What exactly is happening on the Chennai Metro Rail project? The last major event was the much-delayed inauguration of the portion that runs between Koyambedu and Alandur. That was in June 2015. Since then, Chennai Metro Rail has not been much in the news, save for periodic announcements of some minor changes in routing, some tests being conducted and, of course, plenty of complaints on traffic hold-ups because of the work taking forever. Is it going the same way as the Mass Rapid Transport System (MRTS) that began in the 1980s and has since then been always ‘under construction’?
There is, of course, plenty of activity that may not be deemed newsworthy. Thus, in recent days, we have heard of major advancements in the metro project wherein by some rerouting a direct line is being planned from Koyambedu to the airport instead of a changeover for commuters at Alandur.This it is estimated will cut planned travel time by half. The Alandur-Airport line is said to be in an advanced state of completion and may become operational quite soon. In the meanwhile, the first underground stretch may become operational well before its planned deadline of December 2016. This 2.7km line connects Shenoy Nagar to Tirumangalam. The tunnel here has been bored, tracks laid and electrification done. Testing will soon commence with rolling stock.
The line that runs through the heart of the city has however given much cause for concern. Most of it passes through Anna Salai/Mount Road and it is largely subterranean. Work here has not happened for over a year now, ever since Metro Rail fell out with its subcontractors who withdrew their machines and manpower from the sites claiming non-payment of dues. The same problems have persisted with other vendors who were responsible for construction of stations. There have also been delays due to difficulties in land acquisition, tunnelling and shortage of space for storage of equipment. All this has meant that the Metro, which at the time of launch of work in 2008 was supposed to become operational by the end of the financial year 2014/15 is likely to be delayed by more than two years.
The delay has resulted in poor passenger patronage after the initial surge following the inauguration. The short length of operational track and the lack of last mile connectivity are the chief reasons. Non-adherence to deadlines has also meant that there has been considerable escalation of cost. A large chunk of this is due to poor estimation of land acquisition costs. It is said that some sections were acquired at two-and-a-half times the planned price of taking over, chiefly because land rates in Chennai are exorbitant. But then this is public information and it is a wonder that the planners of the project did not take such details into account.
This has to be compared with the Delhi Metro where, when the first phase was completed in 2006, it was within budget and three years ahead of schedule. After the tremendous difficulties faced with the Kolkata Metro, which when complete was 12 times over budget, the Delhi Metro was entrusted to a special purpose vehicle – the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC). This was to free it from bureaucratic interference and enable quick decision-making. The Chennai Metro Rail too followed the same line of thinking. The fundamental difference was that the DMRC was entrusted to a technocrat with sweeping powers while the CMRL is run by the Government with all the bureaucracy that this implies. There have been changes at the top, delays due to papers pending with the State, and funding issues. These have to be overcome if the Metro project can solve our city’s transport woes.
It is still not too late for the CMRL to deliver. That depends on whether it is going to change its style of working.