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Vol. XXXIII No. 21, February 16-29, 2024

The Chennai MRTS-Metro merger: unveiling more puzzles than solutions

-- by A Special Correspondent

The merger of the Chennai Metropolitan Rapid Transit System (MRTS) and the Chennai Metro Rail Limited (CMRL) has been a topic of discussion since 2018, aimed at achieving multi-modal integration for seamless transportation in the city. This pursuit of a unified transport portal, by the Chennai Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority (CUMTA), while intriguing and promising convenience, is not without its flaws and raises significant concerns. Questions arise about the timing and necessity of the merger, considering the ongoing stagnation of traffic all over the city, due to Metro construction. For instance, if this merger would indeed facilitate hassle-free transition between multiple modes of commutation, why wasn’t it considered right during the Chennai Metro’s initial planning in 2007-08?

The MRTS, operated by Southern Railway, has been in operation since 1995, connecting 18 stations between Chennai Beach and Velachery over a span of 15 kilometres. The CMRL, a more recent addition to the city’s transportation, commenced operations in 2015 between Alandur and Koyambedu stations in the green line, constantly expanding its reach ever since. The merger, planned in two phases, involves upgrading the existing 18 stations between Beach and Velachery to meet Metro standards. The first phase, overseen by Indian Railways, focuses on station enhancements such as air conditioning and CCTV monitoring. The second phase entails the upgradation of the rolling stock and the complete transfer of MRTS operations to CMRL.

Initially delayed due to land acquisition disputes between the Government of Tamil Nadu and Southern Railways, the merger gained traction again in 2022. In May 2022, Southern Railway granted in-principal approval for CMRL to take over the MRTS. If all progresses as planned, the merger could commence by the end of the 2024-25 financial year.

Primary among multiple issues in the proposed merger is the lingering delay in the extension of the MRTS to St. Thomas Mount. Despite being under construction for several years, this delay has resulted in distortions in what is known as the ‘100 feet road’ between Thillai Ganga Nagar and Velachery, as well as the connecting roads to suburbs like Madipakkam. The prolonged construction period has led to severe inconvenience for the residents of these neighbourhoods. Compounding the problem, a section of the under-construction railway bridge between Velachery and St. Thomas Mount stations, collapsed on January 18, 2024. This setback further hampers the progress of the extension. The envisioned St. Thomas Mount station, had the extension been completed, would have served as a crucial connecting hub between the MRTS, the Chennai Metro, and the Chennai Beach-Tambaram EMU- a vision, which, now appears more distant than ever in reality.

With a daily ridership exceeding 1 lakh passengers, the MRTS charges between INR 5-10 per passenger, notably lower than the Metro’s range of INR 10-60. The CMDA’s proposed renovations, aiming to beautify the MRTS stations and align them with the Metro ambiance by upgrading their “drab” facade, are anticipated to lead to an increase in ticket fare. This surge directly affects the MRTS’s modest passenger, which begs the question: who is the ultimate beneficiary of such a merger?

Amid the ongoing congestion caused by Metro construction, why is this aesthetic overhaul of MRTS stations, a priority, at all? How might this impact the city’s connectivity, already hampered by construction?

Once the proposed merger is in progress, the MRTS employees might have to return to Southern Railways without being integrated into the new system. Why can’t the CMRL retain these employees?

Furthermore, is there no viable system that integrates the MRTS, the Metro, and the Beach-Tambaram suburban lines, and possibly the MTC, without resorting to ambitious undertakings demanding exorbitant time, investment, and further impeding the city’s growing demand for connectivity and transportation facilities?

This merger prompts crucial questions about its necessity, particularly given the persistent construction challenges and makes one wonder if any endeavour lacking the potential to revolutionize the city’s transportation model is truly worthwhile at this point.

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