The news from the Chennai Metrorail Limited (CMRL) front is not encouraging. It is now firmly established that the project may be delayed along various stretches by anywhere between three months and over a year. Which means the city will have to wait till 2016 at the least before this much-touted, and much-needed, alternative public transport system becomes functional. The reasons are the usual – the bureaucracy, slowness in execution, and the tender system for selection of vendors without much due-diligence being done at the time of short-listing.

At the time of launch in 2008, it was announced that the elevated sections of the project would be completed by mid-2014 and the entire project, including the underground portions, would be operational by the end of the financial year of 2014/15. The project was believed to be progressing according to schedule till September last year when the first rumours began surfacing that all was not well.

It is learnt that while work on tracks and viaducts is going on as scheduled, these being contracted out to big names in the world of engineering, the construction of stations, signals and other equipment on the elevated lines will not be completed in time. With the rolling stock already in place, Metrorail, it is learnt, is keen on at least doing a test run. But the Commissioner of Railway Safety, whose permission is required, has not agreed to such trials being undertaken without the rest of the equipment being in place.

The problem, it is understood, lies with the contractors responsible for these allied activities. The construction industry is currently undergoing a severe financial crisis and, consequent to this, the contractors who have been entrusted the civil engineering tasks are going through lean times. At least one of these contracting companies has thrown up its hands, stating that payments due to it are in arrears and, therefore, salaries to its staff have remained unpaid for three months. The contractor company has accused CMRL of not settling bills for several additional works undertaken by it and has cited this as the reason for its finance crunch. CMRL has, however, issued show-cause notice to the contractor and is now deliberating on cancelling the contract. If this comes to pass, it means a further delay as a new contractor will have to be identified through the usual process of tendering, subject to all bureaucratic procedures and processes.

Yet another contractor threw up his hands as early as August 2013. This contractor was the one responsible for the airport line. With repeated delays, CMRL issued notices for lapsed deadlines and, finally, terminated the contract. A new contractor is yet to be identified, five months after work came to a halt.

The latest development concerns the underground stations. The contractor in charge of this had applied as early as 2012 for an extension of 18 months from the original planned completion date of 2015. CMRL it is learnt, has agreed to an extension of ten months, which anyway puts the completion date somewhere in 2016. The reasons given by the contractor include difficulty in tunnelling, delays in land acquisition, and shortage of space, especially in the Mount Road area. None of these is a new problem and surely all of them stared in the face of any contractor who wanted to take up the job. Yet another reason highlighted by the same contractor points at the inept fashion in which our underground utilities are laid. It has become impossible to locate telephone and electrical cables at the places they were originally meant to be, thereby throwing tunnelling work out of gear.

Surely the identification of contractors requires some background checks on their capabilities? Were any technical assessments done before the contracts were awarded? Who is to blame for all this? And why are we, as taxpayers, footing the bill for delays that have been caused by such bungling?