After years of indifference, the Tamil Nadu government acted to fix autorickshaw fares in Chennai under the gaze of the court. That people must approach the highest courts to make government do its routine work is a sad commentary on its concern for everyday lives of citizens.

The autorickshaw story is not complete though, and many hardened sections have not changed their old ways: refusing to ply, demanding extra over the meter, and acting as cartels in local neighbourhoods. Often, such attitudes are displayed even as traffic police are nearby, busy stopping two-wheeler riders to check papers. Obviously, pro-active checks on autorickshaws are not on the cards, even after a fare system has been fixed through discussions and in agreement with the unions.

Given such a record, it is difficult to see how the more ambitious programmes to modernise Chennai’s chaotic public transport system will work. At a meeting on the subject convened by the transport regulator, CUMTA, in February 2012, the minister for transport, “expressed his desire for making Chennai a world class city, particularly in the Urban Transportation Sector through effective functioning of CUMTA…” (as per the recorded minutes).

‘World class’ means different things to different people, but for Chennai, that officially includes the ability to use a single ticket across trains and buses.

Given the state of the transport infrastructure, including buses without even working speedometers, that proposal would require a giant leap in technology and efficiency.

Consider this: It was resolved last year that Chennai Metro Rail would be the nodal agency to coordinate the task of implementing a common ticket using the Computer Clearing House System (CCHS), which is part of the Metro project. The CCHS “will be operational from December 2013” according to the proposal, and act as the backbone.

Even more ambitious is the suggestion that the common ticketing system could be considered for implementation in MTC buses in coordination with MRTS phase II, and CMRL stage I, beginning in January 2014. Is MTC pursuing this deadline? There is no indication that it is. It is difficult to imagine ticket sensors being fixed on buses that rattle people to the bone.

The MRTS, a forlorn and neglected but well-patronised railway link to the southeast, is expected to come out with an ‘action plan’ to join the Common Ticketing System along with the suburban services of Southern Railway, as per the CUMTA plan.

Can any of this happen anytime soon?

How can Southern Railway and MRTS provide sensors to read smart cards when their stations are open-access, and the trains have no automatic doors? The Metro will be a different story because it is a fully enclosed system and makes a quantum leap in coach technology.

Which brings us to the point. Can we have more efficient plain old pass systems using just paper, and real-time information on services first?

If MRTS can even complete its station work, get the escalators and lifts working, and change the appearance of the stations from fear-inspiring dungeons to more frisendly surroundings that will be a big advance. The rest of the plan can follow at the laggardly pace that our governments and public agencies are used to.

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