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A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse

I was reminded of the above lament of Shakespeare’s King Richard II in his final moment at the battlefield.

There are interminable delays in deciding on a small stretch of 500 metres of the Mass Rapid Transit System (MRTS) of the Indian Railway in the Chennai metro. This denies a vital facility to several lakh commuters of the metro due to the inability to acquire 1.5 acres of land in the final stretch.

Look what this small stretch, if completed, would benefit: a commuter from the old Madras Beach – Tambaram rail line can switch at St Thomas Mount to any of the 20 stations on the MRTS from Adambakkam through Adyar and Triplicane right up to General Hospital and Fort St George. Ditto for any commuter on the Chennai Metro Rail (CMRL) route from Anna Nagar, Ashok Nagar or Teynampet. They can cross over to the MRTS at St Thomas Mount. This can benefit several lakh commuters every day in the form of speedy and economical transfers.

Heavy dependence on personal transport

Chennai, in contrast to other Indian metros, has been heavily dependent on personalised transport. There are close to 54 lakh vehicles on the road with 45 lakh two-wheelers (around 84 per cent) and close to 8.6 lakh passenger vehicles. These contribute to traffic jams and a high degree of pollution.
World over, metro cities have been designed to take care of commuting through public transport-rail and bus. This is elegant and economical. Chennai, tries to meet the commuter requirements through cheap bus transport. The metro has a large fleet of state-run buses. These incur hefty losses denying the needed resources for upgrading the fleet. These also contribute to a large share of accidents and deaths on roads, pollution and foreign exchange drain on diesel use. In 2018, a total of 1260 casualties and 7580 road accidents were reported in Chennai district.

As early as in the 1980s the government conceived an elevated railway line to connect central and south Madras. To minimise the cost of land acquisition, the route was aligned with the Buckingham Canal. In Phase I, 8.55 km was to cover Chennai Beach – Thirumayilai (Mylapore) through Chepauk and Triplicane with eight stations. It suffered considerable delays, overshot the original estimate of Rs 55 crore; was completed in October 1997 costing Rs 269 crore.

Cost and time overruns

Phase II from Thirumayilai to Velachery with nine stations again suffered delays due to the state resisting the demand of the Centre to bear two-thirds the project cost. At the Economic Editors Conference in New Delhi in 1987, Railway Minister Madhavrao Scindia reasoned that with the beneficiaries entirely the residents of Chennai metro, the state should bear two-thirds the cost. I took up the matter with the then Chief Minister and the Chief Secretary. M G Ramachandran held that the cost must be borne by the Indian Railways. This caused further delay and to soaring costs especially on land acquisition. Maharashtra agreed to this condition. The Thane-Belapur line was completed in just four years and was inaugurated by President R Venkataraman during 1981-82.

The 11.4 km extension upto Velachery took another ten years; cost Rs 769 crore and was commissioned in November 2007. The next phase of Velachery-St Thomas Mount link of 5 km with three stations was substantially completed except for 500 meters. The land acquisition act of 2015 proved to be a huge impediment. Added to that was the insistence of landowners for higher compensation by taking the issue to the courts. In June, officials at Tamil Nadu expressed hope of arriving at a final settlement: the offer was increased from the originally sanctioned Rs 35 crore to another Rs 51.71 crore which works out to Rs 3.38 crore per ground of 2400 sq.ft. The landowners now haggle over market price and not the guideline value and the issue might get delayed further.

The initial estimate of Rs 495.74 crore for the 5 km stretch might escalate to around Rs 733 crore on completion. Look at the impact of inflation and delay: the cost of construction has shot up from an average of Rs 6 crore per km in Phase I to close to Rs 150 crore per km presently estimated. 18 months will be needed from the time of making available the land. With the owners demanding still higher compensation, there is a gloom of uncertainty.

The cardinal principle of benefits to the most significant numbers is obliterated by the conflict of individual rights of a few.

Precious MRTS commercial space kept idle and deteriorates

In the early years of the current century, the booming IT sector was symbolised by the iconic Tidel Park on the Old Mahabalipuram Road (OMR) re-christened the IT corridor. Urban planners were enthusiastic about creating ample office space on profitable lines. This also impressed planners in the railway and the state, which contributed two-thirds of the cost of the MRTS. Result: at several MRTS stations at Kasturbanagar, Indira Nagar, Thiruvanmiyur and Taramani were conceived with ample space to accommodate commercial offices and marketing outlets. The expectation was a massive demand for office space, especially from the IT sector, which flourished along the IT corridor. Sadly, the bureaucrats who conceived the grand scheme did not follow it up with the needed thrust to furnish these elegant buildings and market these aggressively. Almost two decades later, the sprawling office spaces have remained empty and suffered deterioration. The slow pick up in custom for MRTS, which has built a daily ridership of just 4.25 lakh, is not assuring enough footfalls. In fact, the railway stations from Adyar aligned to the IT corridor are not easily accessible, nor have passenger-friendly amenities, lack last mile connectivity with little and or no garbage ridden parking facilities.

In prosperous, developed countries, generous parking space outside railway stations has encouraged park and ride habits. The Chennai metro rail seems to have learned the lessons and has been rightly focusing on these aspects. Look at the imaginative manner of offering share taxi and rent-a-bike facilities at its terminals to take care of last-mile connectivity!

There is hope that the Chennai Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority (CUMTA) would help redress these deficiencies. The authority can have flexible rates to attract restauranteurs and a vast number of traders to occupy the large space.

The vital Velachery-St Thomas Mount link could trigger a big jump in the number of commuters which, in turn, would prove attractive for traders and office establishments to rent space. The vicious circle of low footfalls through the low frequency of trains to small custom could be broken.

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