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Tambaram station was planned as a third terminal to reduce Egmore station’s load and also cater to the demand of north, west and east India-bound passengers from Chennai's south.
In November 2022, when south India's first Vande Bharat Express was launched between Chennai and Bengaluru, 49-year-old Dayanand Krishnan was happy, yet disappointed. A resident of Chitalapakkam near Tambaram on the southern outskirts of Chennai, Dayanand was upset that the fastest train from Chennai to Bengaluru would start just 10 minutes before the similarly paced Shatabdi Express; both from Dr MGR Chennai Central, which is some 25 km from his locality.
"I fail to understand why they could not have started the train to Bengaluru from Tambaram, which was announced as the city's third terminal. There is a huge demand for it as well," Dayanand said, echoing several of his neighbours who shell out as much as the train ticket fare for a cab ride to Central.
The Southern Railway's response to an RTI (right to information) application filed by Dayanand on January 9 has come as a ray of hope. The zonal railway's line departments have stated in no uncertain terms that Tambaram is technically feasible to be the originating/terminating station for Vande Bharat trains. TNM accessed the detailed replies, where mechanical, signal and telecom and electrical (traction) divisions stated that the station is fully fit to operate high-speed trains (110 kmph).
What the RTI response said
To a query on feasibility of Tambaram station to run Vande Bharat Express, the Southern Railways responded in the following manner:
Platform length to accommodate train - Available
Coach watering facilities - Available
Rolling in and out examination at all platforms - Available
Car washing facility - Available
Sufficient lighting facility - Available
Interlocking needs upgrade between Beach and Egmore stations
All other stations are fit for 140 kmph operations
Fit to run Vande Bharat trains in Tambaram section
- Existing infrastructure fit to run Vande Bharat trains in Tambaram section
A senior Southern Railway (SR) official confirmed the response and affirmed that such passenger demand was logical, given Chennai's population growth in the southern part of the city. S Anantharaman, who worked as SR's Principal Chief Operations Manager (PCOM) for six years before his retirement, told TNM it was a 'feasible' demand. "The Tambaram terminal station was planned in such a way that trains would run to the north and west of Chennai. The demand is high," he said. According to the Railways official, Tambaram is ready to begin operations, but the proposal has not yet received approval from the Railway Board in Delhi.
But why run trains from Tambaram?
Chennai's railway traffic has always originated from Central and Egmore stations, located in the heart of the city. Central station handles railway traffic towards the north, west and east of India, while Egmore station to the south. Routes leading from both, interconnect through the Chennai Beach station, which lies northeast of both. Chennai's railway planners have long aimed at interconnecting these routes to address travel demands from residents of the northern and southern fringes of the city. Trains to the north, east and west of India would run from Egmore (through Beach station) and trains from Central to the south of India (mainly southern Tamil Nadu) from Central.
For instance, a passenger from Tiruvottiyur in north Chennai should not need to come to Egmore to catch a train to Madurai, and her counterpart in Tambaram need not drive all the way to Central to catch a train to Coimbatore or Bengaluru. Railways have employed the same strategy in Mumbai, Kolkata, Bengaluru and Delhi, which have satellite railway terminals to address similar passenger issues. In Chennai, this has not materialised despite Central and Egmore being landlocked and operating at peak capacity for many years.
Tambaram was planned as a third terminal to reduce Egmore's load and also cater to the demand of north, west and east India-bound passengers from Chennai's south. Compared to Egmore and Central, Tambaram has a land expanse of at least thrice the size, GIS (geographic information system) estimates by Dayanand Krishnan, a GIS expert, shows. Railway officials say they intend to use it to expand railway operations in the future. "Tambaram in the south and Tiruvottiyur in the north were planned as terminals for the north-south and south-north traffic. We noticed that trains from southern Tamil Nadu (TN) towards north India were always in high demand," said Anantharaman.
GIS mapping of land parcel at Tambaram station. Image credit: Dayanand Krishnan
But except for a couple of trains to Hyderabad and Kakinada extended to Tambaram and Chengalpattu, SR has not been able to start trains to Bengaluru or Coimbatore from Tambaram. Senior railway officials say that the only bottleneck would be between Egmore and Beach, as only three lines (compared to four between Egmore and Tambaram) are available. "SR has already initiated discussions with the TN government to work out a solution for a fourth line in that section," an official said.
Meanwhile, the population has exploded in areas around Tambaram, especially among the well-heeled, who might be willing to pay a premium fare on trains like Vande Bharat and Shatabdi. The vast IT crowd in the city has settled in these high-rises along Old Mahabalipuram Road (OMR) and along ring roads connecting OMR to the NH 45 (which inside Chennai is called Anna Salai), like the Pallavaram-Thoraipakkam radial road and Vandalur-Kelambakkam highway.
Screenshot of the train route from Tambaram to Bengaluru. Image credit: Google Maps
Major private educational institutions like SRM and VIT, which enrol thousands of students from north, west and central India each year, are also based out of these localities. From all these areas, Tambaram is the nearer and more convenient option for boarding an Express or super-fast train, as compared to Central and Egmore. Take the case of Tambaram-based young couple Srinidhi and Manikandan, who work in the IT sector or Chitalapakkam residents 63-year-old Sarvesh Kumar and his wife. Both couples visit Bengaluru regularly; while the former pays around Rs 1,500 for an extended bus journey, the latter has to wake up at 4 am and pay Rs 800 for a cab journey to Central and catch the Vande Bharat/Shatabdi train. The situation is worse for those living farther south of Chennai in Vandalur, Siruseri or Egattur.
Can starting Vande Bharat from Tambaram address low occupancy?
Two months after the Chennai-Bengaluru-Mysuru Vande Bharat Express was started, analysts have noted how it continues to have low occupancy figures compared to Shatabdi and Brindavan Express. Data available in the public domain and shared by journalists has amplified calls for additional stoppages for this train, which stops only at Katpadi (Vellore) once it starts from Chennai.
Dayanand Krishnan says that a good way of addressing this would be to start the train from Tambaram, given the demand. But this would mean that existing passengers boarding the train at Central would have to come to Egmore. Anantharaman said this was not a big concern as Central and Egmore are close to each other and now have good connectivity, courtesy of the Chennai Metro Rail Ltd (CMRL).
Siddharth Prabhakar is based in Chennai and has covered Greater Chennai Corporation, Railways, DVAC, CBI and other investigative agencies during his six-year stint in Times of India and one-and-a-half years in The New Indian Express.
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