Wider network, lower fares will set Chennai Metro on the fast track

High riding cost is one of the major reasons for loss, but the state can slash ticket prices only when it gets its due share from the common pool of revenue controlled by the Union government

metro rail
A metro rail network is an important and prestigious symbol for any modern city. Pic: iStock

On June 29, 2015, Chennai Metro Rail commenced its services, running trains for a 10-km distance between Koyambedu and Alandur. From that day till the end of 2015, 26.34 lakh passengers travelled via Chennai Metro,  far below the predicted patronage. 

Over a similar six-month period from January to June 2022, nearly 2.48 crore passengers used the services. That is, over the past seven years, footfalls have increased nearly 9.5 times, and Chennai Metro is now running over 54 km of tracks across the city. The footfalls are recorded by a chip placed in the automatic fare gates. 

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The footfalls have been increasing consistently: the footfall in June 2022 more than doubled to 52.19 lakh, from 25.19 lakh in January 2022. The maximum single-day utilisation of 2022 so far was recorded on June 6, with 2.02 lakh footfalls. 


The numbers seem impressive, but some experts are sceptical.

The key is to increase footfall

A November 2021 study by global body Union Internationale des Transports Publics (UITP), or International Association of Public Transport, reported that the metro rail of Chennai and quite a number of other Indian cities are running at a loss. The only way Chennai Metro can avert a loss is if around 5 lakh commuters use the service every day, it added. 

How can we make this possible?

A metro rail network is an important and prestigious symbol for any modern city. Although Chennai’s residents take pride in the city’s metro, they do have some concerns. One major concern is that high fares are limiting the utilisation of the service. The Tamil Nadu government reduced the fares in February 2021 and there have been continued calls for further reductions. When the general public considers the fare to be high, how can the number of travellers rise to a whopping 5 lakhs a day? Why can’t the fares be reduced further?

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The Hong Kong, Delhi examples

To seek an answer to this question, we can analyse the working agenda of two of the most successfully running metros in the world. The first is Hong Kong, which is considered to have one of the world’s best metro networks. Currently, it has 11 different corridors with a total length of 231 km and 165 stations criss-crossing the city. Work on another two corridors is in progress, and more than 10 future projects are on the drawing table.

The second is Delhi Metro, a pioneer in India. Delhi Metro started its first service in 2002, with six stations. Now, it has 11 corridors running over 350 km of track length. When the upcoming stages of Delhi Metro network are completed, the total length of the network would increase to 450 km.

What we can learn from Hong Kong, Delhi, and other cities is that successful metro rail networks connect the length and breadth of an entire city. That is, the entire city should be brought under the umbrella of metro connectivity before the usage of metro services can be increased sizeably. Chennai Metro’s future plans are also based on this concept. However, unfortunately, its progress has been considerably delayed.

First, the completion of Phase 1 was delayed. Construction began in 2009. In 2015, the operation of the first set of seven working stations with 10-km runs commenced. Phase 1, with 45 km and 32 stations, was completed in 2019. Phase 1 was further extended to the northern part of the city with an additional 9 km (8 stations), which started operating in 2021. The initial stage of Phase 1 was delayed owing to some geological challenges, and discontinuation of work by some contractors midway. Those were only a few of the many hurdles encountered during Chennai Metro’s first phase.

Phase 2 delayed, too

The commencement of Phase 2 has also been delayed. It is planned to be 119 km long with 127 stations. This phase is expected to be completed by 2025. Once it’s done, most of the key parts of the city will be connected to the metro grid – and as such, the number of people using the service will also likely increase appreciably. Work on the second phase was slowed down due to COVID and a delay in obtaining statutory clearances from the Union government. When the metro network expands, its usage also increases considerably. 

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The next challenge is how to reduce the ticket fare. At this point, I would like to share my personal experience. About 10 years ago I visited the Moscow Metro Rail with a team of experts. Each and every station there is an architectural marvel and a mini museum. 

Usually, in metro rail systems, the stored value tickets or one-time-use tokens need to be inserted into the automatic fare gate to enter, as well as to exit. In the middle of a metro commute in Moscow, I suddenly realised that I had lost my ticket. I panicked and quickly informed the guide, who seemed rather unworried about it. I understood the meaning of her cool composure only when we left the station. 

In Moscow Metro, we need a ticket only to enter through the automatic gate. The turnstile therein rotates upon inserting the ticket. But no ticket is required for exiting. The turnstile at the exit gate simply opens with a gentle push. The price of the tickets there is 25 roubles. You can start from anywhere in Moscow and get to anywhere else in the city at the cost of 25 rouble. A true public service! (Years later, I would learn Chicago Metro Rail also operates on a flat rate, but the fare is $2.25 — not cheap!)

How does Moscow Metro operate profitably? The Moscow Metro company operates on taxpayer money, so it seems to have no compulsion to run the service at a profit. This is why they are not bothered about the profit-to-loss ratio and have priced the fares so low.

Taxpayer money

The Tamil Nadu government also gives importance to the welfare of the people. After all, it is this government which set an example by making the commute free for women in state-run buses  —  a first of its kind in the country. Why can’t it pitch in with metro rail service, too? 

The reason is that Chennai Metro Rail Ltd (CMRL) is an equal joint venture of the Government of India and Government of Tamil Nadu. Further, any metro rail construction warrants a huge investment. For Chennai Metro’s phase 1 work, 60 per cent of the initial investment was funded by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) through a term loan. The remainder was equally shared by the Union and state governments.  The state government is responsible for repaying the hefty loan, though. 

In this scenario, cutting the cost of tickets will create a bigger hole in the pocket of the debt-ridden state government.

The second phase of Chennai Metro Rail will be partly funded by some international banks, namely JICA, Asian Development Bank (ADB) and New Development Bank (NDB). The Union government will again provide some funding. However, all of these loans and investments will be far lower than the amount used during the first phase, and therefore the state government will have to bear the brunt of a larger part of the expenses. Most of the expenses of the upcoming Coimbatore and Madurai metros will be borne by the state government as well.

Revenue-sharing models

Tamil Nadu is way ahead in development parameters. So, can’t it spend more money on an advanced public transport system that is surely going to be beneficial for the public in the long run? There is nothing wrong with this question. 

However, the revenue collected directly by the state government comes only from three channels: property registration charges, fuel tax and liquor sales. The other taxes which are collected from the people, industries and trade of Tamil Nadu, both directly and indirectly, go to the central revenue pool. The Union government then divides the collected tax money between all the states. 

And, it is a well-known fact that developed states like Tamil Nadu do not get their fair share. The state can consider slashing the ticket prices only when it gets its due share from the common pool controlled by the Union government.

Travel by metro is efficient and reduces the effect of greenhouse gases considerably. It offers fast, clean, air-conditioned travel while reducing the congestion in road traffic. Understanding the metro route is fairly easy. We don’t have to be well versed with every nook and cranny of the city’s roads or memorise road maps. That is why all important cities in the world have adopted metro rail networks.

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The Metro is meant for commuting inside the city, and as such the stations are situated fairly close to one other, often only 1 km apart. The gap between trains, called ‘headway’, is also kept short, allowing residents to travel quickly from one point of the city to another.

To get the fullest advantage of Chennai’s Metro Rail network, the Union government’s revenue sharing methods should be revamped. This would allow developed economies to improve their public transport and other infrastructure from taxpayers’ money. Bureaucrats, legislators, and economists should all join hands to make this possible.

(The writer is a registered professional engineer of Hong Kong and a chartered civil and structural engineer of the UK. He can be reached at Mu.Ramanathan@gmail.com)

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)