If the Ministry of Railways integrates the MRTS with other suburban rail lines running to the north, west and south west and follows the same hours of operation, it can make a qualitative difference to commuting in Chennai.
Chennai’s Mass Rapid Transit System, which has been cleared for traffic on its full 20-km line by the Commissioner of Railway Safety, is a public transport milestone. The history of the MRTS can be traced to an area transport study done four decades ago. Its current phase has been completed five years behind schedule.
While the Delhi metro with its underground sections, modern facilities and new generation coaches enjoys high visibility, Chennai’s Beach-Velachery MRTS will become, upon its formal commissioning, a unique elevated suburban railway with a potential capacity of 4,25,000 passenger trips a day. It will connect the central business area of old Madras with the high profile IT corridor.
It is also a high capacity rail link that throws a transport lifeline to dense south-eastern residential localities that depended solely on buses so far. If the Ministry of Railways integrates the MRTS with other suburban rail lines running to the north, west, and south west as it logically should, and follows the same hours of operation, it can make a qualitative difference to commuting in Chennai. The three other major suburban rail lines in the metro operate from 4 a.m. till midnight, terminating in towns in the neighbouring districts.
The MRTS presents a particularly welcome opportunity because it comes at a time when there are multiple concerns about the safest, most efficient and affordable way of travel in a city that tots up 7.45 million passenger trips in a day. That includes various modes like walking and cycling.
It can also improve the system’s revenue performance for the Railways, having billed the taxpayer over Rs.950 crore; the investment in the second phase that was recently cleared for traffic is put at about Rs.706 crore by the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority.
Although they involve heavy investments and can carry thousands of people every hour, urban rail projects have generally failed to capture the imagination of State governments. Consequently, the State administrations have not given high priority to facilities that suburban railway users need. Roads leading to stations are poorly developed and maintained, street lighting is weak, and, most importantly, state-owned buses generally do not have any special linkage with rail operations.
A search of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha websites shows that parliamentarians also had few questions for the Ministry over the past few years about the operation of the Chennai MRTS.
In the absence of active State government involvement, Phase I from Beach to Mylapore (Tirumayilai) predictably became a “failure”; it attracted few users. The fare was high, the section was too small at 8.55 km and the service frequency was too low to be useful. The Delhi-centric decision-making system for suburban rail could do little to help the distant MRTS. Over the last 10 years, some of the eight stations in the Beach-Tirumayilai section, which cost Rs.260 crore, have been left to decay; today they are dark and decrepit, creating a sense of dread even among the most determined commuters; spaces intended for shops mostly lie vacant.
The Centre now wants to change all that. New investments will not only help passengers but also reduce congestion and greenhouse gas emissions. But it has to act quickly to achieve its important objectives. The Centre’s vision is outlined in the National Urban Transport Policy (NUTP), which it expects the States to share; only if they agree, can they hope to get funds for development under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission. The CMDA, Chennai’s planning body, speaks the same language as the NUTP in its draft for the next Master Plan.
When the Beach-Velachery MRTS is open, such statements of intent will be put to the test. Will the Tamil Nadu Government (which is a partner in the MRTS from Phase II) show sufficient resolve to align Chennai’s transport framework to the NUTP? At present, it is business as usual. Car and two-wheeler use continues to rise, while the share of cycling, rail and bus trips declines (41 per cent of all trips were by bus in 1970 compared to 29 per cent in 2004; trips by train fell from 12 to 5 per cent during this period, according to the CMDA).
There is no sign of a metropolitan transport regulatory authority being set up although that must be done through changes in the law to satisfy NUTP norms. The proposal to have an authority is old, and Tamil Nadu agreed to set up one in 1994. The Authority would determine whether the bus, rail, and feeder transport systems such as autorickshaws are serving commuters optimally and charging reasonable fares.
New Delhi and Fort St. George can take the first steps, even ahead of regulatory oversight and without new laws. They can pull the MRTS out of obscurity and make it very visible and easy-to-use through distinct colours, logo and branding. The London Underground is a good example. Modernising suburban rail stations is another key step. Chennai’s suburban stations are antiquated and in urgent need of repairs and modernisation; they have no passenger information systems worth the name.
The MRTS can also achieve quick visibility if the new “made in Chennai” coaches from the Integral Coach Factory for suburban railway operations in Mumbai are given to Chennai as well. These energy-efficient coaches have GPS information systems and are designed for more comfortable seating and lighting. Bringing buses and trains closer should be a priority. But the monopoly bus corporation, the MTC, is expanding its fleet without any planned integration with rail. This tardy progress makes the NUTP recommendation for an integrated rail-cum-bus ticket appear even more remote.
Goal number five of the NUTP is to encourage seamless, multimodal transport. This objective is emphasised in Planning Commission papers for the 11th Plan. Besides the well-known benefits — reduced congestion, air pollution, and risk of accidents — there is evidence that encouraging people to use trains and buses confers public health benefits: it influences walking and thereby promotes good health. Even non-users such as hawkers and the service sector stand to benefit if more people walk everyday to ride trains and buses.