch from personal vehicles to public transport. Emissions from transport are a significant percentage of atmospheric carbon gases, which contribute to climate change. One piece of Indian Environment Ministry data puts share of transport in total energy-related emissions at 14 per cent (see this presentation on UNEP).

Yet, it is clear that the AIADMK government shares none of this concern. It recently added some buses to the Chennai MTC fleet which are two generations behind even the standards set by the Narendra Modi government for the AMRUT scheme, not to mention smart city goals.

As the picture taken today on Anna Road at TVS shows, there are four steps to climb to get to the floor of the bus, which should translate into some 1100 mm of floor height. This is simply unacceptable, as it is impossible for elderly passengers and those with disabilities, and even children to use.  In the JNNURM scheme, Chennai was sanctioned 800 buses with a floor height of 900/850 mm floor height (which is still high).

Why is the AIADMK government building bus bodies with such a hostile design, when bus technology has advanced so much that people expect it to replicate the “metro” experience – with low floor, damped suspension, air-conditioning and good route boards, besides GPS data? Why did not this government buy a single low-floor Janbus from Ashok Leyland, which is a TN-based company? Is it because the government thinks, cynically, that the traveller should have no comfort in his commute?

A new bus added to the Chennai MTC fleet is nothing more than a crude bus body rigged on to a lorry chassis. Photo: G. Ananthakrishnan
A new bus added to the Chennai MTC fleet is nothing more than a bus body rigged on crudely to an Ashok Leyland lorry chassis. Note the four step climb. Photo: G. Ananthakrishnan

Quite an unintelligent move by the Jayalalithaa government, and requiring censure as much from the Indian Central government, as from climate campaigners. The International Association of Public Transport (UITP) should take note of how its member, MTC is a laggard when it comes to bus design, and also its objective to achieve a “modal shift” – people moving from personal vehicles to buses, trains and other public transport options.

Such outmoded buses lock-in a monopoly bus operator such as MTC into an unfriendly model for years, and the idea that more people would ride the bus out of choice becomes even more remote.

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?

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.

Chennai MRTS, government have a strange information culture

This board at the junction of Anna Salai and the Chintadripet MRTS station shows everything that is wrong with the transport information culture in Tamil Nadu’s capital. A couple of years ago, this used to indicate that the MRTS station is just opposite. Today, it stands rusting and blank, no one to write the simple message that trains run from the station just50 metres away to Velachery, Beach and with connections to Tambaram, Arakkonam, Gummidipoondi and so on. This shows that no one in the Tamil Nadu government is serious about helping the commuter. The media is equally disinterested in transport information issues.

The rusting board at the Simpson bus stop, opposite the Chintadripet MRTS station.
The rusting board at the Simpson bus stop, opposite the Chintadripet MRTS station.

Chennai UMTA: We are led by the nose

An April 18 picture shows broken seats in an MTC deluxe bus. Commuters pay 150 per cent more than base fare for these services. Photo: Hema K.S.

Today’s Chennai edition of The Hindu has a story that is headlined “The need of the hour is to make UMTA a reality.

If you Google for “Chennai UMTA”, you get links to a graveyard of stories that point to the complete dishonesty of the Tamil Nadu Government when it comes to forming a UMTA that has strong legislative backing. Of course, the piece in The Hindu sounds sufficiently serious, without actually drawing attention to the chicanery of the Kazhagams on the UMTA so far (starting with Ms. Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK).

The news story also falls flat for other reasons: The MTC has been granted a lot of funding by the Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD) under the JNNURM, for acquisition of buses. These buses are of better specifications than the pick-pocket friendly designs of the MTC, have LED display boards and so on. All these buses are operated on “Deluxe” fare, which means, the basic ticket is 150 per cent more expensive compared to the ordinary services of MTC (a first stage ticket costs Rs. 2 normally, and on Deluxe, it is Rs. 5). What is perhaps MTC’s most egregious violation of the National Urban Transport Policy is its stubborn refusal to operate any link services to the MRTS rail services, despite the Central Ministry funding the buses. Incidentally, MTC is one of the government-owned entities in Tamil Nadu that has not hosted pro-active disclosure of its activities as mandated by the Right to Information Act, 2005. It does not even mention who its Public Information Officer is.

The Hindu’s piece by Ajai Sreevatsan is silent on these basic issues. Surprisingly, another recent piece by the newspaper unquestioningly accepted MTC claims that it is incurring a per kilometre loss! If the Centre has funded all the new Deluxe buses in the grant mode, how does it add to the MTC’s costs and lead to a ‘loss’? Moreover, all the JNNURM services are run at maximum fare, and it is acknowledged that MTC’s daily collections have soared.

Another basic flaw in the newspaper’s approach to the issue is the treatment of commuter interest, vis-a-vis dry official claims of finances, operational details and so on.

As we have pointed out in the past, the MTC has been obdurate on the question expanding the availability of daily, weekly and monthly bus passes. These travel-as-you-please passes are deliberately sold by the corporation only at a handful of locations, that too only in the first fortnight of the month (for monthly) and at restricted timings. The entire approach of the MTC to passes runs counter to the funding stipulation under the JNNURM, and NUTP, but The Hindu’s coverage is remarkably silent about it.

Lastly, UMTA under the UPA policies has been pursued not just in Chennai, as a perusal of documents on the MoUD website will show. Hyderabad has a Bill in place, Mumbai has tried it. Half a dozen cities are working on Bus Rapid Transit systems, all of which can hope to deliver on service quality only with modernisation of ticketing and UMTA-aided integration. But the concept seems too complex for the media!

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The problem is that the MoUD has no political will to exert the required influence on the Railway Ministry and the State Governments, to bring about changes to the way transport is run in India’s cities. Quite simply, we need a new deal.

The country’s transport service framework is of the 1960s vintage, and half a century has not brought about any change in the mindset of the rulers. For Governments, it is a colonial vestige that must be periodically dusted and painted, to accommodate the bottom quintile that cannot afford its own vehicles. For transport workers, it is a vehicle for unionised mobilisation (we stress here that we respect and will fight for workers’ rights, but do not recognise their right to determine the type, frequency, fare and nature of services, which are in the realm of commuter rights). For politicians, the pool of labour is useful to organise political dharnas, agitations and “off the road” situations for a bandh.

A legally-backed UMTA can change all this, and make commuter rights actionable. Commuters would assert their rights if the level of service is not good, would fight service cuts, demand increases and bring sufficient pressure to professionalise the system.

None of this is part of the media focus on the UMTA.

MTC and corruption: Why the sudden concern?

The daily newspapers and other media in Tamil Nadu recently carried the sensational report that the Managing Director of Chennai’s monopoly bus operator, Metropolitan Transport Corporation was found by police to possess a large amount of cash that he could not account for.

Going around with a large amount in cash is nothing new in “Kazhagam” land. One MLA belonging to the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam from Mylapore was killed in a car crash several years ago in a neighbouring town, and a few million rupees were strewn around the accident site (the money had been stuffed into a suitcase for election expenditure). The police, quite unusually, returned the money intact. Perhaps such exemplary behaviour was encouraged by the fact that the cash had come from the top rungs of the party.

But the sluice gates of corruption have always been wide open in Dravidian land (by which I refer to the regimes of the two major Kazhagams).

So why did Mr. Ramasubramaniam, the low-profile MD of a bus company become the quarry for the anti-corruption police? That will remain a moot question.

The media has not found the question worth pursuing, and has stuck to a pale press statement issued by the Government. No one wants to be on the wrong side of politicians.

It is helpful to remember that although the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam swears by nationalised transport (with which I have no quarrel), it has in parallel resorted to backdoor privatisation. The MTC buses now have bodies built in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu by private builders, with crude doors and a plasticky trim.

More recently, the transport monopoly also decided to go in for some strange modernisation – putting in GPS systems in buses which don’t have working speedometers or even brake lights. Further public-private partnership projects were outlined ( a euphemism for private sector entry) in the form of 500 modernised bus shelters with cash vending machines, a public telephone and so on.

Quite obviously, the gravy has been flowing thick and steady in the corridors of the MTC for a long time now.  Vigilance action against a particular decision-maker usually follows (especially in a third world country like India) the failure to “share” the kickback as promised.

Typically, contractors pass on bribes in Dravidianland as elsewhere, under the head of “birthday” expenses or “gift” for some wedding coming up. In this case, the money seized only from the official’s car and office totalled Rs. 619,000. The police decided to spare the gentleman of “ignominy” by avoiding a raid on his house, as there was an upcoming wedding (never mind that the same police released a statement to all newspapers about finding unaccounted cash, virtually taking the official’s pants off!).  Anyway, that’s perhaps part of Dravidian self-respect protocols!

The point of it all is that there has always been something very rotten at MTC. The Unions have gone along with it, although they knew what was going on. The mandarins in Fort St.George knew it, and tacitly sanctioned it.

The people who were paying usurious fares for deluxe and Volvo services are those who have been cheated. Inferior buses have been put on the road, true modernisation of the MTC has been resisted, and there is no commuter representation in decision-making.

This shameful state of affairs must change. The MTC administration should be removed from its concrete hideouts and put under the spotlight, with an external audit to determine who was behind the rampant corruption in the purchase of spares, the diversion of funds and the kickbacks.

Such a strong audit is vital because tax funds have been forked out by the millions  by Manmohan Singh’s UPA government under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) to Tamil Nadu, partly for bus services. This money belongs to us, and we demand to know how it was used.

It is outrageous that when commuters have had their pockets cleaned out by MTC checking inspectors who overload buses all the time, the officials have been siphoning out money for mandarins and political masters.

Beach – Velachery MRTS schedules disappear in stations

On a trip to Kasturba Nagar earlier this evening on the Beach – Velachery MRTS, the most noticeable thing in the stations on the route was the missing time-tables. As each month goes on, and more commuters want to take the train, the system seems to be regressing.

Sunset view on Tuesday, from the window of a Velachery-bound MRTS train
Sunset view on Tuesday, from the window of a Velachery-bound MRTS train

The stations were all dark and gloomy, and the Kasturba Nagar station was completely dark at 6.30 p.m. Was it a result of the compulsory power shutdown of the DMK Government? Is it not possible to use a few solar panels, positioned securely, to power some lamps in the station?

For all the noises that they make, the UPA-DMK combine has done next to nothing for the Chennai commuter. And the DMK appears to be poised, in spite of communal trouble being stoked by the sangh parivar all around the country, to be routed in the next Lok Sabha election, if it continues with its present ways.

The downturn in the fortunes of the DMK is not something that only political columnists are writing about. Electricity Minister Arcot Veerasamy has expressed fears that if there is a debacle, he will be blamed.

Mr. Karunanidhi could also factor in a lot of urban resentment about commuters feeling abandoned by his Government. The biting inflation is made even more painful by the cost of travel in Chennai; the tacit encouragement given to autorickshaws to operate beyond the pale of law and regulation only adds to the sense of alienation not just for the middle classes, but also for the rising newly-employed population. The DMK has a lot of thinking to do, considering that Chennai is no longer the DMK bastion of old, when encouragement given to lumpen politics ensured electoral gains. Today’s governments are expected to deliver. And the DMK has little to show for its performance in urban transport. 

But then, for the commuter, neither the DMK nor the AIADMK is a useful choice, when it comes to transport policy. That is the rot that the city experiences.

Chennai MTC absenteeism rises, bus trips stagnate

The Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) in Chennai is not known to be a transparent organisation in the best of times. As the monopoly bus operator in this big international city of about 6 million people, MTC remains an unprofessionally managed and functionally anachronistic agency, which cannot deliver the goods for 21st century transport needs.

Held together by plastic rope - a route E18 MTC service on Anna Salai
Held together by plastic rope - a route E18 MTC service on Anna Salai

This picture taken of one of the new buses operated as an “Express” service by MTC on route number E18 (Guduvanchery – Broadway) is a good example of the tattered state of the operator’s management. It shows one part of the bus being held together by plastic rope, fortifying the image that the existing management framework for this bus corporation cannot rise beyond rickety structures.

Despite such a poor showing, India’s Ministry of Urban Development continues to avoid stronger oversight of the DMK Government’s use of funds under schemes such as Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission.

Is the MTC being unfairly criticised after all the talk about its amazing expansion over the past two years? The answer to this question lies not in the claims made by the monopoly, and certainly not in the public relations pictures that are regularly published by newspapers. 

It lies deep in the innards of the website operated by MTC at www.mtcbus.org. In a clever strategy, the MTC has been tom-toming the induction of new buses since the DMK Government came to power. It is indeed true that after the haemorrhage caused by the AIADMK’s policies under Ms.Jayalalitha, public transport suffered incalculably. But there is not much glory for the DMK, if its performance is put under the lens.

Perhaps the most damning statistic is that of the number of services operated. While Mr. Karunanidhi’s government unhesitatingly and shamelessly pats itself on the back about the number of buses launched, it does not explain why the net service increase was only about 175 over the previous year (see table, from MTC website). 

Also giving away the game is the narrow increase in the service augmentation despite a supposedly huge augmentation of fleet. While the claim is that 1139 new buses have been put on the road in 2007-08, which represents about 40 per cent of then existing strength, the number of services rose only by 175. 

Absenteeism, which is a major factor in bus operations, has been on the rise in the last five years in MTC, for whatever reason. We assume that the MTC is not a political organisation, and hence the vagaries of politics should not affect it. Or should we imagine that absenteeism will rise during DMK rule, because the crew feel more comfortable to absent themselves? To substantiate, the absenteeism rate was 5.93 in 2002-03, while in 2007-08, it has risen to 8.23. This is only marginally lower than the previous year’s figure of 8.32. The accident rate for MTC buses per lakh kilometres has also been rising, from 1.33 five years ago, to 1.73 now. If MTC is going to blame the state of Chennai traffic for this, we have no choice but to bounce the ball back : if the bus services had kept pace in reliability, comfort, efficiency and customer-friendliness with the changing travel market, there would have been less of personal vehicle use. 

All this brings us back to the central theme of modernisation of the MTC, which is long overdue. We have been demanding that the UPA Government walk its talk about the National Urban Transport Policy and compel its recalcitrant ally in Tamil Nadu to change its ways. It is our view that the days of using transport corporations for unionised mobilisation of cadres for political activity are long gone. Today what the city needs is a good transport backbone, and there is no easier way to put that in place than with a working bus system, one that is truly commuter-friendly.

We need travel as you please passes that are sold across the counter all through the month, every day, and not at the whim of MTC bureaucrats. We need MTC to stop packing its buses with commuters in its greed to produce a better balance sheet. This will also avoid innocent commuters who are unable to buy tickets in overloaded buses from facing fines and boorish, foul-mouthed and sometimes violent checking staff of MTC .

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