S. Ganesan

Private buses suspend operation on short distance routes

TIRUCHI: Bus, lorries and taxi operators of Tiruchi region have been up in arms against the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) in the past few days over the collection of “exorbitant rates” as toll for vehicles passing through the recently four-laned Tiruchi-Madurai section of National Highways 45B.

Private bus operators, running buses to Viralimalai, Iluppur, Annavasal and a few other destinations from Tiruchi, have suspended operations over the past five days, protesting the high toll rates.

The 124.84-km long stretch was four-laned by the NHAI recently and two Toll Plazas were set up near Viralimalai and Melur. But private transport operators, including those operating bus, lorries and taxis, feel that the toll at both the places were very high.

At Viralimalai, the following rate of toll is collected for various vehicles at the toll plaza: Car, jeep, van and light motor vehicle – Rs.45 for single trip; Rs.70 for return trip within 24 hours; and Rs.1,540 for monthly pass. Light commercial vehicles, light goods vehicles and mini buses – Rs.70 for single trip; Rs.110 for return trip within 24 hours; and Rs.2,490 for monthly pass. Lorries/buses – Rs.155 for single trip; Rs.235 for return trip within 24 hours; and Rs.5,215 for monthly pass. Multi-axle vehicles (three to six axles) – Rs.245 for single trip; Rs.370 for return trip within 24 hours; and Rs.8,175 for monthly pass. Over-sized vehicles (seven or more axles) – Rs.300 for single trip; Rs.450 for return trip within 24 hours and Rs.9,955 for monthly pass. Monthly passes for the above categories will be restricted to 50 trips. Monthly passes for local cars, jeeps, vans and light motor vehicles would be issued for Rs.175.

While transport operators say these rates are very high in comparison to the toll collected at other parts of the State, including the Tiruchi-Chennai National Highway, senior NHAI officials, when contacted, say these were the revised rates decided by the Centre.

Expressing shock over exorbitant rates, D.R. Dharmaraj, secretary, Federation of Bus Operators' Association of Tamil Nadu, observes that a private mofussil bus operating four trips on short distance routes such as Tiruchi-Viralimalai / Tiruchi-Annavasal have to pay Rs.940 a day. “This works out to Rs.28,200 a month which is more than the road tax of Rs.27,000 a quarter that we pay. No bus operator can afford to operate services by paying so high a toll,” he says. Besides, the mofussil buses on these routes traverse only just about 15 to 20 km on the highway.

Mr. Dharmaraj also points out that unlike the toll plazas on the Tiruchi-Chennai highway, multiple journeys are not allowed on the Tiruchi-Madurai Highway. “There is only a return trip and even the monthly pass is not a viable option for us as the number of trips is restricted to 50,” he adds. With the four-lane project on the Tiruchi-Madurai section being funded by the NHAI, the toll should be much lower. Private mofussil bus operators have decided to suspend operations on the route until the rates were reduced.

S. Gopal, another bus operator, contends that over 10,000 people have been affected by the suspension of operations by private mofussil buses. “We have not been allowed a fare revision over the past eight years and we cannot afford to pay such a high toll now,” he says.

R.K.Prabakaran, Secretary, Tiruchi District Lorry Owners' Association, demands that the government should reduce the toll and also fix a uniform rate nationwide for every km of national highways. “Currently, different rates are being collected at different places. No toll should be collected for empty lorries,” he says.

S. Muralidharan, a taxi operator in the city, terms the toll as totally unjustified as transport operators were already paying a cess for road development that is included in the fuel price. “Customers are extremely unhappy as we have to ultimately pass on the burden to them. The high toll has put us in an extremely difficult situation coming as it does after the fuel price increase, labour shortage and high wages,” he says.

With Transport Minister K.N.Nehru announcing that the State government has taken up the matter with the Centre, bus and truck operators are hoping for an early solution.