Volvo-built buses have been operating on some MTC routes in Chennai for a few months now. These ‘head turners’ in an otherwise decrepit and poorly conceived bus service network touch very few destinations, have no frequency worth mentioning and above all, are overpriced for the average commuter.
MTC has been trying to defend these services by putting out PR stories of how a small, luxury-loving group of passengers is patronising the air-conditioned buses, especially now that it is peak summer.
The truth is that MTC, which routinely overloads its ordinary services well beyond capacity and transport permit, appears to be keen not to encourage genuine, comfortable levels of ridership on the Volvo buses (see photo of near-empty bus, a permanent condition). This low patronage has been ensured by overpricing travel, reducing frequency and keeping bus stops so far apart that they are not viable for many commuters.
We can conceive of two reasons for this diabolical approach: once the average population starts showing a liking for the Volvo service, the operator will come under pressure to improve its level of service across the board, starting with airconditioning. That would mean greater investment, which the Tamil Nadu government is unwilling to make, cross-subsidy in ticket sales through different levels of offerings and improved maintenance infrastructures that will affect some of the vested interests currently holding sway in this area within the MTC system. The present poor patronage could be used to scrap the service, if necessary.
Let us look at an alternative scenario for Volvo services. Two major commercial arteries in Chennai are the Anna Road (Mount Road) and the Poonamallee High Road. In the case of the former, it was served creditably in the era before liberalisation by route 18 (Parrys – Saidapet). Over the years, a cash-hungry MTC has extended this route in a meaningless fashion, and deprived the artery of quick and regular connectivity. There are possibilities to introduce a similar route for about 10 to 15 km on Poonamallee High Road from Parrys to Aminjikarai/Anna Nagar. These could be served by Volvo buses.
Strangely, the MTC’s Volvo strategy does not include running such high-demand corridors, where the Volvo service would provide a different class of travel, and if priced right, act as a cross-subsidy element.
What instead has happened is classic MTC sleight-of-hand. The Volvo buses are run on routes so long, and as explained above, so unviable, that most times of day, there are only a handful of passengers. The exception during some parts of day is route A1, from Central to Thiruvanmiyur, but with far fewer stops than optimal.
We therefore demand that the MTC relook its Volvo strategy and deploy newer services on such arteries, to provide a commuting alternative. This will become crucial as other bus companies such as Ashok Leyland also offer their newer models, such as the iBus, (see photo) which boasts of both executive and economy classes in the same bus.
We also seek a shift away from the trend of rigging truck chassis with bus bodies and passing these contraptions off as modern buses, to avail of funding under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission. Most of the new buses produced for MTC by poorly qualified bus body builders are of this kind. They are uncomfortable, flimsy, poorly engineered and unfair to commuters, who expect better in an era when personal vehicles such as cars and two-wheelers are meeting global standards.