A. Srivathsan

THE GOVERNMENT of Tamil Nadu recently proposed a 300 km monorail system for Chennai. This is part of a larger 490 km network. The routes have been identified and the bid is now open. The successful bidder will design, develop, construct, own, operate, and transfer the network to the Government over a period of 40 years.

Meanwhile, some objections have been raised against this decision and some political parties have favoured the metro rail that exists. Arguments have been made for and against both systems. And, the Institute of Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), an international agency, prefers a bus rapid transit system (BRT). For example, in its proposal for Hyderabad, the ITDP estimates that for an investment of Rs.5000 crore, 294 km of BRT can be built but less than 50 km of metro or monorail. So which is the better system?

The metro system has the largest carrying capacity but it involves a large right of way and requires more land. In the case of Chennai Metro, by choosing to lay the track along the Buckingham Canal the land cost was reduced significantly. The first phase was funded by the Government of India, but the second and third phase costs are to be partially borne by the State Government. A World Bank report (March 2005) finds the first phase to be a financial failure. It criticises the low cost recovery of the overall project.

Monorail, on the other hand, has less carrying capacity, does not occupy much space, and is aesthetically better. It produces less noise than the metro. In terms of height and accessibility, it will be similar to the metro. Chennai monorail will depend entirely on private investment. The State Government promises to make land available for a price and will be involved in fixing the ticket fare. In a way, monorail is a form of privatised public transport.

Jakarta example

The argument that the project will be completed without any state financial support needs to be looked at critically. The Jakarta monorail project is a case in point. The Jakarta project, although started in similar vein, eventually sought state support. The Monorail Society also doubts the scope of the project and thinks the network will dwarf the length of any other existing monorail system on the planet.

On the other hand, the BRT has low capital costs and allows easy access. In terms of ridership, all the three systems claim viability and promise to ensure large usage. The claim of the bus system is credible while the statistics behind the other claims can be challenged. Studies show that most of the projections are not realistic and that the performance often falls short of the targets.

The World Bank report on mass rapid transit for developing countries recommends that the choice can be made depending on income level and asset base, and the characteristics of the transport system. Besides, cultural and behavioural aspects can be factored in. It moots an integrated land use and transportation strategy to make any choice effective. Neither Chennai Metro nor monorail has any comprehensive transport plan, fare policy, or integrated multi-modal transport network.

Of the three systems, bus transport alone seems to provide low prices. This means a large percentage of poor people will continue to prefer it over other modes. Against this background, the consultancy report for monorail seems unconvincing. The report states that Chennai requires a fleet of 5000 buses and at present operates only 2400 a day. Since there are financial constraints, fleet expansion and route strengthening have been abandoned. Instead, an ambitious monorail project has been proposed.

If one were to go by the Malaysian system, Chennai monorail will cost about Rs.45,000 crore. How can this project match the low fare of bus transport? Given the fact that this entire project is to be privately funded, will any subsidising of fares be possible? Can we afford to abandon the bus system?

Convenience is not to be measured only in terms of comfort and carrying capacity but also in terms of easy modal transfers. A few cities allow passengers to transfer from one mode to another without having to buy tickets every time they get into a new mode. In other words, with one ticket you can get in a bus or train or both in order to reach your destination. This has helped increase ridership and expanded public transportation choices. Is there an integrated ticketing and pricing plan for Chennai?

Transport is a catalyst for development and change and has to be provided for in any city master plan. Passenger and vehicle dispersal from the station has to be planned for. The Chennai Metro, conceived as early as the 1970s, does not have any area development plans nor has it managed to capitalise on the potential of the system. Instead, there are ad hoc measures such as allowing higher buildability around the metro line. As a result, street junctions are chaotic as in the case of Kasturiba Nagar station; and the interface between station and street can remain unsafe, as in Thiruvanmiyur.

The fundamental objective behind any choice has to be promoting public transportation over private. The current ratio of 65:35 between the private and the public modes needs to be reversed. The monorail project promises this. It predicts that by 2021, 65 per cent of commuters will shift to public transport and only 35 per cent will use private transport.

Even metro rail implicitly made such claims. But these are claims. The number of private cars and two-wheelers is increasing but there are no policies to check this. There are no schemes like congestion charging, as in London, to discourage car use in the crowded inner city. Neither do we have measures as in Singapore that make ownership of cars expensive.

Bus services have to be strengthened and integrated with a suitable mass transit system. Investment in public transport needs to be increased and supported but it also needs to be comprehensively planned and the objectives met.