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Metro Rail in Chennai, High Expectations

Twenty years after Madras renamed itself as Chennai, the city, particularly its road infrastructure, hasnt changed much. Yes, we are now home to the biggest IT companies and BPOs; young boys and girls work in late shifts in BPOs; the city has spread horizontally bringing more places under its net and a once parched village now called OMR is a rising giant. Madras has also grown vertically, with high-rise apartments and community living dotting the landscape. We have a lot more transport options. Apart from the ubiquitous public transport, with call taxis, private cars and motorbikes, inundate the city.

Metro Rail in Chennai, High Expectations

When Delhi Metro overtook Chennai

During 1991 CMDA, along with Times Research Foundation, worked on the Madras 2011 projections. Specialists were engaged to look at the metro 20 years ahead. I was retained to look at industry and transportation. 

In my report on traffic, I suggested a focus on railways. I proposed construction of a surface, circular rail transit system of around 100 km during the first decade; and an underground-cum-elevated rail system of around 100 km in the second decade. 

When the DMK government was dismissed in 1991, the successor AIADMK government archived the reports. 

In 1996 I visited the UK on an invitation from the British government. I looked at the London underground rail system. The extension of the LU to the dockyards connecting it through a tunnel below the Thames river near Westminister was under construction. I was impressed with the speed of work of the engineering marvel which took care of the  safety of close to 1500 historic buildings along the route. I also interacted with W Atkins, specialist in such underground tunneling work which was constructing such systems in several southeast Asian countries. We presented  in a cover story on this in our October 1996 issue.

Tamil Nadu then was not impressed by the elegance and imperative for such a mass transit system. But Delhi, under E Sreedharan, launched big on this and in a remarkably short time, built the Delhi Metro, a sprawling system that provides easy commuting facilities connecting Gurugram, Noida and Ghaziabad with vast areas of the Delhi metropolis . 

IE is happy that the Chennai Metro dream conceived 20 years earlier started taking shape from 2011. It has significant potential for meeting the commuters’ needs of the growing population.

In 2008 IE again took the initiative: it organised a seminar on corridors of excellence. Two of the major projects deliberated related to an underground rail system for the Rajiv Gandhi IT  corridor and the other, a dedicated high-speed rail track connecting Chennai and Bengaluru that can reduce travel time to just an hour. With Sriperumbudur and later Oragadam emerging vibrant industrial centres and with the entire stretch along Ranipet, Hosur, Electronic City littered with industrial units, IE felt a great potential for constructing this. 

In our discussions with the heads of a couple of flourishing industrial units including Saint-Gobain and Nokia, we found interest on their part to contribute to the costs of construction. The prospects for such a  facility reducing travel time to 20-30 minutes compared to the 100 odd minutes taken in travel by cars was a big attraction. Sadly the local government did not bother to press their claims. – SV

The more things change, the more they remain the same. There is more congestion on Chennai’s roads.  Students, office goers and several others still commute by the backbreaking Metropolitan Transport Corporation or the over-crowded electric trains. Market economy plus subsidies have endowed most with a vehicle each. Bumper to bumper traffic is passé. A 9 km drive takes close to an hour and during peak time up to 90 minutes. There are more traffic snarls and road rage. Is that a sign of civilisation, or the death of innocence?  

The same goes for Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata.  Commuting in Mumbai stretches the credulity of endurance. Delhi is a driver’s nightmare. The massive increase in the number of buses make even the sprawling, wide roads of Delhi overcrowded and death-prone.  Kolkata has traditionally been known for chaos in urban traffic and is still a relic of the past with ramshackle trams that dawdle along providing a cheap mode of transport.

But then India’s financial capital, the country’s political capital and the long time British - India capital for all dated the Mass Rapid Transit System long years ago, while Chennai slipped by. What is it that contributes to the long hours spent in commuting?  Simple. The number of vehicles on the city’s roads has jumped up astronomically. There has been no corresponding improvement in the transport network.

 

32 lakh vehicles for 50 lakh people!

Chennai which once (in 1980) had only one-lakh vehicles now (2015) is home to 3.2 million.  Only Delhi with 7.3 million is way ahead. Below Chennai lay Hyderabad (3.38), Pune (2.26), Mumbai (2 million) and Kolkata (0.5).  But regarding vehicle density which is what matters, Chennai tops the list with 2093 followed by Pune 1260, Mumbai 1014, Hyderabad 723, Kolkata 355 and Delhi 245. The reason, of course, is that compared to 1800 km in Chennai and Pune, 2000 km in Mumbai and 1400 km in Kolkata, Delhi has 30,000 km of road length.

Against Maruti as the only producer of cars to contemporary designs and high volumes, in the 1980s, today we have cars produced in lakhs in collaboration with Italy, Germany, Britain, Korea, Japan, the US and not to forget our very own. And in large volume. Add to these the large production of two-wheelers and commercial vehicles. Understandably, an already over-strained urban transport system has not been able to cope with this rate of increase in the influx of new vehicles. 

 

Hefty subsidy for bus transport

Add to these faulty policies that provided hefty subsidies on bus services, which are state monopolies. In Madras metro, the Dravidian parties considered the railway system operated by the federal government as alien. There was a suicidal switch from the mass transit facility of the local rail system to road transport. The fare charged for bus transportation is a fraction of that charged by an already losing suburban rail system. This subsidy has resulted in a massive shift of the rapidly increasing commuter traffic from rail to road along the routes where both services operated. 

Contrast this with the lack of a system to retire compulsorily over-aged, and decrepit vehicles and to the microscopic leeway available for widening or extending the road network. And also look at the co-existence of hand-pulled rickshaws in Kolkata, the tongas in Delhi, the fish-carts and cycle rickshaws in Chennai, all clamouring for a place on the roads. 

So, where do we go from here? The answer lies in the quick development of a rapid mass transport system the likes of which you see in London and New York.  

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