Namma Metro needs customer orientation

Commuting has become unbearable for office goers who thought Metro would be faster and cheaper.

Try taking the Metro to your destination and the travails of the everyday commuter become immediately apparent. While the Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation Limited (BMRCL) proudly announces that it reached a record 4.1 lakh in daily ridership by end-September 2017 and, in fact, averages 3.5 lakh a day, the supposedly world-class, eco-friendly means of transportation for the long-suffering citizens of Bengaluru has the knack of getting into one controversy after another.

In July 2017, it was staff demonstrations, when thousands of commuters across the city were stranded due to protests by Metro staff. The quarrel, which started off due to a tussle between BMRCL staff and the Karnataka State Industrial Security Force personnel, led to a wildcat strike that needed the government to impose the Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA) on the transport utility. Again, the fracas over the protests by pro-Kannada outfits against the use of Hindi on Namma Metro signboards forced the government to intervene and make BMRCL re-design its signboards.

The rains, this season, exposed chinks in Namma Metro’s underground network. Water seeped into the tunnels of the newly constructed underground stations due to water logging in surrounding areas of the stations. BMRCL is now facing flak for relocating the metro station from the Cantonment railway station parking lot to the Bamboo Bazaar playground some distance away and changing the alignment between Pottery Road and Shivajinagar.

Even after completion of Phase 1, the traffic congestion on city roads has not eased. In Baiyyappanahalli area, traffic has actually become a nightmare, with private vehicle owners forced to bring out their vehicles because all modes of transport are not integrated and last-mile connectivity is non-existent. Surprisingly, BMTC buses seem relatively empty and pleasant to ride; it’s the bus passenger who has shifted to the metro, leaving the car population the same as before.

Controversies are not new to the Metro. When the first section, connecting Baiyyappanahalli and MG Road, opened in 2011, with a mix of at-grade and elevated stations, Bengaluru’s skyline changed forever. The famous boulevard on MG Road got an elevated corridor, with ugly pillars blocking the skylight. The pillars stayed despite protests by heritage lovers; politicians seem to like pillars and columns and elevated structures which are easier to build and do not need specialised contractors with large diameter tunnel-boring machines necessary to dig tunnels deep underneath densely populated areas. Specialised contractors being larger and fewer are less amenable than the contractor who lays pillars overground!

Thankfully, the power output is supplied by a 750 volt direct current through a third rail on the ground and Bengaluru was spared ugly overhead electrical cables for traction power all along the route. Another positive was the use of standard gauge tracks, the most widely used system globally — a decision giving Namma Metro a more competitive option to select imported accessories, coaches and spares besides ensuring reasonable civil engineering costs for optimum-sized tunnels and stations.

After a decade-long wait, thousands of office-goers in the city thought they could commute to major office hubs faster and cheaper, but the lack of customer-orientation is making the Namma Metro experience unbearable. Earlier complaints about crowded coaches drew a standard response — the passenger load was not evenly distributed throughout the insides of the coaches and many more passengers could get in.

In fact, the frequency of trains was drastically reduced on Saturdays and Sundays for maintenance, making passengers adjust to even more crowded trains. The new excuse now is that intermediate coaches from BEML are not available. Consequently, passengers are being herded into coaches like in the Mumbai local trains, after the security staff at the Metro station have whistled and shooed them from place to place, besides teaching them travel etiquette.

The Metro’s directors must be made accountable for planning. With their experience in Delhi Metro, RITES and even the Indian Railways, projected passenger traffic and the lead times required to acquire sufficient coaches from rolling stock supplier BEML should have been accounted for. BEML will now make six cars ready by December 2017, with the remainder being supplied in phases from March to December 2018.

A robust mechanism to address passenger complaints must be instituted. Take, for example, the Metro contactless travel card, much advertised by Metro as a means of convenience and to offer discounts to the passenger. One error in loading your currency onto the card, and you have lost your money for good. You can complain and fill in a form, but there is no assurance of a reply, much less of a refund.

The gigantic time and cost overruns characteristic of Phase 1 should not be repeated during Phase 2, scheduled for completion by 2022. Operating a monopoly and with huge capital investments, Namma Metro must build a secure foundation, a customer-friendly and caring culture, and set firm precedents with its employees at this fledging stage itself. Otherwise, the passenger will have no option but to grin and put up with whatever is dished out.

(The writer is Associate Professor, Sai Vidya Institute of Technology, Rajanukunte, Bengaluru)

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