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How Chennai missed the bus? (rail!)
A large underground-surface rail network can help develop commuter traffic in an orderly and efficient manner and provide the commuters the fastest and safest mode of reaching their places of work. This calls for major policy changes: of separating such a system from the Indian Railway network and f

It was 1990; a year ahead of the launch of the liberalisation era. The Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) and the Times Research Foundation (TRF) worked together on project Madras 2011. The mandate: to look at Chennai metro 20 years hence in terms of infrastructure, roads, railways, housing...  Men with knowledge on different sectors were appointed as consultants. These included the renowned city planner G Dattadri, housing specialist P V Rajaraman and CMDA’s Anant Ranjan Das.  I was invited to prepare reports on industry and transportation in 2011.

I was enthusiastic about envisaging the plan for transportation 20 years ahead. I have had the opportunity to look closely at transportation systems in Germany, France, Britain, Japan and the USA. With the poor progress of the automobile industry at that time, I felt the need for establishing a massive public transportation system. Remember, at that time India had just one modern automobile company in Maruti Suzuki.


Focus on urban rail network-surface and UG

In my report on transportation I suggested a large step up of investments in the railways, constructing 100 km of surface rail lines by 2000 and then going for an underground rail system, building another 100 km of such a system by 2011. Of course, the plan envisaged substantial investments. The country was not awash with funds and there was not much enthusiasm over raising large resources. Also, that was the lowest point in terms of foreign exchange reserves and with the permit - licence - raj firmly entrenched, there was not much enthusiasm on the part of global investors to invest in India.

With the dismissal of the DMK government in 1991, these reports were consigned to the archives.


When London Underground extended across Thames...

Five years later, I had occasion to look at the London underground rail system, well-known for its efficiency and commuter convenience. The metro was extending its construction across the Thames in the dockyard area. I walked through the tunnel under construction and was deeply impressed by the technology. Remember, the system under construction was below the Thames river:  the safety of dozens of historic buildings like the Westminister Hall had to be protected from possible damage through vibrations inevitable in constructing a huge underground system.

W Atkins & Co, in-charge of several underground projects across the globe, provided rich information on construction and the economics of this.

Packing commuters like sardines...

I was reinforced with my earlier conviction that such a mass transportation system is vital for India with her teeming population. Large metros face severe problems coping with massive demand for transportation facilities for commuting to work places. Mumbai suburban,  accounting for nearly half the total passenger traffic of the Indian Railway, has been known for years for packing commuters like sardines.

Tamil Nadu government wasn’t too enthusiastic about spending on such large infrastructure projects. In the Indian federal system, the railways are the monopoly of the Central government; the state governments didn’t have a say and thus weren’t willing to play ball.

Delhi was the earliest to appreciate the imperative for such an underground rail system. It invited the veteran railway engineer.

E Sreedharan to build the Delhi metro rail. Giving adequate power to the septuagenarian, the system took shape in quick time. In just a decade, over 100 km of metro lines could be constructed in the national capital.  The popularity of the Delhi metro helped spread interest on this system to several other large cities- Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad, Mumbai... joined the fray.


Colossal strides taken by China...

China opted to go for the metro rail. The booming Chinese economy with consistent large economic growth generating massive surpluses in foreign exchange and an alert leadership helped. When Shanghai’s metro completed an expansion three years ago, it emerged the world’s largest system designed to carry five million passengers a day with provision for expanding it to 10 million. This has happened in just 15 years. At that time, Shanghai offered 420 km of lines with close to 300 stations in 11 separate lines.

China continues its faith in this system with over a dozen major cities already having such metro systems in place with another dozen plus cities going ahead with construction. China’s capital Beijing, which opened its underground system in 1969, has a 442 km network that carries close to six million commuters a day. Of the ten largest networks of metro systems, three are in China (Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou). London underground, the oldest established in 1863, has a network length of 402 km.


Chennai-Bengaluru Rapid Transport System

 In 2008, IE organised a seminar in Chennai on Corridors of Excellence. The seminar suggested focusing on laying high-speed rail tracks on the lines of Delhi-Mumbai industrial corridor and suggested such a corridor from Chennai to Bengaluru. This rail line suggested by IE, can help run trains in speeds in excess of 300 km/hour. That means, travel between the two large cities of Chennai and Bengaluru can be covered in just about an hour. This can open up tremendous possibilities for the development along the entire 320 km stretch, facilitating de-congestion of the two large southern cities.


Underground rail system along OMR on PPP mode

The seminar also suggested building an underground rail system along the Rajiv Gandhi-IT highway (OMR) connecting Thiruvanmiyur with Siruseri. This stretch- houses most of the large IT companies and suffers heavy traffic - hundreds of buses carry commuters to several  companies and educational institutions along the corridor round-the-clock. TCS’ mega office at Siruseri with employees of over 25,000, operates around 500 buses every day to transfer its employees to the work spot and back home.

IE suggested a three-way funding of such a system :  the Indian Railways and the federal government; active participation by the state government which is the beneficiary of such an infrastructure;  more importantly, by the beneficiary industries along the route. It will be through public-private participation, involving the Central and state governments and also a large number of private industries. Such an arrangement can help construct the system in quick time and also ensure accountability by all the three owners. The estimated cost of such a system at that point of time was around Rs 20,000 crore. This could be met, a fourth by way of equity capital of Rs 5000 crore and the balance through long-term loans.

Such a system can help develop commuter traffic in an orderly and efficient manner and provide the commuters the fastest and safest mode of reaching their places of work. This, of course, calls for major policy changes : of separating such a system from the Indian Railway network and forming it as a part of larger metro transportation network as also integrating the rail and bus transportation modes.


A solution for future decades...

The teeming population, growing by the day and the poor road infrastructure with severe problems of land acquisition and costs, are major deterrents for such expansion. This alternative calls for large resources. But then it will be a solution for future decades. Such an experimental project can be extended to other parts of the metro and in course of a decade or so, it should be possible to provide easy commuting from one end, at Mogappair in the west to Siruseri in the south.

This will call for a drastic re-orientation of the Central-state involvement in developing infrastructure over the longer term.


Power of the auto lobby...

The US model based on the automobile is not workable in India.  The reasons are not difficult to comprehend:

•    Low per capita income

•    High prices of automobiles

•    Poor and crowded roads

•    High costs of land that comes in the way of providing parking space for vehicles.

•    The difficulty of expanding the existing road systems

The alternative is to focus on Mass Rapid Transport System funded largely by the government. The limited availability of land space in metros and large cities, their ballooning costs and the large and continuous influx of population from rural areas into the cities, leading to massive urbanisation; all call for planning such infrastructure to serve the needs of the long term. This is what China has done.

State governments like Tamil Nadu overtly concerned with welfare, have led to the grievous neglect of development of infrastructure. In Tamil Nadu’s budget, almost the entire revenue stream is accounted for by salaries and pensions paid to government employees, servicing of debt and the various welfare schemes and freebies and heavy subsidies on food, electricity and a host of other items. Thus, there is little surplus available for infrastructure development. This will call for consensus among the political parties to limit the amount of monies that can be offered as subsidies, a limit on government expenditure on salaries, pensions… and also to put a strong limit on public debt. These call for agreement among all political parties.

The strong automobile lobby has been responsible for this huge over-concentration on road transport sector to the neglect of the railways. The latter alone is capable of catering to mass transit needs at an affordable cost.


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