CHENNAI: In the mid-1990s, the Chennai Mass Rapid Transit System (MRTS) made headlines for being the first elevated railway line in India. In mid-2000s, the railway line was extended from Mylapore to Velachery and now, plans are underway to extend it further to St Thomas Mount.
One striking feature of all MRTS stations is the huge space earmarked for retail activities lying vacant. Over the years, at many junctures, the issues faced by passengers at the MRTS stations have been brought to the fore. Sarita Hunt, Managing Director – Chennai & Coimbatore, JLL India feels that MRTS stations are not planned well to integrate passenger movement and commercial activity. “Also, these stations do not have adequate spaces which would act as anchor spaces, which in turn would make the station a retail destination and increase the ridership. Some time back, consultants were appointed to identify potential retailers to take up space in the station areas and also to assess the feasibility of commercial activities on the available air spaces. However, interest levels were very low from potential retailers, since the activities proposed inside the stations are not in line with the demand and suitability profile of the passengers,” says Sarita, who sees a great retail opportunity-in-waiting in the MRTS stretch alongside the OMR corridor. “But apart from the lack of interest from retail players, the stations are also poorly maintained, dark and lacking in the kind of access which is one of the most important factors for a retail format.”
While the initial plan of MRTS had space for retail outlets, the area is currently under study by the Railway Land Development Authority (RLDA), which is studying the requirement to match the supply of retail. According to a railway official, the study has been under way for the past few years and it took time, as the construction activities at all the stations were not complete for a few years even though the railway lines were opened for public use.
“The study is being done by a Delhi-based body and hence MRTS does not have much direct control. However, we have taken steps in the recent past to improve the safety of the station premises. Many of these stations had multiple entry points. That has been corrected and now, the entrances have been placed close to the booking counters to check movement within the stations. Railway Protection Force (RPF) personnel are also patrolling these stations to improve the safety of the MRTS premises. But people should also understand that railways is a national property and its cleanliness is a responsibility of all,” he says.
While many leading retailers see a huge potential in the MRTS station complexes in Chennai , they feel that there should be better utilisation of these spaces. “The suburban services are used by Lower-B and C Segment of consumers. If retailers have to show keen interest, then steps should be taken to bring in the upper segments to use railway services. That requires giving MRTS a facelift. Only then will quality retail happen in the MRTS stations and to talk of retail potential, it is actually huge. From food and beverages to fashion accessories and books, every item that comes under impulse buying can be brought there. But there should be a lot more work on maintenance,” says Ampa Palaniappan, MD, Ampa Skywalk Mall. “From accessibility and lighting to safety, a few more initiatives have to be taken to spruce up its interiors. That will be the precondition for retail activity,” says Palaniappan, who sees brisk activity happening on the retail front in the metro stations in Delhi.
Besides retail, the MRTS stations have collaborated with private bodies in the past to conduct events and activities to give it a facelift. One such initiative happened two years back, when Art Chennai, a festival of modern and contemporary art in India, exhibited some art works at the MRTS stations, in an attempt to bring art to the larger public. “MRTS stations across the world attract a lot of crowd and taking art works there is a good way to catch public attention.
Besides, this was a way to beautify the station. Once you embellish interiors of stations with art, even people would otherwise not go to railway stations would visit them. It creates dialogue between different communities,” says Sanjay Tulsian, Convener, ART Chennai. The second objective, according to Sanjay, was to give something new to regular users of the MRTS network. “People were so glad to see paintings and some pelasing artistic works on display. These are great ways to make public spaces lively and more usable. But it shouldn’t be a one-off activity and has to be sustained. Public-Private-Partnership (PPP) mode l is quite effective in these areas,” he says.
Art Chennai had left the works at the stations permanently but today, many of them have been vandalised. “It is wrong to say that railway authorities alone are responsible for maintenance. Railways is a public property and the masses of our country should learn to take ownership. These are prime locations and just because these spaces are dirty, many interesting players may keep off these spaces. People need to take charge and understand that cleanliness works at an individual level as well,” says Sanjay.
The Delhi Metro has successfully let out spaces to leading outlets in the above mentioned category and the story has been quite a success. Guruprasad Acharya, Business Development Manager, Sangeetha Group of Restaurants, feels that private players should get space to operate fairly in spaces such as these. “We had a chain of stalls near Beach and Central station. But problem comes when government canteens come up, where the same food and beverage items are sold at a very cheap rate. A restaurant like ours has a standardised quality and it cannot bow down to pressures of price. Private players would be interested in a level playing ground, where both the retailers and customers are benefitted. When quality is there, people from all classes will be interested in it, says Guruprasad, who seeks for greater participation of the private sector in such spaces.
JLL, which is the consultant to Chennai Metro, is currently advising on the feasibility of property developments on the land parcels adjacent to the stations. ” Taking a cue from the MRTS story, Metro stations are now planned such a way that passenger movement is well integrated with retail activities. A proper study of the profile of passengers, population of the local catchment area and demand for real estate activities has been undertaken. This entails first identifying the type of activity in each of the stations depending on the ridership pattern, micro-market characteristics, the profile of commuters and their purpose of travel,” says Sarita.
“Based on these parameters, the type of space that can garner good footfalls as well as act as anchor spaces has to be identified for retail development. For any transit-oriented development to be successful, both station activity and commercial activity should complement each other and benefit from the other. Another important factor is the maintenance of these spaces. Professional maintenance agencies would need to be appointed to ensure that all areas are usable to ensure patronage from passengers for the retail formats,” she says. Gathering best practices and effective implementation will make sure that public spaces in Chennai are taken to a different level.