Recent bus fare hike has forced many to go for private vehicles or maxi-cabs
On the second day of every month, 67-year-old K.T. Rajan, who retired from Central Government service, leaves his home in Pattabiram after the morning rush hour, and makes his way to Teynampet to collect his monthly pension of Rs.9,000. He used to board Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) buses. Now, it is a distant memory.
“The bus fare [since the hike that came into effect on November 18, 2011] looks like a big amount for people like me. The only public transport system I can afford is the suburban EMU service. Of late, trains are more crowded and I get breathless climbing foot overbridges. But I have no option,” he says.
The trains are crowded for a reason. The six suburban railway lines that cut across and project out of the city witnessed record growth in passenger volumes last month. On an average, over one lakh additional passengers used the train services each day in December. Segments where the railway line runs parallel to existing bus routes, such as Beach-Tambaram and Villivakkam-Avadi, registered some of the highest growth.
However, suburban train frequency has remained static. R. Niranjan, an RTI activist and a train commuter, says the sudden rise in passenger inflow is very steep and there are significant implications. “The very first impact will be on ticketing counters. A sincere implementation of the Automatic Ticketing Vending Machine system is required to reduce crowding. Station infrastructure, such as FOBs, must be upgraded to handle the increase in load and obviously, service frequency has to increase.”
Based on data sought through RTI queries, he says the capacity utilisation of Chennai Beach-Egmore-Tambaram section is just 69 per cent. Capacity or track utilisation is the maximum possible number of trains that can be operated on a railway line in a 24-hour period. “It is very much possible to increase rush hour frequency and Southern Railway has to do it. It has been reluctant to do so for many years, even when budget is allotted. It is the same old story of additional public transport services being denied because they are currently operated at a loss,” he added.
Southern Railway Divisional Railway Manager S. Anantharaman says increasing the number of services is “not feasible.”
“Each rake is a public resource owned by the Indian Railways and any one section of passengers cannot make impossible demands. We serve Chennai city as best as we can.”
The bus fare hike sheds light on a larger narrative regarding the state of public transport in the city. While the rail lines received one lakh extra passengers per day, MTC lost four lakh passengers. In the last two months, the number of passengers using MTC services on an average day came down to 52 lakh (from 56 lakh in October, 2011). Some of them might have opted for trains, but many of them have in all likelihood started relying on either private vehicles or maxi-cabs. On many stretches, the minimum maxi-cab fare of Rs.10 per 12 km is lower than the prevailing MTC bus fares.
While loss incurred by public transport undertakings was cited as the main reason for the fare hike, and the government defended its decision in the Madras High Court recently, the MTC earns a mere Rs.38 lakh extra each day.
T.C.A. Srinivasa Raghavan, a transport economist with the Asian Institute of Transport Development, said: “Typically, in most Indian cities, though less than six employees per bus is enough to operate a public transport system, the average is around 18. It is obvious that our public transport systems are being run inefficiently. The ‘pricing problem' [the fare] is largely due to this.”