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Vol. XXIX No. 10, September 1-15, 2019

Will Metro relieve Chennai’s congestion and pollution?– if so, when?

by A Special Correspondent

Now that Phase I is functional, it is time to take stock of how the Metro is going to improve the city’s environment and citizens’ lifestyles when both phases are completed. Phase I of the Metro has cleared the traffic in many parts of Chennai and imparted a modern look to the city. Structures under Phase II, now set to take off, are going to be sleeker and less intrusive of road space. Beautification apart, the expectation from the mass transit system is that it will clear traffic congestion on the roads, reduce pollution, provide an inexpensive mode of transport and, because of its predictable schedule and speed, deliver more time for leisure. All this makes for a better quality of life when realised.

Phase I is a sample, covering 45km out of the total 163km of the two phases. Its results can now be extrapolated to predict the likely outcome of the second phase. The completed 45 km is too short a stretch to yield any noticeable benefits, but the preliminary results are still valuable for the lessons they carry – they can help estimate the likely outcomes and financial viability of the full network of 163km with all interconnections providing well-spread reach and multiple access options.

From 2016 to 2019, ridership has increased to 2.72 crores per annum, the latter figure calculated by annualising the actual January-May 2019 usage. While this as a number appears impressive, it translates to a daily usage covering only 75,000 people. The low usage is understandable because access is limited to a relatively small area served by 45km of track length as opposed to 163km with the entire “spider” interconnections in position. Under conditions of wide reach after Phase II, the present rate of usage is equivalent to double i.e. 1.5 lakh ridership per day over the 45km stretch. For 5-bogie trains providing service for 18 hours from 5am to 11pm within the 45 km track length, and allowing for off-peak hour usage variance, the capacity of the system is calculated to be about 7 lakh people per day. The present effective usage is thus only 21 per cent (approximately 1.5 lakhs) of a capacity of 7 lakhs per day.

High fares and lack of last mile connectivity, apart from the limited utility of a truncated version, could be reasons for the low levels of utilisation. There are signs that efforts are on to correct the connectivity deficiency. CMRL estimates that 122 feeder buses and 800 bicycles are required for connectivity in Phase I; Phase II, when it eventually becomes operative, will need double those numbers. That leaves the issue of affordable fare rates, a critical fix for both phases of the Metro project if it is to meet its objectives.
Against this background, it is possible to make an educated guess of how far Chennai Metro, when completed down to a last mile connectivity arrangement, would be able to meet its objectives. At a full network length of 163 km, with all interconnections in place, the capacity is estimated to be about 32 lakh ridership per day, allowing for off-peak usage variances. CMRL’s target of 19.2 ridership per day by 2025 implies that the project would be completed only by 2025 and not by 2022 as originally envisaged. The ridership target also seems pessimistic and incongruent with their own target of 7 lakhs per day for Phase I alone, which is only about a fourth of the eventual completed track length.

For a population of 75 lakhs, the likely number of trips by potential Metro users can be guesstimated. If from each household of five members, two make work-related trips outside their locality, the users would number 30 lakhs; but, allowing for car users and others still preferring alternate means of mobility at, say, 30 per cent, 21 lakhs are potential Metro users making two trips a day, to and from work, accounting for 42 lakh trips per day. Against this demand the Metro has a capacity to provide ridership of 32 lakhs per day, as per our estimate, or 19 lakhs as per CMRL’s estimate, which is 75 per cent or 45 per cent of the demand, respectively – if connectivity and price estimates are accurate. Even by the lower estimate, mitigation of polluting surface traffic to the extent of 45 per cent is, indeed, something to look forward to as it would make a noticeable difference to the environment. But if the project is going to completed only in 2025, six more years will have gone by with accumulated congestion reaching unbearable limits. By then the capacity estimated by CMRL may fall short, meeting much less than the targeted 45 per cent.

With 296km track length and 27 lakhs ridership per day, Delhi Metro utilises 71 per cent of its capacity and has been able to reduce losses from Rs. 348 crore in 2016-17 to Rs. 145 crore in 2017-18. Therefore, for Chennai Metro, prospects of break-even at the operating level are bright if full capacity utilisation is attained by imaginative pricing for maximising revenue. Operational expenses will not vary greatly whether the carriage is occupied by 50 passengers or 200. Therefore, it follows that more the number of passengers, greater the revenue collection without a corresponding increase in operating expenses.

Lower fares alone may not be enough without a secure policy committing that fares would continue to be maintained at affordable levels. Most passengers taking to the Metro would be motorcycle users who must choose between the Metro and the bike, the latter involving a borrowing decision locking up Rs. 60-70,000. Streamlining bus routes and relocating bus stops to integrate them with Metro network is as important as last mile connectivity to derive maximum advantage from an integrated transport system. While all these measures lie within grasp, mounting traffic congestion year after year makes the target of 2025 for completion of Phase II seem so far away, imparting a tinge of disappointment.

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