As a regular commuter on Chennai buses (once again!) one cannot help noticing the poor image that this form of transport has. On the one hand, most buses are not really…well, buses. They are crude bodies rigged on to obsolete truck chassis. Governments are not willing to replace all of the existing fleet with properly designed buses for various reasons. Buses also suffer a bad image, on the other hand, because of overcrowding.
So when you see a flurry of announcements on international models of buses coming to India in coming years, complementing hectic activity to build urban rail and BRT systems, you begin to think that there is some hope. The latest issue of Autocar Professional (www.autocarpro.in) reports that Scania plans to bring its global bus models to India, although only in 2014.
To be sure, both the Volvo 8400 and the Scania Citywide LE and LF look top class in terms of aesthetics and passenger comfort. They also offer low-floor access, which India’s ageing population will welcome. The same goes for Ashok Leyland’s Jan Bus, which was showcased at the Delhi Auto Expo 2012 (report in The Hindu here).
A source in Leyland Chennai pointed out that unlike the Volvos and other international buses coming to market, the Jan Bus is aggressively priced. When asked whether it would be in the Rs.40 lakhs to Rs. 70 lakhs band (the latter is the sale price for Volvos so far), we are told that it would be in the “lower end of the spectrum.”
This offers a lot of hope, as bus operators such as Chennai’s monopoly Metropolitan Transport Corporation have not gone in for fleet modernisation on a large scale yet. MTC used some meagre JNNURM funding to buy a small fleet of Volvos, which it operates more as suburban connectors and not essentially as intra-city services. The skimpy number is also coming in the way of regular, predictable patronage.
Coming up with a good strategy for 2014 is essential for Chennai bus operations. For one thing, the first Metro Rail lines will open by then. Again, there is pressure to introduce integrated ticketing, something that the MTC has resisted so far, and the Central and Tamil Nadu Governments have not insisted upon. Chennai’s Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority, which remains a still-born agency, has also not taken a view on this key question. The Urban Development Ministry in New Delhi, which has unveiled a new mobility card for India, has also not put any pressure, although it forked out JNNURM funding for Tamil Nadu. But with maturing transit markets, changing commuter expectations and more automation in fare collection, that scenario is bound to change.
Which brings us to the question of how far the AIADMK Government will go to modernise Chennai transport, the ageing and rickety bus fleet in particular. At the moment, this is a dismally performing government, having not moved ahead with the mini-bus system promised first by the DMK regime, and refurbished by itself since Ms.Jayalalithaa assumed office. This media report claims that the service will be introduced “soon” but that remains more of a wish list item than a point of fact!
Update: On Sunday, February 19, we saw a brick coloured new city model Ashok Leyland bus, low or semi-low floor with doors, run “On Test” in Chennai, from Kathipara junction in Guindy.It will hopefully enter service soon.