Thursday, July 16, 2015

I rode the metro in Chennai

Chennai gets its metro! I’ve been excited about the metro ever since Delhi had one. Bangalore followed suit later. The construction and execution at Chennai however has lumbered on for months. That’s typical of this city.

It is my opinion that if properly constructed, the metro will be the backbone of the city. Considering our population and congestion levels, we can survive in the future only with trains. Ask Mumbai! Even now, I think we’re a decade late. This infrastructure and planning needed a certain foresight which our leadership was and is lacking.

I won’t bicker more - I travelled the metro and I have been quite excited about it. There is an excitement in being suspended 100 ft above the ground watching the city pass by. Close your eyes and feel the place, you could be in Singapore or Tokyo! Yeay!

They got many things right. The design is clearly modeled on best practices from around the world. Perhaps closer home from Delhi’s lessons as well.

* Escalators to reach the steep top. The escalators flatten out for three steps before ascending. Very thoughtful! I’ve seen any number of people in malls who are scared to step into escalators because they can’t get the timing of their foot placement right. Here they can just walk into flat ground and they have an additional 1-2 seconds to get it. This will remove their fear of normal escalators as well.
* Restrooms in every station. But they’re very small and won’t sustain. They even kept a lifebuoy handwash in the restroom. Seriously - its a cute thing to start with but it won’t sustain.
* The stations are VERY SPACIOUS. This is true considering the future growth as well.
* Detailed local map surrounding a 2 km radius of that station
* Lady driver! Extra points for not publicizing. This needs to be the norm
* Spic and span stations and train. We’re just starting out. This is one thing we can and should sustain. But alas… I will keep my hopes tempered
* Fully automated and digital turnstiles - we could be walking in Singapore
* The guidance from boarding to disembarkation is all automated including telling which sides the doors will open and close. Very neat!
* A big thank you for letting people use their mobiles for photographs and videos in and around the trains. It would have been easy to make a fuss about security. I could see so many excited (yours truly included) with selfies, videos and groupies.
* Premium class is priced at 2x instead of the ridiculous 10x at the other lines. Those first class tickets are mainly used by railway staff. But for the metro, the premium class is sort of redundant to start with. The regular coaches feel like premium. When have we ever traveled in AC on a local train?
* They cover two arterial roads - mount road and 100 feet road
* Smart card usage is built into the entire system. The current vending machines at the other suburbans are languishing. I’ve tried hard (and in vain) to get a new smart card there. Even if I had, the vending machines don’t work at many places. Contrast with Mumbai - both getting a smart card and getting a ticket from the vending machines are a piece of cake. Add to it, the benefit of skipping queues.

* Airport station and CMBT stations take the coach right into the heart. Great!

There are few things they did not get right.

* Security checks are cliche! Is there a point to just do them here in the metros and not elsewhere? Also, if a 100 people come in will they all wait in queue for 30 minutes to finish the scanner? I am betting these will be abandoned. May be they will become namesake.
* The pilot route is too short. I agree in principle regarding opening with what you have instead of waiting longer. But it still is a case of too little too late.
* Cost is steep. Yes the project is costly but we need to balance it with usability as well. If people are going to pay 40 bucks for five stations one way, it becomes infeasible as a form of daily commute.
* The current plan doesn’t cover the city fully. Given our long delay in just conceiving something like this, I feel we should have gone all out. Bite the entire bullet in a go! There are critical parts of the city which can benefit from the metro
* They could have started with a preview period for a month where the journey could have been priced at 500 bucks. Give every traveler in this time window a “First to travel” star. It could have given some much needed publicity. I think this excitement is needed. If the looks on the travelers on the trains was anything to go by, this plan would have worked wonderfully. I guarantee, in the US, the marketing engine would have constructed an entire train with money from a “fit a screw into USA’s pride” campaign.

My wish list:

* We have the following lines including the metros:
    - Beach to Tambaram/Chengalpet
    - Beach to Velachery (extend this to mount so it meets the Tambaram line)
    - Central to Avadi / Arakkonam
    - Mount to Annanagar via Koyambedu (if this can meet the Avadi line somewhere…)
    - Washermanpet to Airport metro

    Please make everything metro like. Define intersection points between each line so anyone can travel the city just using the train. The current coverage will account for perhaps 70% of the city which is outstanding. It will also make auto wallahs use the meter! If this happens, the metro will be a tourist experience by itself. One can easily spend a day traveling the metro end to end.

* Conceive additional exchange points between lines. Hop skip and jump to a train on another lane!

* Extend the smart card to be usable in buses as well. We can start with ac buses. Be generous with discount on large recharges of smart cards. Win-win right?

* Actually railways is one area where there is a certain centralization available. Why not create ONE smart card for usage across any railway in India? The card is prepaid anyway, so there is no cheating possible. Allow people to book on IRCTC with this card as well. VISA can do it internationally, why can’t railways do it in India? Bring on RAILCARD!

* Create a culture where people value and nurture the system. It will be a shame if we let the machinery dwindle by itself with filth and neglect. The pricing is a first level cushion but it is not sufficient. We need to be strict with discipline.

All said and done - well begun is half done. We began ok, and we are nowhere near half done. But we are off the barracks! So - a thumbs up to the entire team. Make us proud!

Below is a 2 minute montage of my travel experience.

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