Chennai MRTS: Hopeful Tales from a System in Despair

By  Staff Writer

A little boy pedals up the ramp, adeptly executing a turn to slide right across the smooth concrete floor and through the huge empty hallway to the other side, where his friends kick around with a weathered football. “Dey, vaada! Gaaliya irukkuda, supera stuntu otlam!” (“Hey, come on! It’s free, we can practice stunts easily!”)

 

Crossing the atrium, footsteps echoing in the large, bare volume, the kids’ playful shouts mask the melancholy of the empty building. Residing in Velachery, the MRTS has been, almost always, the first preferred mode of public transport, (if you ever cross the Velachery bypass road during peak hours, you’ll know why) provided one’s destination is within a 2km radius from the station. One particular evening, I had gotten a little later than usual, which sparked several cautionary admonishments from my mother, along the lines of safety of using the MRTS at such a late hour (it was 8:00PM) because it will be “empty and dangerous”.

 

Because it is empty, it stays empty.”

 

Dangerous, yes, anything after 8 is technically dangerous for a woman in this country, according to my mother. But empty? That struck me as odd. Yes, it was empty, but why? The traffic is still swarming on roads right outside these station walls, so why don’t people use this easier, cheaper, and less tiring mode of transit! For the same reasons I was asked not to – it’s empty. Isn’t that odd? Because it is empty, it stays empty. A cycle of emptiness, if you may.

 

Dark and lonely stairways, Chintadripet MRTS station.

When the city of Madras became Chennai, it also became a rapidly developing metropolis. Apartments rose out of dust almost every other day, to house the incoming rush of population, the number of cars on the road increased tremendously, and suddenly chaotic traffic was a serious problem for the city. To find a comprehensive solution, the Government launched a Metropolitan Transport Project (MTP) in the 1980’s, to study and research the traffic scenario of the city.

A Mass Rapid Transit System was proposed as a 20 km long, both elevated and on-grade railway corridor with 17 stations in total, from the bustling Central Business District of Chennai to the fast-expanding IT corridor along the OMR. A brilliant solution for the rising congestion and resultant pollution along said route.

 

 

To avoid land acquisition problems, and displacement of buildings and homes, it was decided to take a route parallel to existing systems i.e., the suburban railway route till Park town, then elevate the corridor along (read into) the banks of the Buckingham canal till Thiruvanmiyur, after which land can be obtained easily as the areas of Taramani and Velachery were easily acquirable at that time. The construction was planned in four phases, and it was in fact one of the first elevated railway systems to be built in the country.

Successfully evading legal land acquisition conflicts (to a certain extent) was the priority during planning. However, there was a glitch, noticed much too late; the Buckingham canal weaves its way from the North to South of Chennai and though it was, once, a widely used and important transportation network, it now retains not even a small percentile of its former glory. For much of its length, the canal’s banks house encroachments which have settled here for enough time to create a permanent layer of garbage on the banks and effectively cover the now black water. As if this were not enough, the NCTP (North Chennai Thermal Power Station) and the CWSSB (Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board) discharge their untreated pollutants into the already waning canal. All these factors combined make for a not-so-pretty scenario, particularly to host an ambitious city-improvement project.

 

A garbage stream, Chepauk.

 

“Nothing kills a system faster than bad connectivity.”

 

On the non-encroached side of the canal are narrow back-lanes which either face the closed compound walls of major institutions (Queen Mary’s college, Presidency college) or a small interior road with no immediate connectivity to main public roads, and thus to public transit. Nothing kills a system faster than bad connectivity. Who would want to reach their preferred station in 10 minutes, only to walk for another 15 to get to their actual destination?

 

Entrance roadway for Lighthouse MRTS station, Behind Queen Mary’s College.

 

Envisioned to cater to a large number of commuters, the stations were constructed with ancillary spaces in the 300m long buildings (one train’s length) for commercial functions, which could generate additional revenue. While the Phase 1 stations were built with one mezzanine floor, the Phase 2 stations came with an additional basement floor. These stations are an average 300m by 45m 3-storey concrete structures; with a total average built-up area of 30,000 sq.m. Large volumes and small nooks in the name of rooms are interspersed in the buildings.

Schematic illustration showing typical MRTS station structures

 

A low commuter traffic, owing to reasons elaborated above, resulted in a reduced number of takers for the Government tenders floated to commercial establishments within the station buildings. When the Mylapore MRTS station braved housing an IRCTS kiosk, it was robbed and broken within a matter of two weeks. Concerns of safety, maintenance and ease of access are most cited for reasons of less patronage.

Most of this “air-space” now lies in dire disuse, gradually and steadily moving to misuse. Broken glass pieces, half-filled bottles and a strong unpleasant stench give some clue as to the previous nights’ misdeeds. The vicious cycle of disuse and lack of revenue for maintenance which causes even further disuse, the system is caught in a complex cyclic concoction of decay – the putrefying Buckingham canal, the dead spaces within and in between the stations further adding to the poisonous, and painfully slow death of what was to be a vital solution to an eminent problem.

 

Stark and empty mezzanine floors with barricaded entries, Indiranagar MRTS.

 

Broken glass pieces and strewn litter, Kasthurba station.

 

But walking across the bare atrium of Kotturpuram station, there was something about watching the children playing across the station that got me thinking – is it true that if a system built for a particular purpose is not used exactly as it was meant to but is still used, is it necessarily a failure?

Sure, it’s not exactly the most successful project and isn’t anywhere near the goals set for it, but that doesn’t necessarily warrant branding it a complete failure.

 

Children from the local vicinity play outside and across the Kotturpuram MRTS station.

 

As I walked out of the station, I turned back to look at the vibrant and confusing mural adorning the entrance of the station. When Street Art Chennai, a local art community in the city, set out to create a new phase of street art under the name Conquer the Concrete in February 2015, they focused on the several public spaces, including three of these MRTS stations.A first-of-its-kind project in Chennai, it was a huge success and drew a few more people to witness this public art display, if nothing else.

If you ever walk across the Thiruvanmiyur Metro station, you will notice large photographs across the trellis in the main atrium. Put up as a part of the Chennai Photo Biennale, conducted by Goethe-Institut and Chennai-based photographer Varun Gupta, the idea behind this biennale was to bring photography to the masses.

 

Mural done as part of “Conquer the concrete” project, Kotturpuram MRTS station

 

Chennai Photo Biennale, February 2016, at Thiruvanmiyur MRTS station.

 

A man reading the morning paper outside the Indiranagar MRTS station.

 

Through these unintended uses that they are put to, the station buildings provide subtle clues as to ways in which a system in despair can be repaired/revived. Instead of looking for leasing the spaces to temporal functions, more permanent functions would perhaps ensure continued usage of the building which thereby provides a safer atmosphere and allow for increased commuter traffic. And what with rates of land soaring sky-high in these areas, there lies almost 25,000 sq.m parcels of unused spaces right in the middle of it all! Given the prime locations most of these stations are in, it could be a deal-saver to utilize and exploit the possibilities that a system like this can provide, in terms of foot traffic, ease of traffic and infrastructure- a win-win situation for both the people, and the Government.

Adaptive-reuse of unused structures is a rising trend of late, and why not? There are several successful projects from across the globe which have successfully converted abject, dead spaces into thriving places.

 

Ease of access, a rarity in the system, Thiruvanmiyur MRTS station.

 

With the construction of Phase two stations, which extended services until Velachery, the number of commuters increased appreciably, principally due to the Thiruvanmiyur MRTS station in 2004, right opposite to Tidel Park. Though this is still insufficient to recover the 18-crore loss from lack of revenue, this is arguably a better direction that this will be taking. The line has been proposed to extend till St. Thomas mount and integrate with the existing suburban and Metro rail networks – hopefully this will act as a circuit closer, bringing a more consistent luminescence to a system gradually dimming away.

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