Do we need monstrous MRTS stations?

Last week the newspapers carried a story on how a child had fallen through a gap in one of the MRTS stations of the city and landed in the sewer below. This has once again brought into focus the woeful maintenance of the MRTS stations. It also raises the important question as to whether these stations need to be such cavernous places, thereby making their maintenance difficult and therefore being safety hazards.

Unlike in the past when railway stations stood out in their grandeur, today’s stations are bywords for shoddy construction. Rusted railings, staircases that lead nowhere, elevator shafts that are unguarded, lack of signage and very poor illumination are their hallmarks. If there is one thing that is common to stations old and new, it is their size- they are all enormous. The older stations needed to be that way, for they were railway junctions and termini. The intermediary stations were never large. But that has not been the case with the MRTS, where each and every station is far bigger than necessary and also remarkably ugly.

When the MRTS stations were built, the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) had retained with itself the right to develop the ‘air space’ that is the space above the station structures which were the responsibility of the railways. In 2007, the CMDA announced that it was preparing plans with the help of consultants to develop at least one lakh square feet of space above each of the three stations at Taramani, Perungudi and Velachery. These were to house IT offices and shopping malls. It was reported that the CMDA was basing its plans on cities such as Hong Kong and Tokyo where similar services are provided above railway stations. Since then nothing has come of these plans and the stations, built as large structures, no doubt with a view to accommodate these ambitions, are mere shells lacking even the most basic amenities.

The fundamental difference between stations abroad and those in Chennai is that in the former, not all stations are built to enormous size. They vary depending on the location and only those that stand in downtown locations and are therefore sure of patronage have malls and shopping centres. The other stations are scaled down versions. Not so here, where every station is an enormous, straggling shell. Also, most of the Chennai MRTS stations are located in slum neighbourhoods, which is not surprising considering that the entire network was built on the Buckingham Canal- a waterway whose banks have long been home to slums. In the evenings, most of these stations are poorly lit and at night, they serve as sleeping places for most of the residents of the surrounding slums. In fact, the Railways had earlier blamed these locals for the frequent failures of station infrastructure such as escalators, elevators and lighting. But considering that the stations have no security of any sort, how can such occurrences be prevented?

The MRTS stations have become an established part of the city’s skyline, whatever be their merits or otherwise. And it is a fact that the service is being well-patronised. So the railways will have to focus on improving the facilities and also if possible plan for smaller stations at locations where the service will extend in future. It is also to be hoped that the Metro will take a leaf from the MRTS experience and not build hideous structures for its stations.