Faltering traffic signals make motorists see red

Ajai Sreevatsan
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Company handling signal maintenance shown the door

Why do so many of the city's traffic signals malfunction so often? That is a question that has been festering for several months in the minds of motorists such as Deepak Ramalingam, one of the 33 lakh vehicle users in the city.

A fortnight ago, he saw a two-wheeler rider getting thrown off his bike as he tried to evade an oncoming lorry at the Rajakilpakkam junction in Tambaram. “The signal at the junction has not been working for more than three months,” he says. “I have complained many times, but nothing is happening.”

The case is far from unique. In at least 11 of the 270 traffic junctions in the city, the signals are blank for the past 3 or 4 months. Many others switch off during the cyclic power outages that sweep through the city daily. “So many traffic lights are not working these days that people are getting used to not following them,” Mr.Ramalingam says.

But behind the non-functional signals lies an intriguing story. It all begins in the middle of 2010 when the traffic police suddenly realised that CMS Traffic Systems Ltd., which had been maintaining the signals in the city for 20 years, had been quoting a rather high estimate to rectify any fault in the signal systems.

By the summer of 2011, the traffic police discovered that all signal cable-related problems, which involves the replacement of high cost underground cables, seemed to happen beyond the 30 metre zone. “Many signals were not working, but the fault was always at a point 32 metres or 34 metres from the signal junction,” the official said.

A volatile back-and-forth ensued between the police and CMS. Most signals in the city were left unattended in the meantime. Coupled with the power crisis, too many signals were rendered as mere props on the road.

In the last few weeks of 2011, police officials say that signals at 20 junctions were hurriedly set right. But there were “some problems” with at least 40 more junctions, sources in the traffic police said. While the police control room recorded 10 defective signals on average each day in 2011, it had become 30 a day as 2012 loomed. “It has been a real pain in the neck. The monopoly of one company has affected the city,” the senior official said.

CMS was paid Rs.18 lakh last year for its services. On its part, the company says that most of the city's traffic signal infrastructure is 15-20 years old and the traffic police never bothered to replace them. “There are just too many signals that develop a fault and the traffic police spend a mere Rs.25 per signal per day on maintenance,” says Sivagami Sundari, regional head of CMS. A new company has bagged the signal maintenance work in Chennai this year, making the city one of the few metropolises in India where CMS is not in control of the traffic infrastructure. Delhi Traffic Police Joint Commissioner Satyendra Garg says that governments must put adequate safeguards while allowing private companies to deliver a public service. “The traffic signal system is the weakest link in traffic management,” he says. “Indian cities require a world-class system. The number of signals that have a fault should never be more than one per cent. Usually, police departments are forced to select between two equally bad players. It mirrors the experience of the Indian voter. By default, someone else gets selected. We are not getting what we should get… what the city deserves. Major cities deserve much better.”




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