[Unsung Heroes] The Mechanics on the Expressway

This happened last week on the Mumbai Pune Expressway.

We had left at around 8.45 from CBD Belapur towards Bangalore. We were driving our Mahindra XUV500. We had reached the Expressway at around 9am. We crossed the Khalapur Toll Plaza by 9.30 and entered the Food Mall to fill up some Diesel and have breakfast.

Once we left, we soon entered the ghat, and reached the lone section of the Expressway that witnesses long pileups during peak hours: The hairpin bends on either side of the Amrutanjan Bridge.

Now, the Amrutanjan Bridge was the site of the Reversing station for the Grand Indian Peninsular Railway [GIPR] back in the days of the British. The station was dismantled when the track took a new route and the bridge, along with a new bridge adjacent to it, became part of the Delhi-Chennai National Highway 48 [the erstwhile Mumbai-Chennai NH 4]. Due it its age, the Archaeological Survey of India [ASI] has refused to give the MSRDC the permission to modify the bridge. The MSRDC subsequently formulated a plan to build a tunnel that would bypass the entire section and hand over the existing stretch entirely to the NH.

The problem with the Amrutanjan Bridge is that the six lane [three per direction] Expressway splits up. The old bridge splits each 3 lane carriageway into two carriageways of 1 lane and 2 lanes. This, coupled with the fact that there is a constant incline in the gradient, plus several sharp bends/hairpin bends and the Khandala tunnel, make driving on this stretch a pain at times. It is not uncommon to see traffic piled up for a few kilometre on either side.

Amrutanjan Bridge
The Amrutanjan Bridge over the Expressway. Image copyright Lok Satta

Now, even though I have been a regular user of the Expressway for the past two years, it has been almost a decade since we drove down in it in a car with luggage. Getting caught in traffic while ascending the ghat was a usual occurrence, mostly happening at night while returning to Pune in a Shivneri, but I have witnessed it once or twice during the day. Having mostly driven on highways in South India for the past few years, the Bhor ghat [the ghat in this stretch], was a bit of an uncommon ground for us. While driving up the slope, the clutch got regularly pressed. After a while, we could smell something burning. We passed it off as engine heat, and turned off the air conditioning and rolled down the windows,  till we began to see smoke coming out of the front. We quickly changed lanes to the left, with one of us standing next to the car and stopping traffic.

A guy on a scooter came over and told us that our clutch was burning and that it needed immediate attention. He also said he would charge us, but only after he fixes it, and we do a test drive. He quickly went under the car, did some tinkering, opened up the bonnet, took out the battery and used water to cool down the clutch. Upon finishing it, he drove the car up for a while, with his associate taking his scooter and following us. We did a test drive as well till the Kalra exit after which we paid him and left. He assured us that the clutch was in good condition for a drive upto Bangalore.

We decided to go for a second opinion and stopped at the Mahindra service centre at Wakad in Pune. Initially, he just smelt it and said the clutch would require replacement which could take 6-8 hours, depending on the load. He then took it into the service centre to check the condition of the clutch. After a while, he came and told us that the clutch was in good condition and that the timely action on the Exoressway had ensured that the clutch remained usable. He said that the car could be driven upto Bangalore, but we’d have to be careful with the clutch. The caveat: Either press the clutch fully, or don’t press it at all. No half clutch for braking, and if we had to brake, we were to use the Hand brakes only.

So, what?

Now. These kind of incidents will keep happening as long as the Amrutanjan Bridge problem exists. The only way to solve the problem is to bypass the stretch altogether with a tunnel. When the Expressway first opened up, it had far fewer takers than it has today because there were numerous people who preferred the old highway. To counter this issue, the MSRDC came up with a solution. Hand over the Old Mumbai Pune highway and Expressway to IRB’s SPV Mhaiskar Infrastructure for Operation and Maintenance on the Expressway and Build-Operate for the Highway. The old NH was four laned from Shedung to Khopoli and Lonavala to Dehu Road, and made a Toll Road. Naturally, all traffic started gravitating towards the Expressway which was the better alternative among two toll roads. If the tunnel is built and the existing section is handed over to the NH, traffic will still remain the same given the increase in the number of vehicles.

With such conditions, it would good if MSRDC and Mhaiskar Infra regularised the services of these mechanics. By virtue of waiting at the side for a vehicle, they come under the category of both Pedestrians and Two Wheelers, both of which are technically banned. Thus, if the higher ups regularised them, it would make life simpler for IRB/MSRDC, the commuter, and these mechanics. After all, they have a specific skillset, that they out to use efficiently. Around the time when our car got stuck, there were atleast half a dozen cars, jeeps and SUVs in the half kilometre stretch ahead of us with the same issue.

 

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[Unsung Heroes] New feature: The Unsung Heroes

Inspired by incidents that occurred over the last few days, a new feature is coming up. It will be a fortnightly feature; titled The Unsung Heroes of the Transport World.

The first one will be out in a few hours. The feature will talk about various people, from conductors, mechanics, officials, common citizens, police personnel, etc.

All posts under this feature will be tagged under Unsung Heroes and have [Unsung Hero] in the post title. They’ll all be on the main blog and not a separate one [like features on the Stupindex].

Please do post any suggestions in the comments section. I will follow up and do my research. Guest posters are more than welcome to join in!

 

 

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Free the Bus and Tax the Car: More harm done than good

I was asked to write this piece as a sequel to the post Public Transport and Capitalism.

Now, before I proceed with the article, a little disclaimer.

I am a staunch supporter of private investment. I support what I call Regulated Capitalism. I ride a cycle to work. I drive a car when I go long distance. I take a bus if I feel like it. If I’m too tired, I take an Ola or an Uber. I may sound blunt and harsh in this article, but sometimes, one needs to do that in order to put across a point.

Now, to get to the actual post.

In the light of the recent Tamil Nadu elections, I went thru two manifestos; that of the DMK and PMK.

If one takes a look at the 2014 Manifesto by the BJP in Maharashtra, you’d find no such thing; for two obvious reasons:
1. The BJP is unapologetically anti-populist.
2. Public Transport, barring ST is a Municipal matter in M’rashtra.

Now, after this, there has been some lengthy debate of sorts on various forums and social media about one single thing: Free bus travel, extra taxes on cars.

Now, this, is not a solution to the problem in anyway. If it all, it does anything, it will massively compound the situation into an unimaginable mess.

Now:

The Problem

Inadequate public transport is the problem that plagues most Indian cities. This includes Bombay, Delhi, Madras, Calcutta. Other cities, such as Bangalore and Pune developed their notorious and infamous two-wheeler culture purely because of lack of good public transport. Even Bombay and its BEST buses are not extremely efficient in an absolute manner, but in a relative one: Relative to other cities, relative to its own siblings [NMMT/TMT], relative to the larger network that it is a part of [Suburban Rail+Metro+Monorail]. The fact that BEST buses run crowded during peak hours alone shows the immense scope for further rationalisation and efficiency.

Now, Public Transport is not a preferred mode of transport by everyone. Among the various reasons, are the following:

  • Lack of connectivity: By far, the most common reason. This can be seen particularly in the city of Bangalore. Most buses in the city go to either Kempegowda Bus Station or KR Market. Buses to various parts of the city originate in these two terminal points. Thus, for someone who lives in Arekere, to go to Electronics City, a journey by bus will involve three trips: Arekere to Jayadeva Hospital, then to Central Silk Board, then to Electronics city. Similarly, if I were to go from Four Bungalows to Mulund Check Naka in Mumbai, I’d have to take a bus to Andheri Station [West], and a changeover to a bus from Agarkar Chowk to Mulund.
  • Irregular or unfavourable timings: Another important factor is the unsuitable timings that a bus or train may have. For example, if someone living in Shanthinagar wanted to visit the Bannerghatta National Park, and decides to take a Volvo [V-365], they may have to wait for a while to get a bus, especially in the afternoon. Similarly, if I were to go to NSCI Worli from Santacruz East in the afternoon by an AC bus, A74Express, A75Express and AS2 run only in the morning and evening.
  • Crowds: Public transport often gets crowded and overcrowded. I myself at times can’t stand too long due to a foot injury. In such times, I prefer to take an Uber or Ola over a bus or a train. If everyone takes a bus or a train at the same time, we get the Peak Hour rush, which anyone living in any major city in India can attest too.

The Solution

  • Diversification of Public Transport: Public Transport shouldn’t be restricted to certain corridors. It must be divided into multiple corridors of different types, from buses, trains and what not. Mumbai is the best example of this. The Suburban Rail forms a major corridor. Metro and Mono act as secondary corridors as well as feeders to the Suburban Rail. Buses act as both tertiary corridors [Eg: 28, 56, AS1, AS4, etc.] and feeders [anything that heads to the station, or a major bus station or a metro station].
  • Park and Ride: Integrate public parking lots with Major transit corridors. Build bus stations and railway stations with parking lots. Encourage people to drive to the Station and then take a bus or a train. A separate post on this will come soon.
  • Co-existence: Allow both private and public transport to co-exist freely. They need each other in order to survive. However, focus on improving the quality of public transport so that it remains a viable alternative for buses. Listen to passenger feedback, enable faster financial management.

How not to mess up the system.

  • Free public transport: Public transport can be subsidised to a certain extent, but not too much. Examples of good subsidies are: Discounted fares for students, senior citizens, frequent travelers, bonus cashback to those who use prepaid/cashless methods of payment. When bus transport is made free, it ensures that even those who do not have any work traveling will travel for the heck of it. This causes overcrowding, bleeds the corporation of its revenue and results in bad services, which can and will only result in the number of private vehicles going up.
  • Overtaxing vehicles: Taxation of private vehicles is good as it again, provides revenue to the state, and ensures that older vehicles that can cause pollution are taken off the roads. If private vehicles are overtaxed to prevent people from using or owning them, it will compound the already messed up system. The rich, will get away because they can afford it. The poor, well, they get the free bus. The middle class will get affected as they always do by most Socialist policies, because the bus is too crowded and they cannot afford a car.

That’s all for now from me. This is a lengthy rant aimed at those who think that being socialist wrt transport is cool.

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Public Transport and Capitalism: The Perfect Pairing

It is often said that a Developed Nation is one, not where the poor can drive their own cars, but the rich take Public Transport.

Public Transport, for a long time has been associated with Socialism. However, that isn’t always the case. Efficient Public Transport, along with its parent field of Transport tilts heavily towards Capitalist tendencies.

Let us examine the connection between the two and try and make some sense of the two.

Premise

Let us create a premise in order to go forward with this piece.

I’m defining capitalism as an environment, where anyone, be it an individual or a group of individuals, put in the capital, aka the investment, and earn their returns on it, in the process, employing others to operate the investment. A simple example of Capitalism would be if me and my friend invested in setting up a simple shop selling provisions to the people in a locality. We invest, operate the shop, maybe on our own, or if it is a larger one, employing a few other people, and earn back our investment over a period of time. Now, in the transport scenario, the simplest example of Capitalism would be:

A two-laned road exists from point A to point B. Traffic on this stretch is slowly increasing and the government decides that the road needs to be widened to four lanes, but doesn’t have the money to do so. It ropes in a private player who invests in the construction of the road, maintenance and operation of emergency services for a certain time period and collection of toll in the same time period. The concessionaire [I refrain from using the term Toll Operator or Contractor here] has to make up the cost of investment as well as make profits in order to pay its employees within this time period, known as the Concession Period, thus making it imperative for them to treat it as a business and not Social Service or Charity. Of course, if a company is unable to break even [forget earning profits], the quality of its services are bound to tank, right?

Equipment

The first major connection between Public Transport and Capitalism is equipment. By equipment, I’m opening a broad tent to fit in anything from Buses to Trucks to Earthmovers to Dumpers to Road Rollers to Concrete Mixers to Electric Cabling to Railway Tracks.

Let us take BEST as an example. Without capitalism, BEST wouldn’t be able to buy a Tata Starbus, or a Cerita or an Ashok Leyland, let alone a Volvo, because these vehicles wouldn’t exist. Can one imaging traveling from Andheri to Ghatkopar in an ICF Coach like the ones running on the Suburban Line? [I’m sure people from Calcutta are right now sulking.] Heck, even the printers used to print tickets by IR are TVS Dot Matrix printers, another private enterprise! Even the signals used by IR are made in Pune by a firm called PaisaFund, which operates out of Lakshmi Road. Imagine, if all buses were built by a state organisation. They’d be in bad condition, take ages to get delivered, and servicing them would mean that the bus would be off the road for god knows how many months.  Capitalism is what enables a Transport Corporation to purchase good quality equipment, at the best prices for that particular piece of equipment.

Operations

Another important point that links Capitalism and Public Transport is Operations. Operations involves private entities operating a service on behalf of the government. A simple example would be the earlier mentioned example on a Toll Road.

What all can be mentioned under Operations? A lot!

In the cities of Surat, Ahmedabad, and Nagpur, a Special Purpose Vehicle [SPV] was set up by the Municipal Corporation to operate city buses. These buses were owned and operated by Private Agencies under the Municipal name. Of course, buses under JnNURM were always owned and operated by the Government entity due to restrictions by the Central Government.

However, take a look at Delhi. Delhi is currently an interesting example of Private parties operating buses, both regulated and unregulated. Earlier, the killer Blueline buses were an example of how an inefficient government transport fleet wsa supplemented by private providers, although they were running amok killing people on the streets. The government changed the model to make it safer, ensure that operators have the basic minimum safety requirement buses and viola! You have the Cluster Buses. They don’t kill people like their older siblings, but they do their job of keeping Delhi running during troubled times such as the Odd-Even mela.

Privatised operations, too a certain extent also help in healthy competition that allows Transport bodies to understand their organisation and management skills. An example:
MSRTC has run their Shivneri and Ashwamedh on various long distance routes, including Mumbai-Bengaluru and Mumbai-Hyderabad. Both were subsequently scrapped. Why? ST couldn’t live up to the competition that private players and neighbouring STUs like KSRTC and TSRTC were offering. Hence, it decided to refocus its buses on the routes it does the best in: Mumbai-Pune with more diversified routes, such as to Hinjewadi and Mantralaya. Similarly, they had to pull out of their Shivneri Corporate service, because they couldn’t compete with BEST’s A77Express.

Recently, the government announced that it would amend the Motor Vehicles Act of 1988 to enable Private Players to get into Public Transport. This would make it better for corporations that are inefficient to curtail their loss making services and hand them over to a private player. It would also reduce inefficiency caused by labour unions.

Right to Choose

The most important aspect of Capitalism in Public Transport is that it gives me the right to choose. The right to choose whether I want to go to my destination by train or to drive there. If I want to go from Four Bungalows in Andheri to IIT Powai in Mumbai, I can choose to drive, take a 425, take an AS422, take a Metro to Saki Naka and a bus, or take an Auto, Taxi or an Ola/Uber. Why must I have only one way to travel?  If I have to travel from Kovaipudur to Gandhipuram in Coimbatore, I can take a bus, either via Ukkadam or via Perur. Till recently, there was no alternative. Autos are not metered and there are no proper cabs. Calling a Red Taxi or a Go Taxi would cost a lot and an auto, too much. Now, there options such as Makkal Auto and Ola/Uber which make travel affordable and comfortable.

These three are the most important connections that Capitalism has to Public Transport. Private Players, as long as they are answerable to a Government body, implement things faster, finish work faster, operate more efficiently, because efficiency is a direct indicator of income in the long run.

Public Transport and Capitalism: Made for Each Other Click To Tweet

Have anything to add, feel free to drop a line in the comments.

Note, a partial follow-up was written by me for Swarajya Magazine:

Karnataka: Govt Wants To Nationalise All Bus Routes. Here’s Why It Is A Bad Idea

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