Chennai Metro: Future of public transport or white elephant?

Commute in Chennai

chennai metro rail
Citizen Matters webinar looked into the impact of Chennai Metro and its importance as a mode of public transport. Pic: CMRL

The public transport system in the city has seen a slew of developments in the past year ranging from the commencement of works for Phase 2 of the Chennai Metro project to free travel for women passengers in the ordinary buses of MTC.

With the Metro’s presence in the city now close to a decade, how has the system integrated with the public transport landscape in the city? What are the issues that prevent more riders from taking to the Chennai Metro and is that likely to change with Phase 2?

Is the bus system, which ferries more people, being neglected in favour of the Metro? What are the sticky issues with respect to public transport in the city that need to be addressed immediately? Is there an overestimation of the importance of what the Metro offers to the city? What is the status of the bus services and how can it be improved?

These are a few of the areas that were explored by a panel of experts and public during the Citizen Matters webinar on ‘Chennai Metro: Future of Public Transport or White Elephant?’ held on July 29th.

The panel comprised G Ananthakrishnan, a freelance journalist working on stories related to urban spaces, mobility, health, and urban development; V Rama Rao, a civic activist and social worker and the Director of Traffic and Transportation Forum Chennai; Santhosh L, of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), Krishnaa P and G Balakumar, residents from Mogappair and Avadi respectively, who are regular users of public transport. 


Read more: Public transport in Chennai far from being disabled-friendly and inclusive


Experience of commuters in Chennai Metro and MTC

Krishnaa P, who has been using public transport right from her school days, has commuted using local buses, trains and now the Metro. She said, “Metro service has been a big boon to many of us, as it has definitely reduced the duration of the long commute. It is also more comfortable. Though the initial costs were quite high, the subsequent revision has made it affordable, at least, to the office goers and to the students”.

However, last-mile connectivity is an issue with Metro. This was echoed by many in the panel. Krishnaa said, “While the Metro service has improved connectivity in a few areas, several other parts of the city like OMR lacks connectivity. Besides, once we step out of the station, the commuters are forced to take a private cab or share auto to reach the required destination, as there is no availability of bus service near the Metro stations.”

She also observed that the facilities across different Metro stations were not uniform. “I found that the Vadapalani station had a wonderful automatic sanitizer dispenser. However, the dispensers in other Metro stations were either dysfunctional or empty,” she said.

Pointing out that the though buses in Chennai has a good connectivity, Balakumar, noted that the long waiting hours was an issue with the MTC buses. “If you have to go to a particular place at a given time, buses would not be a preferable choice,” he said.

Chennai Metro accessibility for PWDs
A key issue is the gap between the platform and the metro, for which a roll-able ramp could help reduce the risk. Pic: Sathish Kumar

Sathish, who is a person with disability (PwD), said that he has been forced to spend between Rs 10,000 and Rs 15,000 per month on private transportation, as public transport modes are not accessible. This would reduce to less than Rs 1,000 if public transport could be made more convenient for all.

“Among the available modes, the Metro is the most accessible mode of public transport for persons with disabilities. Even then, the Metro has its disadvantages. Though there are people to assist those in wheelchairs at the Metro stations, they are not trained to handle us. The gap between the platform and the train compartment also poses risk of wheels getting stuck and is also a hazard for visually challenged people,” he said. He added that the availability of low-floor buses would help not just persons with disabilities but also senior citizens and pregnant women. However, the reluctance of the Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) over many years does not inspire much hope for change.

Speaking on the procurement of low floor buses, Vaishnavi Jayakumar, of Disability Rights Alliance, said that persons with disabilities have lost 15 years of progress just because transport corporations are not willing to do the right thing. She also noted that the portable ramp that is being tested by the railways department should be made available in more compartments for persons with different kinds of disabilities to access the trains.

Crucial aspects of integration of public transport

Santhosh L of ITDP said that the integration of all modes of public transport has to be looked at in three ways – integration of fare, physical integration and information integration. “The commute fare across different modes of public transport has to be regularised and made affordable. The shift from one mode of public transport to another should be made convenient and inclusive by integrating the physical infrastructure. If I am to travel from Thiruvanmaiyur to Georgetown, I should be able to have the information I need in respect to the mode of transports available, shortest routes or cheapest rates”, he said.

The panel agreed that for such integration to happen, it is crucial for various departments to work well together. “Implementation of Chennai Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority (CUMTA) is a step in the right direction but the progress on this has been slow”, said Santhosh.

Citing the 2019 Mobility Plan report of Chennai, G Ananthakrishnan, noted that the average speed of commute in Chennai has reduced significantly. “It is a given thing that our cities will continue to organise and the periphery will continue to grow. When money worth crores is invested in Metro, we might as well have an integrated, fully functional, modern kind of mobility system. For instance, the executives of Chennai Metro Rail Ltd (CMRL) have been pointing out that share autos will play an important role in bringing people to the Metro stations. Despite the significant role, the share autos have not been regularised. This speaks of the lack of coherence in terms of how we go about building the transport network in the city,” he said.

Ramarao V pointed out that the focus of the government should be on the affordability of public transport while fixing fares rather than the crores of investment it made into the transport system. “The aim of the public transport system is to serve the public and not to make profit,” he said.

Speaking on the take over of Mass Rapid Transit System (MRTS) by CMRL, Ramarao said, “I fear the ticket rates may go up. The level of service is more or less same in both MRTS and CMRL. The commute time may differ from 10 to 15 minutes. However, we might be asked to pay more when the CMRL takes over MRTS.”

While Ananthakrishnan commented that the Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS) was a promising system but Chennai should have taken the lead on its implementation even before the arrival of the Metro. “As things stand we are late on implementation of the BRTS. While it could potentially transport more people faster, the system can only be implemented on arterial roads”, he said.


Read more: Will CUMTA finally get going with a push from the World Bank partnership?


Is large-scale investment in Chennai Metro worth it?

“The important thing is that the bus service and the train service do not have to compete. The bus has to bring people from their local areas to some mass transit system, like either the suburban rail or Chennai Metro. Ownership of these different transport systems seems to be the cause of the issue. The state government is interested in only the bus system and the central government is interested only in its own rail system. So the two have never really met. Unless this changes, there will be competition,” said Ananthakrishnan.

MTC Chennai has taken several measures to improve the ridership since the Covid restrictions were lifted
MTC Chennai has taken several measures to improve the ridership since the Covid restrictions were lifted. Pic: MTC

Pointing out the statistics from Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC), Santhosh said, there are 3,500 MTC buses in the city of which only 3,250 are operational at any given time on the road. This caters to a daily ridership of over 28 lakh per day, while Metro caters to just over one lakh commuters per day.

“When the investment gets pumped only on to the Chennai Metro, it seems to be a neglect to bus service. This further reduces the daily ridership in MTC buses. As a result, the quality of service also goes down which leads to crowded buses and long waiting period. This eventually drives away people from the bus system,” he said, adding that for Chennai’s current population, as many as 7,000 buses are necessary.

“Currently, Metro seems to offer the highest amount of service and the cost seems to be justified. On the other hand, MTC seems to be of lower standard and thus the low cost is justified. Rather, MTC should aspire to offer a level of service offered in Metro and Metro should aspire to make the service as affordable as MTC. This would reduce the hassle for commuters,” he added.

Further, Santhosh pointed out that the government should avoid investing in flyovers along the transit corridors. “Investments in flyovers and expressways built along the transit corridors should be rationalised and avoided wherever possible, as these directly benefit cars and not public transport. This will also reduce the competition between private and public transport,” he noted.

While both the experts and citizens are hopeful that the Metro is in the interest of larger public good, it is also crucial for the government to ensure other public transport systems including the bus services are enhanced and effectively integrated.

Watch the complete discussion here:

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About Shobana Radhakrishnan 47 Articles
Shobana Radhakrishnan is a Senior Reporter at Citizen Matters. Before moving to Chennai in 2022, she reported for the national daily, The New Indian Express (TNIE), from Madurai. During her stint at TNIE, she did detailed ground reports on the plight of migrant workers and the sorry-state of public libraries in addition to covering the renowned Jallikattu, Tamil Nadu Assembly Elections (2021) and Rural Local Body Polls (2019-2020). Shobana has a Masters degree in Mass Communication and Journalism from the Pondicherry Central University and a Bachelors in English Literature. She keenly follows the impact of development on vulnerable groups.

3 Comments

  1. it is waste of public money. it has not reducing the traffic in roads, cost is very high even unable to earn money. the income generated will not pay at least the interest amount of the loan. some powerful vested interst are lobbying for metro rail which is not required for our country.

  2. metro rail is a great initiative, however what is lacking is mini bus services from the station to different localities. also stations should be constructed in small size to ensure passengers can reach the train fast. and underground stations/rails should be avoided in place like chennai which is so prone to flooding. however the planners do not have any foresight nor knowledge and commit mistake after mistake and blame some authority for it.

  3. The Metro is a concept and become really useful when complimented by Buses, Share Auto etc to reach destinations. The Small bus if routed and scheduled adequately to serve residential areas and hinder land of Metro stations will improve patronage of Metro. The long pending linking of St Thomas Mount and Velachery too will improve ridership. It has to be a multi modal unified system where people can use one ticket/card to pay various modes and reach point to point.

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