2011-16 : Will Karunanidhi or Jayalalithaa give us better wheels?

When it arrives with the Business Standard periodically, the Motoring supplement with its focus on luxury motoring holds little interest for those who are intimidated by the social ideology of the motor car. But the March 2011 edition of the free supplement was worth spending some time with. That is because it has a section on commercial vehicles, including Mercedeses, Volvos, Eichers, Mahindras, Swaraj Mazdas, Tatas and even those muscular MANs.

Flipping through the plentiful van and bus choices, there is no escaping the question – why are our State Governments still clinging on to ancient rules dealing with transport? These legal anachronisms prevent many services from operating in cities and towns, and thus create a serious handicap for the average Indian who wants service, safety, comfort, ease, all without outlandish costs.

M. Karunanidhi, who is again seeking the mandate of the Tamil Nadu voter in what is essentially a three legged race mainly with the Congress, has done little to modernise the transport regulatory structure in the State. His government has, however, helped itself to funding from New Delhi under JNNURM, while ignoring the National Urban Transport Policy. In fact, even Manmohan Singh seems to have ignored his own UPA policies in this area in his second Avatar (perhaps because there is no Left pressure).

Jayalalithaa (who was building a premium bus for herself in 1996 when the gravy train went off the rails) has generally allowed crony capitalists to flourish in transport during her party’s rule. The best example of that is the omnibus operations in Tamil Nadu, which even in MGR’s day were seen as functioning under AIADMK patronage. Karunanidhi, by contrast, wanted to be seen as a socialist which he tried to achieve by parading nationalised transport as a DMK achievement. As everyone is aware, he modified his policies in his 1996-2001 tenure by drafting a scheme for mini-buses in the districts, which resonated with the population well. During 2006-11, the Tamil Nadu government announced mini-buses for Chennai, but reneged and instead turned the opportunity into a partisan affair, giving post-facto permits to its supporters to virtually operate stage carriages in Chennai.

So what do these leaders have to offer in coming years, as the demand for travel continues to rise?

We would like them to look at all the vehicle choices and draw up a policy that ensures sufficient number of vehicles for urban, peri-urban and rural connectivity. This must be done transparently, involving public consultations, scientific demand assessment and participation of civil society.

The key objective must be to ensure that all parts of cities and towns have a public transport option within a distance of about 100 to 200 metres. There must be a well-regulated system of feeder vehicles that connect rail stations, MRTS, Metro, BRT, MTC termini and other such high capacity mobility services. There must be an integrated fare — you buy one ticket or pass that is valid for all. That is the goal of the National Urban Transport Policy which the Tamil Nadu Government has adopted anyway.

For purposes of display here, we have not included legacy vehicles that are already well known – bus bodies built on truck chassis such as in Ashok Leylan Viking, Cheetah. Here are some others reported in BS Motoring.

Rear-engined semi-low floor bus from Eicher, 12 m long, floor height 650 mm, 127 bhp, diesel unit (Photo: Handout)

Then we have the Cruiser and Skyline from Eicher which would ideally be used in the “mini-bus” model serving as feeders and on low density corridors. These can be configured as 32 seaters: (Photo: Handout)

Traveller from Force Motors is a familiar vehicle, but it has not entered the transit space so far due to lack of regulatory possibilities. These vehicles can easily connect rail stations and bus termini, and operate in interior roads. They can also be operated as air-conditioned services in a chartered mode, providing an excellent commuting option that mimics door-to-door transportation by car. At present, this segment is catered to by maxi-cabs that are ramshackle old-style vans by Mahindra.

The Tourister from Mahindra also falls in the intermediate category, with reported seating variants from 16 to 40. Would serve same feeder purpose as stated above. It can be a 3.2 litre or 2.6 litre engine, and there is a CNG version also in the 2.6 litre range. (Photo: Handout)

The big boys of the pack come from the Volvo and Mercedes stables. The Mercedes Benz 0 500R is, according the Business Standard piece, the German answer to Volvo. That suits passengers just fine, only those buying these buses must spend that extra rupee to maintain them well, and not let them rust away. This 0 500R Benz (below) is in the league of the Volvo B7R/9R range of buses. It can seat 50 or 53, and derives its 300 bhp punch from a 7200 cc six cylinder turbo diesel. (Photo Courtesy: Mauro_trans’ Photostream on Flickr)

Swaraj Mazda has a couple of buses that again draw attention to the feeder and commuter bus possibilties. They are not really new, but none of their potential is diminished. This configuration is ideally suited for congested interior localities that need connectivity to main bus depots and arterial roads. There is one CNG offering also in the stable, powered by a 3.5 litre engine producing 75 bhp, in 26, 32 and 41 seater variants. (Photo: Handout)

This is the Prestige Bus from Swaraj Mazda Limited – Isuzu. It is a 40 seater, with a 227 bhp performance, and individual air–conditioning vents for passengers. Suits the inter-city segment better, unless there is a variant for start-stop city operations. (Photo: Swaraj Mazda corporate handout)

Tatas’ City Ride and Winger both aimed at feeder-type or low density service are well known, and so are the Starbus BRTS/CNG which have received a lot of attention in the run-up to the Commonwealth Games infrastructure building phase. So we are not reproducing them here.

Finally, Volvo. The 9400 4X2/6X2 and the 8400 low floor are among the best known city wheels, although the lack of regulatory support has left these products in limbo. Chennai, for instance has only about a 100 buses in operation, and they are being poorly maintained by the Metropolitan Transport Corporation through whatever arrangements they have made. They are also kept as high-priced offerings, without innovations such as lower off-peak fares. At the same time, some of these Volvo buses operating on the IT sector are grossly overloaded (route 219 A), affecting the longevity of the vehicle.

In this post we have dealt almost entirely on urban and peri-urban vehicle choices and policy. The inter-city and inter-state situation is equally neglected, particularly in Tamil Nadu. The State Express Transport Corporation has become moribund over the past ten years, including, surprisingly, during DMK rule.

Once again, we must reiterate that whether it is led by Karunanidhi, Jayalalithaa, M.K. Stalin or someone else, the next government in Chennai must rethink transport policy. The Chennai Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority and other city transport authorities must be compelled by public opinion to work for the commuter through new investment and services, integrated and smart ticketing, better information systems. They must not to be allowed to perpetuate an antiquated transport framework belonging to the 1960s.


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