When the MTC bus on route 17 M ran off the Anna Flyover on Wednesday, public attention was turned to a key question — does Chennai’s monopoly bus operator maintain its buses in good condition?

Many of those who regularly ride the ‘new’ or ‘refurbished’ services of the MTC, paying enhanced fares since November last year, are certain to reply with a resounding ‘no’. ‘Deluxe’ buses with non-working doors, ‘ordinary’ buses with metal sharps protruding from windows, broken seats, rattling stanchions and overhead railings, creaking wipers, stubborn gear-boxes and clutch systems, and a mostly-dead instrument panel for the driver, are what they see. This is the passenger experience, but the MTC paints a rosy picture of itself.

To the Ministry of Urban Development, it sent the following in a commissioned report sometime ago in order to claim Central grants for bus purchases: “Maintaining city buses in good condition has always been a tough task, but the MTC is known for its ability to successfully face this challenge... The traditional MTC culture has been very positive when it comes to maintenance of buses in classic condition.”

If the Centre had any questions about how the grant buses would be kept, the Corporation assured it that its systems and processes would “ensure that the vehicles procured will be maintained in top class condition” throughout their life-cycle period.

Regular users can cast their vote on the condition of the buses, but the toppled-over 17M and the hint that it might have been travelling faster than the desirable speed should prompt a thorough review. The general answer to the problem, says professor Dinesh Mohan, Volvo Chair Professor Emeritus at IIT Delhi’s Transportation Research and Injury Prevention Programme, is to ensure that city services do not speed beyond 50 km per hour.

“Take all pressure off the driver,” he says, pointing to the fact that transport corporations often put a great deal of stress on drivers through unrealistic trip schedules. If bus companies track the actual time taken to cover all routes in normal traffic, it would result in a trip schedule that is humane for the driver, and thus safe. Of course, that would mean investment in many more buses to cater to demand, something that the MTC appears in no hurry to do, despite newfound prosperity.

On the question of safety, it is now easier to record driver behaviour, thanks to cheaper technologies. Applications for basic smartphones record the progress of a vehicle using GPS and provide spreadsheet output or transmitted data. Obviously, that would make it difficult to conceal bad driving. Will our transport corporations use such tools to good effect?

The Corporation should strictly adhere to the Automotive Industry Standard code for bus body design and approval, which will improve commute for all — because the code favours lower floor height and boarding steps, comfortable seating, and wider gangways. It is worth pointing out that some sections of the bus industry have been resisting the key provision on floor height and have even persuaded important officials in New Delhi. So what you may get is an obsolete design from the past.

Modern buses need not be expensive. The expert view is that, shorn of frills, it should be possible to build a code-compliant semi-low floor bus for about Rs. 20 lakh, and a low-floor bus for Rs. 40 lakh. The answer to bus safety lies in sensible trip timings and capped speed. MTC needs to be subjected to an independent audit in this regard. That would perhaps prevent more buses from leaping off flyovers.

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