For the first time in the history of Mumbai, the Brihanmumbai Electricity Supply and Transport (BEST) Undertaking is facing a huge shortage of buses. Once considered the pride of Mumbai and Asia’s best bus service, and often compared with London, it is now in poor shape.
BEST bus passenger figures
Back in 2004-05, BEST had 3,400 buses in its fleet and carried 45 lakh passengers every day. Priority was given to feeder routes catering to the nearest railway station, and long distance routes were fewer. Things went downhill from 2010, when the first fare hike happened. Subsequent fare hikes in 2012, 2013 and 2015, along with an increase in ownership of personal vehicles (especially two wheelers) and introduction of share autos/taxis covering many parts of the city, resulted in people giving up on using buses.
In 2015, although the fleet strength increased to around 4,500, the daily passenger numbers had fallen to the 30 lakh mark. The 2018 fare hike was a disaster and the passenger numbers went down to as low as 15 lakh per day.
In July 2019, BEST announced a 50 per cent fare cut. While it did manage to get back passengers (the figures picked up to around 20-25 lakh passengers per day), revenue took a hit and the pandemic made things just worse. It’s very sad to see how BEST has lost its passengers over the years, to other modes of transport, and its glory in the process.
BEST buses of my childhood
As a child in the 2000s, I remember seeing only the classic old diesel-powered Viking buses from Ashok Leyland. They were non-air-conditioned and with open doors. All the buses used rolling cloth displays for the route number. A single-decker full-sized bus accommodated 47-49 seating passengers and 20 standees (the actual number of standees definitely exceeded this number in peak hours). Double-decker Vikings, which were a taller version of single-decker Vikings were also quite popular back then. Most of them had a single cabin for the driver which was separate from the passenger area and had a single, wide rear door. Newer models which were last procured in 2008-09, had double cabins. This change in style was because the single-cabin design made it difficult for mechanics to access the engine.
Introduction of CNG and AC buses to the fleet
In 1997, on its 50th anniversary (post take-over by the municipality in 1947), BEST introduced the first ever Compressed Natural Gas (CNG)-powered bus in its fleet. This was the same old Ashok Leyland Viking fitted with CNG. Just a year later, in 1998, BEST introduced air-conditioned (AC) buses. These too were built by Ashok Leyland. They had opening windows and ran on routes catering to the office-crowd. Tickets were a bit on the higher side, and the fare included a newspaper (English or Marathi) and a 300ml bottle of water.
In 2001, BEST got around 40 CNG-powered buses from Ashok Leyland (in 82xx and 87xx series). In 2004-2006, many more CNG buses were received from both Tata and Leyland (in 79xx and 3xxx series), in the same old Viking design.
Around 2005, BEST started the introduction of new buses under the World Bank-funded Mumbai Urban Transport Project (MUTP) Phase-1. Around 644 diesel-powered buses were supplied under this project. Even these buses were manufactured by Ashok Leyland, but they had better suspension, better speed and better acceleration compared to the older buses. They also looked impressive.
The subsequently procured Tata CNG buses of 2007-08, built by various coach builders (5xxx series) were terrible, to say the least. While I’m not sure if the engines had inadequate power or if they were not maintained well, many of these buses struggled to climb flyovers and ghat sections like Ghodbunder Road. As of today, many of these buses have been rebuilt and working in better condition. Some CNG midi buses built by Ashok Leyland, with a seating capacity of 35 passengers and 15 standees were also procured.
In 2007, BEST got the first of its 285 infamous CNG-powered “Purple Faeries” which were advertised as Chinese Kinglong buses but were actually built in Punjab under the brand name Cerita. Around the same time, BEST received a CNG version of Volvo 8400 for trials for a few weeks, after which it was returned without any purchase orders. Later on, BEST signed an agreement with Asian Concierge to procure 50 Diesel-powered Volvo 8400s in exchange for full body advertisements on them for 15 years. However, only six buses were procured, all allocated to the Oshiwara Depot.
Digital displays and Electric buses
By 2009-10, BEST started to receive its quota of around 800 buses under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JnNURM). These buses were manufactured by Ashok Leyland, and one of the exciting things was that they were the first ones to have digital displays in Marathi and English. Not just one, but four displays per bus – front, side, rear and one inside the bus. A few midi buses of the same model were received too. In terms of quality, they were as good as the MUTP buses, but they were powered by CNG.
Post 2010, no new buses were procured until 2016-17, when 186 brand new Tata ACGL diesel buses were bought. The bus had an improved design, more standing space and forced ventilation. The next addition to the fleet was 6 electric buses manufactured by Olectra (formerly BYD Goldstone) which were housed at the Backbay Depot.
AC out and in
In 2017, all AC routes were suspended citing low number of passengers. A few of the Ceritas were converted to non-AC and they continue to be in operation, while the six Volvo 8400 buses lie rotting in Oshiwara Depot.
AC buses came into circulation again in 2018, when Tata gifted the MMRDA, 25 diesel-electric hybrid buses, which in turn were provided to BEST for running AC buses in Bandra Kurla Complex (BKC). The buses ran from Borivali, Andheri, Thane, Mulund and Kharghar till BKC in the morning peak hours, served the Bandra Station-BKC and Kurla station-BKC routes whole day before returning to suburbs in the evening peak hours.
In 2019, BEST decided to wet-lease 1,250 buses, after assuring the existing drivers and conductors that its own fleet of 3,337 buses would continue to be operational. A memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed by BEST with the BEST Workers’ Union to this effect in June. For every scrapped bus, BEST was required to buy a new bus. Drivers for the wet-leased buses would be provided by the leasing company, while conductors would be provided by BEST (buses would operate conductorless and ticket sales would happen at the bus stop).
Finally in September 2019, the first ten wet-leased midi buses (6 AC and 4 non-AC) were inducted into service. These electric buses were obtained under Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Electric vehicles (FAME-I) scheme. In October 2019, for the first time in the history of Mumbai, BEST introduced Tempo Travellers as Force mini AC buses in the fleet. In January 2020, BEST got its first set of 500 Tata Marcopolo midi CNG AC buses. The latest addition to the wet-leased bus fleet was Tata midi electric AC buses (26 numbers) in December 2020. A total of 340 such buses are to be procured under FAME-I scheme.
Current shortage of buses
As the Ashok Leyland Viking buses (both the diesel and CNG converted ones) were becoming old, and had completed their 15 years of service (which is the validity of Registration Certificate of any vehicle in India), BEST had started the process of scrapping these buses.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic hit India in March 2020, BEST had a total of 3,253 owned buses. Despite the lockdown and trains being shut for common people, BEST kept on scrapping buses as they completed 15 years despite being in good condition. According to a notification by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH), all vehicle documents including the registration certificate were extended till September 2020, and further extensions were given till December 2020, March 2021 and now up to September 2021. Why BEST continued to scrap buses after the MoRTH notification and increased demand due to local train closure remains a mystery. Why didn’t BEST legally extend the validity of the registration certificate by paying ₹1,500 per bus (the rates have increased lately in March 2021, but this was about last year) instead of leasing Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation (MSRTC) buses from all over Maharashtra at ₹75 per km?
A fellow bus enthusiast mentioned that BEST had difficulty in procuring spare parts for the older buses due to the pandemic. BEST has managed to scrap a total of 1,200+ buses during the current pandemic which is really saddening. In August 2020, BEST had a total of 120 Double Decker buses, which were helpful in operating on long distance routes due to their carrying capacity in absence of local trains. This number has now reduced to 45.
The current BEST-owned fleet stands at 2,010 buses. This includes around 800 Ashok Leyland JNNURM buses, around 600 Tata CNG buses, some Ashok Leyland CNG midi buses, 25 Tata AC Hybrid buses, around 180 Tata Diesel buses, 6 Olectra non-AC Electric buses and 45 Double Deckers. The last surviving 6 MUTP buses which had their farewell ride few days back is now going to be scrapped.
The total fleet of BEST including wet-leased buses currently stands at 3,323 buses. The first violation of the MoU is the fact that BEST is not maintaining its owned fleet at 3,337 buses. Even before the pandemic started and when buses were already being scrapped, BEST did not chalk out any plan to buy new buses. Now one may ask, what difference does it make if the buses are wet- leased or owned as long as BEST runs the required no of buses? Agreed, although the MoU is of concern to existing working staff of BEST, it does not make a big difference to the passengers if BEST manages to maintain the required number of buses. The issue is that the entire wet-leased bus fleet of 1,313 buses are all mini AC buses or midi AC buses, which are now operating on routes previously operated by full-sized buses. This basically means a huge reduction in carrying capacity (almost 40-50 per cent per bus) unless they increase the frequency of buses on all routes.
The current fleet is so inadequate that it would not be able to handle the passenger load in normal times. The pandemic has made it even worse. Due to the recent lockdown imposed by the Government of Maharashtra from April 2021, common people were disallowed to use trains while buses were restricted to one passenger per seat and no standees. Waiting time has increased on many routes. Intermediate passengers don’t even get a chance to board the bus since the allowed number of passengers (24 per full-sized bus, 15 per midi bus and 10 per mini bus) are already filled up at the origin bus stop. MSRTC that has leased 1,000 buses started to reduce the fleet since February 2021, when local trains were partially opened to common people. By May 2021, only 500 MSRTC buses were operating and as of today, MSRTC has completely withdrawn its fleet from BEST.
While BEST did manage to do its BEST, by running the maximum possible number of buses on important routes during the pandemic, the shortfall of buses was clearly evident. Seeing the woes of the people, BEST should start inducting full-sized buses in its fleet as soon as possible, be it owned or wet-leased. Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM), which is sitting on a fixed deposit of ₹60,000 crore can easily help buy BEST the additional 1,000-2,000 buses it needs. After all, when MCGM is building a coastal road costing ₹12,000 crores to primarily serve car owners, it can help the common man’s transport too.
Apart from the 1,300+ mini/midi buses, at least 4,000 full-sized buses are required to be able to provide an acceptable level of bus service for the huge city of Mumbai and its suburbs. In the coming months, around 540 full-sized buses (400 CNG and 140 electric) are supposed to arrive which will be a big relief for Mumbaikars. I also hope the proposal to buy 100 new double-decker buses goes ahead soon.
As Covid-19 cases are reducing in Mumbai, I hope the Maharashtra government considers opening up of local trains to reduce the load on already strained buses to some extent, till the time BEST manages to enhance the fleet. As a bus enthusiast and a common citizen of Mumbai, I seriously feel bad for the condition that BEST is currently in and wish to see it regain its lost glory and become BEST again.
Written with inputs from friends and fellow bus enthusiasts, Srikanth Ramakrishnan Rupak Dhakate, Harshad Joshi, Akshay Marathe, Vishal Naik and Himanshu Mukerjee.
This article first appeared on Bestpedia.in and is republished with permission after edits.