In December 2017, the Centre responded to the Chennai Metro Rail Limited’s (CMRL) letter seeking funds for the second phase of the southern city’s mass transit line with a question – why do you want to expand the metro when your ridership is so low? CMRL, like any other metro operator responded saying ridership was low because the first phase was not yet complete. The answer however, is only partially true.
The Tale of the Rail
The city of Chennai has three railway systems in operation. The first is the 303 km-long Chennai Suburban Rail with three lines that carried around 395 million passengers in 2014-15. The second is the 20km-long Chennai MRTS – known locally as the Parakkum Rail (flying rail) – that consists of a single elevated line from Chennai Beach to Velachery and is awaiting its final extension to St Thomas Mount. The third is the Chennai Metro with two partially complete lines.
Of these, the most noteworthy is the Chennai MRTS. Proposed in the late 1980s to complement the existing Suburban network, its first phase opened in 1995 connecting Chennai Beach to Tirumailai (Mylapore) along the Buckingham Canal. The next section, extending to Velachery opened a decade later. The system by itself is nothing new. It is a mirror of the existing suburban rail, operating on the standard Indian Railways broad gauge track with the standard 25,000 volt overhead electrification system. The only difference is that it runs elevated for most of its length barring a few kilometres on either side of Velachery station. The stations, however are similar to Metro stations, featuring an elevated design – devoid of escalators or elevators however – which are mostly empty and partly dilapidated, thus earning them the nickname Pey Veedu or Haunted House.
Prior to the opening of the Metro, it was proposed that CMRL take over operations of the MRTS once it starts commercial operations and integrate the line into its own system, a move that would retroactively make Chennai the second city in India to have a Metro system. The move would be expensive – it would require revamping all 18 stations, adding the Metro’s standard features, including Automatic Fare Collection (AFC) systems, and acquiring new trains – but will certainly give the city a fillip. The average ridership is 100,000 passengers a day, abysmally low for 19.4 kms but significantly better than 25,000 passengers that the 28 kms-long Chennai Metro has.
So why exactly are rail services in Chennai so underutilised?
The primary reason behind it is the fact that the lines are incomplete. Both are well planned networks – the MRTS connects the High Court, the secretariat at Fort St George, the Chepauk stadium, residential localities in Mylapore and Velachery, Marina Beach and also the Information Technology (IT) corridor along Old Mahabalipuram Road (OMR) at Tharamani and Thiruvanmiyur while the Metro, in its first phase would connect the two main railway termini at Chennai Central and Egmore, major bus termini at the Chennai Mofussil Bus Terminus at Koyambedu and the Broadway bus station, the Chennai International Airport and several residential and commercial neighbourhoods such as Anna Nagar, Vadapalani, Ashok Nagar, Kilpauk, Guindy and Saidapet along Mount Road.
Both lines meet at St Thomas Mount, which is also a station on the southern line of the Suburban Rail and a stop for several long-distance trains. However, the MRTS connection to St Thomas Mount is far from complete. Initiated in 2008, the last 1.5 km has been pending for over five years due to land acquisition troubles and the lack of a political will from both the state and the centre, especially between 2008 and 2012. While the state was proactive in acquiring the land back then to build the last leg of the Inner Ring Road (along whose median the MRTS is aligned), it hasn’t done much to acquire the remaining land. The station structure at St Thomas Mount is complete with one the MRTS on the lower level and the Metro above it, but tracks are far, quite literally.
The reason for the delay in acquiring land is due to the compensation. The state wants to pay according the 1984 laws while the property owners are seeking compensation under the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013. The matter subsequently went to court and till the verdict is delivered, is not going anywhere, much like the trains on the track.
However, the incomplete network is a very short term issue. Bengaluru’s Namma Metro saw its ridership shoot up from 2.4 lakh a day to 3.5 lakh a day once the last leg was completed. That may very well be expected in Chennai once the interchange station connecting the two Metro lines at Chennai Central opens, but there are other issues that need to be taken into consideration.
The major problem with the MRTS is accessibility. The stations are elevated and therefore need the requisite infrastructure. Not all stations have elevators and the few that do, have non-functional ones. Southern Railways (SR) was pulled up by the Madras High Court for shutting down elevators and escalators in the station premises. SR’s excuse – vandalism!
The Metro thankfully does not have issues relating to accessibility due its relatively modern nature, but it has a bigger problem.
The bigger problem plaguing both lines is connectivity. The Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC), which operates among the best route networks among urban transport companies in India has a problem with integration. MTC buses don’t complement with other modes of transport but competes with them. Unlike the Brihanmumbai Electricity Supply and Transport (BEST) in Mumbai that primarily runs feeder services to railway stations, MTC buses run long distance, often parallel to the tracks. When passengers can’t get to a station, how do they make use of the train?
The other issue is that of fares. The MRTS has a fare of Rs 10 for Second Class while the Metro charges Rs 40 for a journey from Koyambedu to Alandur that spans 10 km. While there have been demands to reduce the fare to bring it on par with the MRTS, all of these have no sound economical backing. The technology used in the Metro is far superior and far more expensive than the MRTS and therefore fares have to be on par with the investment involved.
The MTC – as discussed earlier – has fares that can only be described as dirt cheap. With AC fares starting at 90 paise per km, residents of the city have been spoilt by extremely populist subsidies. Why pay Rs 40 from CMBT to Alandur in the Metro when you can do it in an AC Volvo bus for a cheaper fare?
The Road, or rather track ahead
The Chennai Metro came in handy during the floods of 2015 when roads were inundated and services were extended late into the night, but back then barely 10 km was operational. With the operational length now being half the total length of the system, ridership should have been much higher.
The recent bus strike in Tamil Nadu gave the state plenty of opportunity to promote the Metro. Fares could have been temporarily brought down to encourage users to make the switch, and provide relief to stranded commuters.
The MRTS’ other issue is that the stations need major renovation. With water seepage, cracked walls and more, it is a disaster in the making. A lot of space inside the station is wasted, and can be put to good use by being leased out. Chennai needs to look at capitalising on its real estate along the rail corridors in order to increase its patronage and conversely look at increasing the patronage to earn more revenue.
Chennai’s rail mess is a result of combined apathy from both the state and the Centre, along with mindless populism that is killing the state’s transport system. Given that the current political leadership is still in a bit of a turmoil, drastic measures would be needed to get the system to see higher patronage.
One hopes that common sense prevails and the system gets the much needed overhaul and the Detroit of India gets the transit network it deserves.
At the end of the day, the Centre should not shy away from funding the second phase of the network. The original plan for the second phase was to add 76 km to the network, but has since been reworked to 88 km to connect to newer areas along OMR like Siruseri, and Shollinganallur where a bulk of the IT sector is located, while the line along the Grand Southern Trunk Road (GST Road) will not go beyond the airport. Working on these extensions will get the Metro the much needed patronage that it craves due to the high concentration of residential and commercial zones in the vicinity.
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