What does an international campaign called ‘All Together,’ pitching for the growth of public transport, have to do with Chennai?

According to the International Association of Public Transport, an umbrella organisation of service operators (better known by its acronym UITP), Chennai had one listed participant in the campaign between September 16 and 22. That was Chennai Metro Rail Limited. The other Indian participant was Delhi Integrated Multi-Modal Transit System Ltd. or DIMTS.

During the week, however, CMRL’s public campaign material on the importance of public transport included Metropolitan Transport Corporation, Indian Railways, and the government of Tamil Nadu. The campaign by CMRL on social media such as Facebook, spoke about how cities would be ‘greener’ if more people used public transport. That is welcome, provided a service plan exists to back up such slogans.

CMRL, however, is nowhere near launching a fully operational service soon. What it could do until it launches, is to outline its plans for passenger-friendly initiatives including last mile connectivity between residential areas and Metro stations, and easily accessible travel passes for daily, weekly and monthly use, and so on. Without reliable feeder services, how will more people adopt public transport?

What was strange in the week-long effort to reach out to passengers was the token presence of MTC, which is also a member of the UITP. The objectives of the ‘All Together’ programme identified by over 80 global participants are vital for MTC, given its below-par service standards. The goals include ‘providing a better service,’ ‘network development’ and ‘purchase of new vehicles’.

Look at purchasing new buses. This is a problematic area for MTC, and maintaining them well even more so. Data obtained under the RTI Act show that nearly a third of the bus fleet operated by MTC – 1061 buses, is five years old as of July. That by itself would not be such a bad thing, if enough importance is given to maintenance. Another 25 buses are seven years old. Any passenger who uses the MTC services frequently knows what the condition of buses really is. More so, those who pay ‘deluxe’ fares for rattling seats and bumpy rides.

In 2011 and 2012, the Corporation says it purchased 100 buses. But it also says it has no details on whether any of these met the standards of the Bus Body Code, AIS 052. The Code provisions are meant to make buses easier to board for all people, including the disabled (with low floor height), ensure a civilised approach to seating design, and put in doors to prevent passengers from falling off. The answer of course, is that these MTC buses do not meet AIS 052. Also, if anyone had doubts about how many air-conditioned buses MTC acquired during these two years, the answer is simple: zero. It does not look like a promising plan to grow public transport.

Yet, the need to serve the greater Chennai area that has a population of 12.35 million people — including 3.72 million in Thiruvallur, and 3.99 million in Kancheepuram districts, as per Census 2011 — is greater than ever. Even if the rural population of about five million in the two districts is removed from this count, that is a still over seven million, which is close to London’s and is comparable to the greater Paris region, to cite only two examples. Both of those cities have extensive Metro and bus systems, and they use information technology well.

There is a lot that MTC can do to become professional in its approach. It must deploy portable GPS devices with its crew — including in the ramshackle old buses — to help commuters track which one is coming next to their stop, and when. The pilot project on this shows that it is feasible. Opening up real-time data streams will help build mobile applications for commuters. Open data on services remains a neglected area for both MTC and Southern Railway. , which has neglected suburban rail and MRTS. There must also be easy availability of daily, weekly and monthly MTC passes at more centres, sold throughout the month with rolling dates, just as the Railways does.

More In: Chennai | News | Columns