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Urban Rail - The Chennai Experience

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Metro RailPublic Transport

Sometime back, I remember reading a report in a magazine (published from either HongKong or Singapore) about the Chennai Suburban Rail (CRS) & the newer MRTS. This report, I think was actually based on a study for economic assistance for expansion of the Chennai MRTS (Phases 2 & 3).

In short, the report noted the following :

SR was the builder-operator of both CRS as well as MRTS & had no experience in operating urban city rail systems (the Chennai MRTS was it's first Urban rail project). Also, service levels, prices & expansion plans of the CRS /MRTS were being fixed by different people than those for the bus systems. This led to the bus systems, operated by CMTC to become competitors for the rail systems instead of complementing each other. The state was provided with CRS & MRTS from a central govt body (SR) without any financial inputs from the state or local levels except for land, & therefore, the state /local authorities had no leverage in local interests since they had not financially contributed to the project. The local govt, thus had little incentive or say to organize better to maximize ridership levels on commuter rail lines as also the MRTS.

Phase-1 of the MRTS had been a functional & financial failure, in fact, nothing short of a finanial disaster, carrying some 9,000 passengers per day at very low fares though designed for 6 lakhs passengers. If local bodies had to fund building & operating the MRTS, it might never have been built, & SR realising that this had become a drain on it's resources - for Phase II, it had demanded 2/3rds financial state participation, which the local govt considered & agreed since they would at least get some leverage in decision making.
This process may likely be extended & the whole financial & operating burden, with very large subsidies may be transferred onto the state government.

Since the Chennai MRTS was planned well before liberalisation, the creation of several high paying jobs & new wealth was never anticipated & the flight of captive passengers to personal modes of transport may not have been anticipated, I think.

Whilst CRS is a necessity for bangalore - the financial aspects need to be worked out very carefully. The notion of financial risk had obviously been absent whilst planning the Chennai MRTS, & planning had been abysmal - routes were considered only 'where land was available', 'with minimum disruptions', & 'along buckingham canal', without considering existing bus routes or viability for a larger ridership base. Perhaps the situation may improve when all three phases have been completed & interchanges to CRS have been provided.


sanjayv's picture

Thanks Naveen

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 Thanks for these pictures Naveen.  The suburban rail section that you show pictures of (Beach-Tambaram) is service that is much, much older than the elevated trains (which is traditionally referred to as MRTS in Chennai, or colloquially as "parakkum rail" - the flying train).

I am pretty sure the Beach-Tambaram suburban service is very full, especially at peak hours.  The elevated train service has not been a big success is my understanding.  There are multiple reasons in my analysis (1) The route went along sections of town that have traditionally had excellent bus service and (2) The station locations are a bit poor since the choice was made to locate the route all along the Buckingham Canal.  So for example, the station that came up a short distance away from my former place of residence in Chennai is besides a busy intersection that is plop in the middle of a very residential area.  Most people getting off the train here would still have to take another bus to get to where they are going.  There are also other stations that are located far enough away from the sort of the main commercial throughfare and with poor bus interconnections that they tend to be inconvenient. (Convenient multi-modal interchange is so important)

So now it is a Chicken and egg problem.  The service is poor and stations are dingy and feel unsafe  because of poor patronage.  And there is poor patronage because of aforementioned reasons and poor conditions of the trains!

So, when I was in Chennai recently in the old neighborhood, I had three choices to get to Central station for my trip back to Bangalore. The bus - crowded and slower, but dirt cheap, auto - expensive, have to haggle and prove my city savvy but faster, and the MRTS - cheap and fastest travel time, but with a bad reputation and poor frequency.  I took the auto!

Like you said, a poor case of planning.  However, I still believe there is still hope for the MRTS.  Just needs some marketing savvy, inter agency cooperation, eventual connection to the regular suburban lines (which run right by the airport by the way).  The MRTS goes past a portion of Chennai's IT corridor also. Unfortunately, that change may never happen, I fear.



Naveen's picture

Chennai MRTS - Not a good example

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Hi Sanjay,

Well, you are an "insider" as far as Chennai is concerned ! Good to have your perspective about Chennai MRTS, since I don't think there are any here that know the system, as users.

I had to go to Tambaram to meet someone - & hence, when I was told about this train, I opted it to see what it was like - & was pretty disappointed.

There were indications that it was seeing crowds - good no. of shops leading upto Tambaram station, parking lots full, extensions underway, etc. (also noticed similar activities at other stns that were closer to Chennai), but the trains during late morning & afternoon were both almost empty. I was told that trains on the other tracks see even less crowd !

needs some marketing savvy, inter agency cooperation, eventual connection to the regular suburban lines - I hope you begin to see why BMLTA is required:) Just Kidding.

I now feel that Bangalore is better placed for a CRS than Chennai since at least tracks pass close to or through some high density areas, though there are many barren stretches by the tracks here too.

ss87's picture

As mentioned earlier unlike

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As mentioned earlier unlike the services on the Beacg-Tambaram sector which sees a good crowd you can find even the Beach-Arakkonam EMU's less crowded for lack of frequency. Even worse even people who have to go to Perambur do not board this train at times. The MSB-TBM locals generally have a good freuqncy and hence the crowd.

With respect to the Velachery route the route first terminated at Mylapore which had good conenctivty with the route of 21G. Later it was extended to Tiruvanmiyur and passed close to the slum areas where people even today dont board the deluxe buses for the rate almost equal to the BMTC rates. Now on extention to Velachery it catered to the IT area the only reason for it being the IT crowd.

Even the authorities turned a blind eye to this service. When I went to Triplicane station to have a joy ride upto Beach there was a dull counter with a person issuing ticket. Escalator and lifts were not working and we had to climb up 2 floors to board teh train. The station was almost empty and so was the train. And I noticed new rakes running on the tambaram line whereas the one on the MRTS was poor.And the station building was used by slum dwellers and others as it was not put into use.

Extention to Tambaram is also not of much use. We already have 21G route of MTC in huge numbers passing through the same route and even volvoes running on the same.This bus pases through many stations of the MRTS without much use. Other buses which end at Triplicane and other stations stop quite a distance from the station. Only beach is close to Triplicane station and people from beach have to cross the road to take the train and without much fo frequency they take the bus.

All the above issues must be solved. However one plus point is the strech of Chennai metro passes through areas not having much traffic whereas Bangalore has huge traffic as the city has concentrated on the Centrical approach and city centre being the most jammed. So people will opt for metro here.

Naveen's picture

IR - Need for Professionals

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Thanks ss87 for yr inputs.

I think it's clear that the railways need professionals who can plan & run a system that at least recovers it's cost rather than "officials", particularly in well-off cities like Bangalore. Even Mumbai's suburban rail with it's jam-packed trains & low-cost, downright basic facilities have been incurring losses. So, all the more reason why railways need some serious introspection.

The very idea of a central entity (with it's many zones) controlling all the railway networks in the country is questionable - Chennai MRTS is but, one example.

Vasanth's picture

Bangalore usage will be high during peak hours

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 Bangalore, during peak hours usage will be high. Travelling from East Bangalore to West Bangalore and vice versa during peak hours takes around 1 hour 30 minutes minimum and sometimes even 2 hours. A Metro would cover the same distance in 35 minutes as expected. Even though there will be last mile problems for Metro users, it will not consume as high as road travel.


Naveen's picture

Chennai Metro may takeover MRTS

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Posting this on behalf of Syed ---

The MRTS segment, currently being operated by the Southern Railway, is likely to be taken-over by the Chennai Metro Rail Limited once the Metro becomes operational.

This will create one authority which will be in control of all the elevated rail networks in the city. Once the merger takes effect, the ‘normal' EMUs that run on the MRTS will be replaced by air-conditioned rakes that have automatic doors.

Speaking to The Hindu on Wednesday, T.V. Somanathan, Managing Director, Chennai Metro Rail, said that it made logical sense to integrate the two systems. “The MRTS is a loss making enterprise and not going to cost much to take-over. The State government has already invested two-thirds in the project. The modalities are yet to be worked out, but by the time the Metro becomes operational, the accumulated loss incurred by the Railway might have compensated for the equity invested by them.”

When a north-south-east corridor along the Buckingham Canal was conceived by the Madras Area Traffic Study Unit (MATSU) way back in the 1970s, it was estimated to cater for six lakh passengers a day. Currently, on an average, only about 70,000 commuters use the MRTS every day.

While operational expense on the network is about Rs.18 lakh per day, earnings amount to around Rs.3 lakh per day. In effect, the MRTS incurs an annual operational loss of Rs.54.7 crore. By 2013, the accumulated operational loss would have compensated for the 33 per cent investment made by the Southern Railway in Phase-II (Tirumailai to Velachery) of the project.

According to Mr. Somanathan, since the MRTS would connect to the Metro at both ends through inter-modal transit points, the ‘network effect' created by synchronised operations will be beneficial for both the networks.

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