Development on Track- On MRTS Chennai

The forlorn MRTS station at Velcahery.

Indian cities are changing and how. In their bid to outdo each other and catch up with their international counterparts, these cities are relentlessly pursuing urban development and rejuvenation of civic facilities. One of the areas where this trend is most visible is that of urban transportation. Granted that most major Indian cities have a long continuing tradition of urban transportation but owing to the large influx of people from all over India to these few hubs of development and urbanity, nothing seems to be good enough.

Delhi is a good example for this never ending need of newer modes of transportation. When the Metro trains started to ply in the national capital, people had expected lesser traffic on roads and lesser rush in the famous DTC buses and the infamous Blue line city buses, but soon enough their hopes were belied, seeing how getting in and out of the Delhi Metro coaches during peak hours is no easier than pumping blood through a cholesterol choked artery. Mumbai local trains, no matter how famously crowded they are, have been the lifeline of the city alongside the well known Best Buses. How much load can the newly inaugurated Monorail take off of them is yet to be seen.

Chennai too is in this pursuit of finding solutions to its traffic problems. Along with its long running MTC buses, Chennai awaits the upcoming Metro rail which was slated to begin running in November according to some reports earlier in the year, but still remains in the offing. But Chennai also presents an interesting example of experimentation with the issue of urban transportation. Travelling on the eastern side of the city, one might see the huge pillars raised high above the ground upon which are built the long tracks travelling all the way from Velachery to Chennai Beach. This track belongs to the Mass Rapid Transit System or MRTS, as it is popularly known. Inaugurated about 20 years back, this is the first ever elevated train corridor in India and runs about 20 kilometers. Serving the local population, this rail network is one of its kind which brings conventional Indian railway local train coaches on an elevated track.

The elevated MRTS track high above the ground.
The huge height and length of the project is only matched by the hugeness of its stations. Unlike Delhi Metro where stations are of varying proportions and only few of them are enormous in size, the MRTS stations are all similarly big. Except for Velachery where the trains begin and the last few stations on the other end of the route from Park Town up to Chennai Beach, all the stations are elevated above ground. This track travels alongside the main roads of the city and also through the busy market and residential areas. In its long stretch, a person aboard an MRTS train can see many landmarks including Chennai’s IT hub, the Lighthouse at the beach, the Triplicane Beach, the backyard of the Madras Presidency College, the Chepauk stadium, the multi super speciality hospital, The Simpsons building and The Hindu office on Mount road and much more. Thus the train remains a viable option for anyone living on this side of the city to connect with many places of educational, professional and tourist importance.
What is more, is that this track goes ahead and connects with other local train networks of the city, ones which are built on ground and connect to the other parts of Chennai. The coaches themselves are not too shabby. With digital display boards and audio announcements in some of the coaches and properly maintained trains in general, the MRTS can be a good experience not only in avoiding the traffic congestions but also reaching many destinations across the city. As for the stations, they too are well equipped with elevators and escalators.

And the emptier stations.

Being the first elevated train corridor in the country, this track actually for the first time provided the solution to the problem of getting through the great Indian busy city. However the fairly empty trains, emptier stations, broken elevators and out of service escalators on most of the stations, empty shopping spaces and a sense of  abandonment in general are confounding considering how much has been invested in this project.

The fairly empty trains.

Assuming that even with its humble traffic the service earns its fare share of money and might not be incurring losses, the problem lies in the fact that even with such huge structures erected with so much space devoted to potential shops and other facilities why has this planning not converted into success and why are these trains not bustling with people especially when the route of the train is so lucrative for daily passengers. From here one can suppose it’s only a matter of Catch 22 where the logic is that since passengers do not throng these trains, the facilities have not been maintained to the expected standards and since the standards have deteriorated people prefer not taking these trains.

One of the long time residents of the city explains that with the IT hub on the route, it was expected that the trains would become an instant hit for IT professionals who come from different parts of the city. But Velachery and other areas nearer to the IT park were also developed as suburban real estate and soon people began to settle here. The distance between office and work got considerably reduced and the option for taking the train became increasingly less viable. Another probable reason for the lack of traffic on the route is that the MRTS trains on the Velachery-Beach route stop services too soon. For instance one cannot catch a train after 10:30 pm while returning from the Chennai Beach towards Velachery. Also the frequency of the trains is not very good. Thus in terms of time bound journeys or late night travel the MRTS does not remain a viable option. For a thriving cultural scene, something which Indian cities are still aspiring to establish, evenings and nights must become more accessible to common people who might be returning from theatre, movies, concerts, sporting events etc. late at night and therefore may need more options for travelling safely and comfortably through their cities.

MRTS does not carry its own weight especially when looked at from the perspective of how much has been invested in it and how little traffic it carries at most times of the day. But this seems to not have bothered either the residents or the administration as the new buzz is around the city’s upcoming Metro rail. In fact Chennai is not alone in the craze. In the last few years besides Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Orissa and Karnataka governments have either commenced or announced their respective Metro rail projects in various cities. New Delhi has already expanded its Metro rail project massively not only within the capital but the NCR cities as well. Mumbai has also added a Mono-rail project to its geography while Kolkata continues with its long running underground Metro train services.
But every new project comes with a heavy price. In case of Chennai, the entire city witnesses massive spillover of the Metro project. Dug trenches, sky high pillars and cordoned off roads will greet you any and everywhere in the city. Once large roads that ran in front of vintage buildings such as the Chennai Central Railway station, Rippon Building etc. are now turned into narrow lanes but handling the same traffic as before. Dust and grime all over the place and potholes turned into mud puddles with the frequent coastal rains make it impossible to navigate, especially when a huge crowd of people has to manage through slender footpaths separated from roads by railings, making it impossible to catch a bus or an auto-rickshaw. In other words, the places that the city came to be recognized from are now themselves unrecognizable.
The constant construction as a permanent feature of the Urban Space of the Hyper Urbanised Indian metros.

The continuous havoc and chaos, scores of people walking between massive construction on one side and jammed roads on the other, hundreds of cars lined up behind each other and the complete change in the vertical and lateral geography of cities make them look like a scene from the movie where aliens have attacked and everyone is running to save themselves.

The completely altered urban landscape of Chennai.

One can call this phenomenon “Hyper-Urbanisation”. This new form of urbanisation is driven by an intense competition amongst cities to present themselves as the ideal avenues of investments for domestic and foreign investors. But instead of a healthy, logical and coherent development, it follows a pathological pattern. Enough attention is not given to the city’s need of proper underground drainage and sewage, roads, frequency of buses, pedestrian facilities and security arrangements. These provisions are for the long term and big investors are not really interested in them. The short term goals are that of ample space for development of industrial areas, IT sectors and other professional services, real estate areas nearby, hyper commercialised spaces for consumer based activities such as shopping and recreation and new and chic urban transportation systems which let people commute easily, at least in theory, to and fro between offices and homes.

Out of all these, the one that affects the existing city space and infrastructure the most is the urban transportation project because it is the most far reaching project and affects the old and new parts of the city equally. The craze for Metro rail and Mono rail projects has been promptly read by the politicians who in order to appeal to their constituencies are promising these projects left and right. As recently as last month Samajwadi Party Supremo, Mr. Mulayam Singh Yadav, has promised a Monorail between cities as far as Noida and Agra. The urban middle class is catching the fever of modernisation and urbanisation, albeit packaged as infrastructure development, and all cities, big and small are being sold and delivered these dreams of posh urban Metro rail projects[1].

The problem however is that most of the smaller cities and even bigger cities for that matter do not have a thriving transport culture as it is. Most Indian cities do not have a vibrant bus transport system. The JN-NURM scheme under which local bus services were launched in many big and small cities has encountered many problems to let these bus services be the predominant mode of transportation in the cities. These problems include lack of funding, resistance from local private transport services and in general a lackadaisical response from authorities and the local residents.

Ironically the very middle class that is starry eyed for the Metro rail or Mono rail projects, either due to its urban affluent appeal or because of the huge real estate promises that it provides, is not prone to taking public transportation. The boom in automobile industry in India has not come out of the blues. The aspirations for owning one’s own vehicle within the limited but thriving middle class is the driving force behind the automobile industry’s rapid growth in the country. Thus the demands for a city equipped with modern and advanced public transportation and desire for personal modes of transportation run paradoxically together in the urban middle class homes and the whole urban politics gets affected by this centrifugal pull in different directions.

Public transport looking for better days.
It is true that newer urban modes of transportation do not hurt anyone and rather only help out people. But going by the fate of the MRTS, one can observe how casually these huge projects are launched, built and delivered but might just end up with very few takers, especially considering the amount of money and planning that has been invested into them. Perhaps with a swankier air-conditioned Metro rail, Chennai denizens may not be as heartless as they are with the MRTS, but the question remains that of the accountability of not only the authorities but also the residents of these hyper urbanised metropolitans. It is important to understand that these projects do not come cheap and therefore before mobilising demands for yet newer modern projects people, especially from the middle class who are the driving force behind the very profitable real estate sector, should adapt to a shared sense of public identity where they share responsibilities and concerns with the wider public who too have to face the repercussions of massive upheaval in their cities when these projects come to town. Until then these developments on track will end up taking a lot of things off track as well.   
(Based on my observations from living in Chennai for two months, August and September , this year)


[1] For instance Agra city official website outlines its plans to launch a Monorail project in the future. This plan seems far- fetched since the city still lacks a viable public transport culture in forms of local buses spread in all parts of the city.

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