Chennai – preparing for the Metro

Transport is the biggest story in Chennai today. At $3 billion in investment, Chennai Metro Rail Corporation (CMRL) is currently the biggest infrastructure project being executed in all of Tamil Nadu.

What is missing, however, is sufficient public discussion on how people will use the entire gamut of transport options in the city seamlessly — walking, cycling, autorickshaws, mini-vans, buses, and mini-buses and the Metro in the future — to cut cost and increase speed of mobility.

At a CII conference on trends in automotive research and development held last week, it became clear that Chennai Metro Rail Limited is thinking far into the future on the question of helping people shift smoothly between trains and other modes.

What CMRL needs is active support from the Tamil Nadu Government and Southern Railway to connect the existing travel options with the Metro in terms of physical connections and ticketing integration.

A plan to provide a stop for long-distance trains at St. Thomas Mount (so people have a range of travel choices including the Metro) is now being discussed officially. It will then link Koyambedu bus terminus by rail. CMRL has also planned a feeder-bus system, although how it will operate is not yet clear. Pedestrians are the single biggest group that will use the Metro since walking is the preferred mode to reach the station in a 500-metre radius.

The preliminary projection for users of the Metro system is as follows: 40 per cent will be pedestrians, 21 per cent will use intermediate modes such as autorickshaws, 19 per cent will use buses and feeder-buses, while 15 per cent will be two-wheeler users and five per cent others.

As the Metro project engineers are finding out, the problem with Chennai is that although the city has about 3,000 km of roads, 80 per cent have a road width of less than 20 metres. This throws up a challenge in terms of facilitating pedestrian movement and introducing Metro feeder buses to touch interior areas.

There are clear pointers to what needs to be done. The Tamil Nadu government must show sufficient ownership of the various transportation solutions in the city, and use all tools that will benefit the traveler.

At present, there is a loose system of regulation that has led to mushrooming of practically unregulated transport services — mini-vans, taxi services and other share vehicles — that fix fares arbitrarily and have no accountability. Autorickshaws have become unaffordable for many. It is, of course, heartening that some effort is being made to restore footpaths in a few areas of Chennai, but the outcome in relation to expenditure are far from satisfactory. The twin objectives of allocation of sufficient space for walkers and allowing some regulated hawking should receive top priority. Lack of enforcement has defeated the purpose on both counts, so far, as footpaths have been taken over by everyone except pedestrians.

A serious collaboration, under the aegis of Chennai Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority, among all agencies can lead to action: expanding and repairing footpaths to meet engineering standards; relocation of service pillars and junction boxes of electricity authorities, traffic police and telecommunications; introduction of common ticket; and so on. At present, the roads leading to the train stations are full of commercial encroachments.

The 500-metre principle is as relevant to the suburban and MRTS stations as it is for the Metro. In just one year, the first Metro line should be ready to run. The government should start taking urgent action on these matters to prepare for 2014.

CMRL needs active support from the government and Southern Railway to connect existing travel options with the Metro