MRTS was a good idea. But something went wrong somewhere

At first it felt like I had walked into a ghostly colonial-era bungalow where no one had lived for the past 100 years — so strong was the silence trapped between the large white walls. It was barely 8.30 p.m., but the stillness inside the gigantic hall belonged to midnight. Not a soul in sight. If I didn’t have company, I would probably have been scared and told myself: “What am I doing here? Let’s just get out.”

On a closer look, I found that the base of the white walls have been serving as a spittoon for gutka-chewers. Not a colonial-era bungalow obviously; this was the Chintadripet MRTS station on Mount Road, — right behind the offices of The Hindu— from where we were to take the train to Velachery to attend a birthday party.

It was my idea that we take the train. There were two reasons for this. One, I had never travelled by MRTS (or Mass Rapid Transit System) even though I’ve lived in Chennai for 12 years now. Two, the train would take us to Velachery in less than 30 minutes; whereas a journey by road, even though Velachery is barely 15 km away from our office, would take at least an hour.

But at 8.30 p.m., the station seemed to have retired for the night. Actually not: a ticket window — not immediately visible when you enter — was still open. There we bought tickets for Rs. 7 each and proceeded to the first floor to catch the train. Needless to say, the escalator was not working. We climbed up the stairs, the mural of red spittle giving our feet company.

On the platform, hardly any people again — barely a dozen. The only sign of life in the cheerless station was the moving train, which arrived after a 15-minute wait and we all got in. The elevated MRTS route — for those who have never taken the train before — offers the most spectacular view of the city. You have a direct view of the sea until you reach Light House. The train, alas, reached Velachery far too soon and we were once again sucked into the madness of life on the ground. I felt disappointed.

Travelling on the MRTS, you remain very much in the city and yet you watch it from a comfortable distance. You don’t have to haggle with autorickshaw drivers; you don’t have to test your patience at traffic signals; you don’t have to inhale toxic fumes; all that you do is sit back and enjoy the view. What luxury, that too for just Rs. 7. Then why do people choose to choke the road instead of taking the MRTS (it carries barely 80,000 commuters daily in the 128 trips the trains make up and down the 20-km Chennai Beach-Velachery route)?

Well, it’s a sad story, rather a strange cycle: since the emptiness of MRTS stations scares commuters, especially after sunset, they prefer to take the road; and since they take the road, the stations forever remain empty and open to anti-social elements. And since the stations suffer from poor patronage and therefore poor maintenance, the large retail space on the ground floor of the stations remain unutilised too, lending them the look of a ghostly colonial-era bungalow where no one lives except the ageless watchman. And since they resemble a ghostly bungalow, very few people venture there.

MRTS was a good idea. In fact, a great idea. But something went wrong somewhere. What was it? No one seems to know — or wants to know.

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