At long last those in control of our public transport systems appear to be waking up to the possibilities. Five years after it was proposed by the Tamil Nadu State Government, the Indian Railways has given an in-principle nod to the merger of its Mass Rapid Transport System (MRTS) with Chennai Metro Rail (CMRL). This, as and when it takes place, will mean greater connectivity and optimal utilisation of both systems of public transport, thereby taking pressure off the roads that are at present choked by private vehicles. However, all of this may take quite a while before becoming reality.
The MRTS, originally planned to link Beach Station, Velacheri, St Thomas’ Mount, Villivakkam and Ennore, was conceptualised in the 1970s. Work however did not begin till 1984 and proceeded thereafter at a leisurely pace till 2007 with much escalation of cost in between. Today, it runs between Velacheri and Beach Stations, the fate of the extension to St Thomas Mount being uncertain owing to land acquisition issues and the rest of it abandoned owing to the Metro Rail project. When planned it was estimated to carry 6 lakh passengers a day but at present handles around 1 lakh chiefly because of several deficiencies in its execution – the most important being the lack of last mile connectivity with other forms of transport. It is also an environmental disaster, for it effectively occupies much of the bed of the Buckingham Canal within the city, thereby cutting off all chances of that water body being revived. It however, enjoys the distinction of being India’s first elevated rail network.
The Metro Rail, which is partly operational, though much of it is still under execution, will when complete, it is envisaged, have five operational lines. At present, work is ongoing on two lines only – Washermanpet to the Airport and St Thomas Mount to Chennai Central. The first will run chiefly along Anna Salai before moving into North Chennai while the second will be along Poonamallee High and the Inner Ring Roads. It is therefore evident that if the MRTS and Metro lines are to link up, they need to do so at St Thomas Mount alone and therefore much will depend on how the MRTS completes the final phase of its planned route. There is no talk as yet of a linkage at the northern end. This will become essential and perhaps the best option would be a feeder service between Chennai Beach and Fort Stations – the former being on the MRTS route while the latter is on the Metro route.
Whatever be the troubles of connecting up, this merger is a welcome move. This will ensure that a form of integrated passenger transport exists along the east coast, the centre (Anna Salai) and the west (Poonamallee High Road), the three arterial routes along which there is much movement of traffic.
Much will, however, depend on how soon we get the common services going. There will need to be integration of ticketing and, more importantly, rationalisation of fares – Metro Rail is considered to be costly as compared to the subsidised fares on MRTS. There is also a wide difference in rolling stock – would the upmarket office going commuter want to travel in the battered MRTS coaches? The Metro wagons, on the other hand, are the latest in technology.
Ultimately, both will need to address issues of last mile connectivity – the MRTS is an abject failure on this front while the Metro has held out a number of assurances that have not yet become reality. The integrated system will succeed only if it ensures a hassle-free ride for its customers. It is to be hoped that the consultant who is being appointed to study the merger will make this the most important aspect for consideration.