Moving the bus sector into the fast lane

Updated - December 02, 2016 04:41 pm IST

Published - November 20, 2016 10:52 pm IST

Bumpy ride: Electric buses face hurdles such as high acquisition costs and the emphasis on ‘Make in India’. File photo

Bumpy ride: Electric buses face hurdles such as high acquisition costs and the emphasis on ‘Make in India’. File photo

The Indian bus passenger will have to wait a little longer for a safe and comfortable ride, as the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways has postponed once again the implementation of the National Bus Code.

By its notification of September 20, the Ministry has stipulated January 1, 2017 as the new date for the implementation of the Bus Code which lays down the standard features of a modern bus with designs and materials assessed by regulators.

Even this extended new deadline does not include two key aspects of the Bus Code intended for passenger safety. While the code itself is to come into effect in January, body builders can take an additional year after that to comply with mandated standards on body structure and strength, which are meant to protect passengers in the event of a rollover crash. Official data show 10,537 people died in bus accidents during 2014.

“The purpose of the bus code is to introduce a structured method for body building with safety at its core, avoiding jugaad ,” said T Venkataraman, Senior Vice President - Global Buses, at market leader Ashok Leyland. The national bus market is significant, although the share of buses among all vehicles has been dipping due to a rise in car numbers and weak investment in urban transport networks. Between 35,000 and 52,000 buses are sold annually, a pattern witnessed for more than 15 years now. The major demand - 70 per cent - is from private buyers, and State Transport Undertakings make up the rest. More small buses are being sold than in previous years, and demand is expected to grow as commuters look for last mile connectivity to major termini through feeder buses, for school transport, and for Metro Rail connectivity.

Lacking standards

Thousands of buses operating in India are of non-standard design and features, built on hard-suspension lorry chassis and difficult to use as they have a high floor. State governments lack uniform standards to approve them. There is no prescribed norm, for instance, for an emergency exit in a bus: Transport Departments adopt arbitrary regulations without any oversight or testing. When the bus code comes into effect, coach builders must have a body type approved by the Automotive Research Association of India or the Central Institute of Road Transport.

There is a need for more clarity, since ARAI asks for a design with a rollover demonstration, while CIRT is empowered to give the same licence without insisting on this.

The implementation of the Bus Code is a promising move that can be expected to enhance safety on Indian roads, said Markus Villinger, managing director, Daimler Buses India, which is planning to introduce new products in the country in the 16-tonne segment during 2017. The company, which makes Mercedes Benz city buses, is restarting its engagement with State Transport Undertakings soon, and is in discussions with the biggest State Transport Undertakings (STUs).

The sharing economy for automobiles witnessed in India is expected to extend to buses ranging from 12 to 70 seats. This has been a grey area so far, as State governments have not issued a comprehensive scheme for shared commercial transport, leading to the proliferation of unlicensed operators, many of whom use taxi permits for the purpose.

At the same time, many vehicles purchased for particular applications like school buses are not used for much of the day, creating interest among some major players to deploy them for passenger service during this period, using smartphone apps to aggregate users on the lines of app-based taxis. But the use of a school bus is limited by design. “The number of seats in it is determined by a ratio of gross vehicle weight and the weight of a child. If a child weighs 50 kg, and the bus has 62 seats, it cannot accommodate 62 heavier adults. But the bus operator wants lowest cost per seat. So we may have to design vehicles for more than one application,” says Mr. Venkataraman.

Buses in India are usually crude bodies built on chassis acquired from the manufacturer. The Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission tried to introduce some standards for city buses.

Going electric

Electric buses, which are gaining traction with efforts to lower costs and improve the range of operation, are making progress but face hurdles: High acquisition cost and the emphasis on ‘Make in India’.

Under the Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of (Hybrid and) Electric Vehicles programme of the Department of Heavy Industry, a subsidy of Rs.1.2 crore for electric and, Rs.60 lakh for hybrid is available.

“Now it becomes possible to look at EV as an attractive option. The only difference is that we will make it against specific requirements,” says Mr. Venkataraman, pointing out that the present cost structure is influenced by about 30 per cent Customs Duty, VAT and taxes. This could be waived, since the vehicle has noise and pollution control benefits.

The acquisition cost of electric buses is more than diesel, but operation, maintenance and resale characteristics make them attractive. Some STUs are considering this option and Ashok Leyland is talking to two of them. The Government of Bhutan has also approached the company. EVs are well-suited to serve tourists in heritage sites as in Agra.

Modern bus design can help STUs, since they enable faster passenger movement.

Ashok Leyland has told the Tamil Nadu government that its low-floor Janbus series, with a price range of Rs.55 to 62 lakh, provides an 18 per cent savings in the passenger entry and exit time on a 32-km trip on Chennai’s IT corridor.

On a full day’s cycle, that translates into an additional trip for the operator.

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