Saving the BEST: A look back

Saving the BEST, a wonderful article by Rajendra Aklekar, journalist and author of the highly acclaimed book ‘Halt Station India’, appeared on Sunday’s edition of The Hindu. I’m going to attempt to reinterpret his article with a little bit of my own thoughts in the process.

Mumbai has traditionally been dependent on its railway lines for commuting. This dependency has been justified by their reach, optimal efficiency, and reliability. This makes them more than just a Rail Network. It makes it a lifeline, because it brings together the entire Mumbai Metropolitan Region.

The story with the road is similar. BEST buses have been on the roads for quite a while now. Motor Buses were to make their first appearance in 1913, operated by the Bombay Electricity Supply and Tramways Company Limited [BES &T Co. Ltd] which was set up in 1907, but didn’t turn up till 1926 because of World War I. Prior to this, the Bombay Tramway Company Limited operated horse-drawn trams in Bombay from 1873 with Electric Trams appearing on the scene in 1906 after BES&T took over the BTC. Today, BEST’s ubiquitious red buses form the last mile [or kilometre] connectivity for millions of passengers from both the city itself, as well as its suburbs and satellite towns.

However, things are changing. BEST is already in knee-deep trouble, getting passengers, especially for its lacklusture AC services that have been beaten by NMMT and TMT, although BEST is seemingly gaining a steady foothold after the recent fare revision. Further, app-based aggregators, including Ola, Uber, ZipGo, Shuttl, rBus, are all eating into BESTs revenue. To add to this, the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Transport Authority [MMRTA] is now allowing private buses to ply point to point within the city without a permit.

The fault here lies in not only the competition, but also BEST. Corruption, Politics, Unions, all have made the Red Bus seemingly irrelevant in today’s life.

To put it in figures, BESTs Transport Deficit is -₹858.02crore. Its Electricity Surplus of ₹925.41crore is what is keeping it floating, along with some cash flowing in from the MCGM.

While it common to understand that Public Transport, being considered Public Service is bound to go thru losses, why are BESTs coffers in such a precarious state?

As Mr. Aklekar puts it, it all has to do with the management of BEST. It has an Administrative Wing and a Committee that is a Political Body. The two often overstep their boundaries, since it is blurred, and cause skirmishes, which leads to losses.

Along with this, it is also BESTs lack of keeping pace. NMMT and TMT went the BMTC way by procuring high-end Volvo buses while BEST remained with their scam-tainted Punjab-made Cerita fleet that were procured under the name of ‘Kinglong’ buses. This, along with the fact that BEST had abysmally high fares for their dilapidated buses just made things worse. BEST’s ITS was a total failure, because it required users to send an SMS and was full of bugs. Later on, it got shut down. Of course, let us not forget BEST’s tryst with Electronic Ticketing, which for a Municipal Level Transco, is a commendable effort, one worthy of a case study.

While BEST doesn’t provide WiFi on buses, something the Mumbai Metro does, I have seen a bus with a White Box behind the Driver saying WiFi. Maybe this was a one-off trial.

While Mr. Aklekar points out that BEST didn’t have a public time-table, I did find out that BEST did indeed have one, visible on its website when searching for a route, and also visible on the Mobile app m-Indicator. Of course, the increased traffic on the city’s roads have practically rendered timetables useless. Last September, the day after Anant Chaturdashi, I ended up catching the 9.30 AS4 from NSCI to Backbay at 10.15 thanks to the traffic.

When Delhi can track its Cluster buses and Autos, why can’t BEST? 3500 buses aren’t hard to track. BEST can set up a system on a Public-Private Partnership and licence its API for others to use if they’re unable to give it out for free.

He also talks of bus stops using electricity for advertising. The power can also be used to light it up for the safety of commuters, as well as a Public Information system for arrivals. I believe this should be easy, atleast within town limits, given that BEST supplies power there. BEST can also explore the possibility of solar powered bus stops.

Why can’t BEST go the Ola-Uber way and tap into the Google Maps API to show where a bus is? Get an app, track buses, guide commuters to the nearest bus stop. Let them buy a ticket with the app! Paper tickets are great. Make them greater. Print some ads on them. BEST used to do so with their earlier punched tickets. Why not now? Print a WiFi password on it as well, so that commuters with a ticket can use it. Passholders can probably have it using an app!

While I had earlier stated that I would be favour of participation from the private sector to keep the city’s transport in shape, the case with BEST is peculiar. The decentralised nature of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region allows each Municipal Corporation to run their own buses. Why can’t BEST, NMMT and TMT coordinate their bus services? Why do they have their toxic competition?

BEST represents the city of Mumbai in many ways. It is a Heritage structure in itself. If not for anything else, BEST, its red buses, their bell pulls, the Double Deckers, makes the Undertaking unique in India. Even the Purple Faeries make them unique.

BEST needs to get its act together. Or else India’s Oldest Transport Body, a crucial part of Mumbai’s Heritage, Culture and History would be lost to the annals of time.

 

Click here to read Rajendra Aklekar’s article Saving the BEST.

Click here to buy Rajendra Aklekar’s Halt Station India

 

 

 

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Transport in Chandigarh- Exploring the CTU

The Chandigarh Transport Undertaking [CTU], a division of the Chandigarh Union Territory Administration, that comes directly under the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, Government of India, operates buses in and around the Tricity area.  It also operates a few long distance routes to neighbouring regions in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh as well as Jammu and Kashmir.

The CTU came into existence in 1966 with a fleet of 30 buses. Today it has 468, with 329 of them operating as city buses and the remaining on long distance routes. Interestingly, it had 517 buses till 2011-2012.

The CTU operates two Inter State Bus Terminals [ISBTs]:

  • The ISBT at Sector 17 caters to local buses, as well as buses catering to Haryana, Delhi, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh.
  • The ISBT at Sector 43 caters to local buses [AC buses included] and to those catering to Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh.

The CTU has four depots, one near Powergrid, where its head office is also present, one in Sector 28, one in Sector 25, and the fourth one at the Sector 43 ISBT.

Chandigarh is a fairly active city, mainly due to the presence of Mohali [Sahibzada Ajit Singh Nagar/SAS Nagar] in Punjab and Panchkula in Haryana that are contiguous with it. Services operated by the CTU also extend to these two towns along with other areas in the region.

Chandigarh Transport Undertaking [CTU]'s Corona bus on Route 38 at the Mohali terminal of the airport.
Chandigarh Transport Undertaking [CTU]’s Corona HVAC bus on Route 38 at the Mohali terminal of the airport. Image copyright Srikanth Ramakrishnan, CC-BY-SA 3.0, available on the Wikimedia Commons

While an exact count of CTU’s AC and non-AC fleet isn’t available, CTU does have a sizable fleet strength in AC buses as well. The fleet colour is the same as Delhi, Green for non-AC and Maroon for AC. The Corona fleet that connects the two ISBTs to the new Mohali terminal of the airport is Red in colour. Among the buses that CTU has, it has AC and non AC Tata Marcopolos. It also has minibuses, both AC and non-AC, which follow the same colouring scheme. However, unlike the Delhi counterparts, these buses are not powered by CNG, instead being Diesel buses and thus efficient, along with good, functional air-conditioning units.

A CTU non-AC Tata Marcopolo.
A CTU non-AC Tata Marcopolo. Image copyright HFRET, CC-BY-SA 3.0 Unported, available on the Wikimedia Commons.

The CTU has passes for its commuters, with a regular Monthly Pass priced at ₹720 for AC and ₹470 for non-AC buses. A ₹30 Smart Card is issued for a pass, although ticketing is not electronic. Daily Passes are also available, priced at ₹30 for non-AC and ₹40 for AC buses. These passes are valid on the respective buses within the Municipal Limits of the Tricity. Thus, if I am on a bus to Landran, the pass is valid only upto Sohana where the Municipal limits of the Mohali Municipal Corporation ends. For journeys beyond Sohana, I’d have to buy a ticket. Not bad, I guess.

All this seems to work well with the CTU’s plan to focus more on the entire Tricity Area and not just the Union Territory of Chandigarh alone. AC fares were also slashed back in 2015 to encourage Public Transport.

Fares are on the lower side, similar to Delhi. DTC and DIMTS charge ₹5, 10, 15 for non-AC and ₹10, 15, 20, 25 for AC buses. CTU charges ₹5, 10, 15 for non-AC and ₹10, 15, 20 for AC buses.

However, the major issue with the CTU is lack of services in several areas outside of the Union Territory.

Take for instance, Mohali. Phase V in Mohali has no CTU bus, inspite of having numerous bus stops everywhere. The closest place from where you can get a bus is Phase VII, which is a good kilometre away. Further, only Landran bound buses operate on this route, with the last bus leaving at around 7.30-8pm.

Similarly, Panchkula too has its fair share of problems. The CTU route list doesn’t list out too many buses heading out to Mohali, Panchkula, Zirakpur, Manasdevi, et al. In fact, while Mohali does have a few buses, Panchkula seems to have fewer.

As far as ticketing and passes are concerned, the CTU uses the traditional punched ticket system that we Mumbaikars are used to seeing. Of course, the tickets are in multiple colours [pink and yellow] like PMPML, and double the size of a standard PMPML ticket. Interestingly, the ID Card for Monthly Passes is a Smart Card, which leads one to believe that the CTU is going to implement an Electronic Ticketing System soon.

The CTU has a lot to learn from other STUs, namely BEST [for operating services outside its administrative boundary as well as Electronic Ticketing], KSRTC-MCTD [for its ITS] and TSRTC-Hyderabad [for taking feedback from Commuters in running newer services]. Similarly, other STUs need to learn from the CTU, like DTC [operating buses beyond the boundaries], DIMTS [for privatising bus routes], and of course, BMTC [to learn how to run buses in the first place]. The CTU model can be adopted in any area where city buses cross state borders. Municipal borders for buses owned by a Corporation can also be taken into consideration.

Overall, I think the CTU has done a good job for the city of Chandigarh. It is the Greater Chandigarh/Chandigarh Tricity Area/Chandigarh Capital Region that needs better services.

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BEST slashed its AC fares by half. What happened then is obvious!

BEST recently slashed its AC fares by 50%. The results of this, while obvious, are quite shocking.

BEST also introduced several new routes: AS-71, AS-72, AS-318, AS-415.

Earlier, NMMT and TMT AC buses would always run full while BEST buses were like Chauffeur services, with one or two passengers in some of them. The reasons were clear: BEST used its Purple Faeries while the other two use Volvos, and further, BEST charged one and a half [1.5x] times what the other two charged.

But not any more. BEST’s minimum AC fares have come down from ₹30 to ₹15 while NMMT and TMT charge ₹20.

The Net Result?

BEST’s AC buses are seeing a higher patronage. BEST, whose ridership had fallen from 43lakh to 30lakh, is now trying to get it to 45lakh.

Take a look below and see how two AC buses are performing.

AS-318

This is AS-318 at Bandra Bus Station [East] towards the Bharat Diamond Bourse in Bandra Kurla Complex.

As you can see in the picture, the bus is quite full.

BEST bus AS-310.
BEST bus AS-310. Image copyright Coolguyz.

AS-415

This is AS-415 from Agarkar Chowk to SEEPZ. As you can see, the bus is full of passengers.

BEST bus AS-415.
BEST bus AS-415. Image Copyright Coolguyz.

When was the last time you saw a BEST AC bus full of passengers? 2009? 2010.

With BEST getting the new Tata Starbus Hybrid fleet soon, things are just going to improve.

Of course, as stated earlier, BEST needs to get rid of the Cerita fleet soon and go for more powerful Ashok Leyland, Corona, Scania and Volvo buses to sustain this increase in passengers.

BEST slashed its AC fares by half. What happened then will NOT blow your mind! Click To Tweet

Images courtesy Coolguyz from Skyscrapercity.

Go ahead. Share this article. Share the joys of traveling in India’s Oldest Public Transport Company.

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BMTC’s ITS: Misleading and Fraudulent

BMTC’s much touted ITS is nothing but a fraud. There is a lot more to it, but if you happen to be an ardent BMTC fan, I’d suggest you read this post before defending this third rate transport corporation that needs a major revamp.

For starters, the ticket machines are the biggest problem right now. Some BMTC buses, both the regular rattletraps as well as the Volvo and Corona fleet use the older Ticketing Machines; The older Quantum Aeon machines and not the Verifone machines that Trimax has supplied. These machines are not compatible with the current system. As simple as that. As if this wasn’t enough, there are some Volvo buses where the conductor still uses the older manual ticketing system. He tears out a ticket from his bunch and gives it.

Now, coming to the crucial part:

I wanted to travel from Central Silk Board to Arekere Gate at 7.30pm. I pulled out my phone and checked the BMTC app. It showed me a 411GT Volvo with the number KA57F996 with an ETA of 12 mins. The map showed the bus at Iblur. I waited. I tracked the bus on the map. After Agara, he suddenly turned into HSR Layout, before coming out at 5th main. I had a doubt when I saw the bus with a 57F registration. After a few minutes I saw it whiz past me. A green Vayu Vajra on an ORRCA route.

I looked up the app again. It showed the next 411GT 11 minutes away. This time, the number was KA01FA1418.

Screenshot of the BMTC app showing KA01FA1418 on route 411GT
Screenshot of the BMTC app showing KA01FA1418 on route 411GT

Along with this, the BMTC app shows me buses contracted to Manyata Tech Park, Bagmane Tech Park, ORRCA, etc. All the buses which a regular commuter cannot board.

Fine. I waited. I waited for 25 agonising minutes, possibly because of the traffic. Silk Board is not to blame here. It does its job well by holding up traffic so that the signals on the other side do not get overwhelmed.

The bus arrived alright, but just as I had expected, it turned out to be something else. A 500NA.

BMTC bus KA01FA1418 on route 500NA
BMTC bus KA01FA1418 on route 500NA

This annoyed me to no end. Here I am wasting 40 minutes of my time, and BMTC is taking me for a ride [figuratively].

Now, listing out buses leased out, itself is misleading. For someone new to Bangalore, they simply won’t know that this bus is not meant for them. Listing out a bus as en route, but not plying that route at all, is not only misleading, but fraudulent. I’d call it a criminal waste of my time if I could.

Now, the situation wouldn’t be so bad normally, but this is Bangalore, where the state government has made life difficult for commuters in every possible way. Starting with ridiculous laws for Uber and Ola, thanks to which it is near impossible to find a cab, even a sharing/pooled one. Next, the government came up with a plan to Nationalise bus transport in the state. While I’m not really fond of all those flashy, colourful Private buses on the road that drive like Delhi’s Blueline buses, they are the lifeline for some sections of the society, mainly those going from far flung suburbs to KR Market. On top of all this, remember what a chat with a conductor revealed?

I’d like to title this as the Great Bangalore Transport Scam. Sab Mile Hue Hain.

Remember that all the data from the ITS will be freely licenced for others to tap into the API and use it for their apps. Such wrong data is just going to screw things up badly.

I hope the BMTC learns something fast. It already has a snarky reputation for not stopping at bus stops and not opening its doors when it does stop.

What can be done here?

Decentralisation is pointless. Handing BMTC over to the BBMP is as good as the GoK handling it. Both are inept, incompetent, and brazenly corrupt.

BMTC’s ITS is a sham. #TransitssuesIN Click To Tweet

What are your thoughts?

Note: We decided to give the ITS a second shot today. It just confirmed our belief that this is all one big scam.

The embedded tweet below should explain everything. In the event it doesn’t load, here is a direct link to the tweet: BMTC’s ITS Today.

 

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Strike it Off!

Strikes. Strikes by Auto Rickshaw drivers. Strikes by Bus Transport employees.
Strikes. An old Blackmail method used by the Communists and Socialists [the Left] that unfortunately works even today.

There are two common reasons why Transport related employees strike:

  • Competition from the Private Sector or others.
  • Demand for Hike in Wages.

Competition from others

Frequently seen in cities like Mumbai, Bangalore and Delhi, both, employees of state run transcos, as well as auto/taxi drivers have often protested against others disturbing their Monopoly.

Recently, autos and taxis in Delhi went on a strike demanding that the government shut down app based aggregators such as Ola and Uber.

The irony of the situation is that such strikes force the public to turn to the aggregators, totally defeating the purpose of the strike. In cities like Mumbai and Pune, an auto or cab strike might affect businesses because both run by the meter. However, the use of non Kaali-Peeli cabs and auots is quite high in the city.  In Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai, these strikes would be problematic, because the autos in the city rarely go by meter. In the long run, an Uber or Ola would cost lesser than an auto anywhere in Delhi.

Demand for Hike in Wages

The other reason for a strike, a more legitimate one, is the demand for a hike in wages.

Recently, employees of BMTC, KSRTC, NW/NE-KRTC in Karnataka went on a 3-day strike demanding a 35% hike in wages. Though the strike lasted only three days, it was declared as indefinite, and would have gone on had the Government of Karnataka not convinced the striking staff to accept a 10.5% hike. This strike made life miserable for people in Bangalore. Autos began fleecing commuters, something that they are experts at. To compound the issue, the Karnataka Government’s draconian 1950-era rules for Cabs and Aggregators just made life miserable. With some universities choosing to remain open, life looked very dystopian.

In Ocober 2015, BEST employees threatened to strike because the higher-ups held back their Diwali bonus. Common sense prevailed and the strike was called off.

This kind of strike is a bit legitimate, since employees do deserve an occasional pay hike.

Now, what can be done?

What can be done about a strike?

A Strike or Bandh can cripple a city, or in this case, a state. It kills productivity, and destroys the economy. Of course, there are some people who claim that Strikes and Bandhs are Good for the Environment.

Here are some methods to help limit strikes and their impacts on the society and its economy.

  1. Decentralisation
    A decentralised transport system limits the impact of a strike. A strike by BEST employees won’t affect transport in Nagpur. However a strike by BMTC will affect Mysore since BMTC is essentially a subsidiary of KSRTC.
  2. Salaries must be on par with inflation and the private sector. Bus drivers and conductors aren’t the ones with the easiest job in the world. Pay them what they’re worth.
  3. Take strict action against those striking. Just because employees belong to a government body, that doesn’t let them strike as and when they feel like.

 

 

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