Urbanizing the ride

Published: Friday 31 October 2008

Urbanizing the ride

Bus makers and transport companies in an unformed market

The city bus wants to change, it wants to keep step with the times. The question is: can the business reinvent itself and make city buses that are convenient and affordable? Till now, buses in India have been trucks, literally. Taking the chassis designed for heavy-duty trucks, bus builders--largely in the small and unorganized sector--assemble a body on top. The city bus is inimical to comfort; it certainly has no glamour.

The Swedish automaker Volvo broke the mould. It set up a plant near Bangalore and sold comfortable buses with air suspension. It hit upon a hungry market--for inter-state long hauls. Cities were slow to show interest. The first: in November 2005 Bangalore bought some 20 buses, and then asked for more. The city's total order of 370 buses is expected to be completed by March 2009. (Reportedly, the company has firm orders to meet for some years to come; it can deliver only 22 buses each month.)

Each day, Bangalore adds more than 1,000 cars and two-wheelers to its already crowded roads; it is fast losing the battle of the car-bulge. Its profitable city bus service is grappling the need for more buses. Each Volvo bus costs a prohibitive Rs 70-75 lakh for diesel and airconditioned variants. So, glamour and comfort, are losing to economics. Last heard, the city was looking at other bus companies.

Delhi placed the next big order of 525 sleek, low-floor buses from Tata Motors. This single order is changing the image of the bus in India--in fact, the entire bus market (see diagram). But city tranport companies can't find a standard, off-the-shelf bus. There are several variants and, consequently, several prices depending on the specifications. This leads to a peculiar problem.

Taking cities for a ride
While each low-floor cng bus running in Delhi costs at least Rs 41 lakh, a diesel variant with semi-low floor is available for Rs 15-19 lakh, which is about the cost of a cng bus like the ones doing the rounds in Delhi for the past few years.

Ahmedabad tackled this market when it wanted buses--as sleek and comfortable as they come--to run on its upcoming bus rapid transit corridor. After it floated a tender, the first bid left the city administrators shocked: Rs 62 lakh per bus. A careful comparison showed it had the same features or less than what Delhi bought for Rs 41 lakh a piece in 2007.

The city then re-tendered, featuring options for different types of bus and fuel. The cost dropped to Rs 26 lakh for a semi-low floor diesel bus with automatic transmission and a monochoque body, though not a full air suspension. The city engineered a solution to make the modern affordable. It found it cheaper to raise the height of the platform of the bus stations, so that people would not have to climb steps to get on the bus.

This indicates the creativity cities need, all because the bus market is warped. Each city shopping for buses finds a fresh set of rates and specifications.

Cities are still discovering what they want in their bus, and this is driving the market apart. Bus companies said this varying demand prevents them from reducing the price. They blame city managers for window shopping and ordering their own version of city buses. Economies of scale do not come into play to lower the price, they argue; they have to place orders for ancillary parts at high rates for varying bus types that different cities demand.

K K Gandhi, technical director Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers, acknowledged this: "Different operators place orders citing different specifications, which increases the cost of the bus. "

No standards for a standard bus
India has no basic standards for bus bodies. Till recently, a bus operator would buy a truck chassis from a manufacturer, and get it converted into bus at a body-making facility. The same suspension, brakes and mechanical components would go into a passenger bus as into a truck.

There are mandatory certification tests, but only for chassis, not the bus body. "For all practical purposes, only half the bus was tested," said an official of the Automotive Research Association of India (arai).

This was because third-party builders, largely in the small and informal sector, made the bus bodies, explained Anand Prakash, director of road transport at the Union Ministry of Shipping, Road Transport and Highways. No standards of design or material governed the body building code. Only in September 2001 did the surface transport ministry set up a committee to develop a code of practice for bus body design and approval. "This resulted in the code called the bus body code... for standardizing and testing of bus bodies," said Prakash.

Then, in March 2007, the ministry issued a notification, which provided for bus body builders' accreditation and certification. It announced a national accredition board and four zonal boards, which are to be set up by next year, the ministry said. The accredition process would include surveys of bodymakers' facilities, safety requirements for workers, and the inspection of the bus body.

In September 2007, the Union Ministry of Urban Development queered the pitch and issued its own set of guidelines for buses running in urban areas. S K Lohia, director of urban transport at this ministry, said the draft specifications took into account minimum safety and comfort requirements for passengers. They mandate the urban bus floor's height should be no higher than 650 mm, which would mean one step above the 400 mm height of low-floor, no-step buses.

Bus makers said these codes are not enough.

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