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Vol. XXIX No. 11, September 16-30, 2019

Eco-friendly initiatives on a trial mode for public transport

by A Special Correspondent

The Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC), in collaboration with the Hinduja Group’s automobile company Ashok Leyland, launched Tamil Nadu’s first electric bus in Chennai last month. The bus is operating on route A1, which runs from Thiruvanmiyur to Central Railway Station via Mylapore and back. It makes four trips each day, twice in the morning and twice in the evening, with initial fares set at Rs.15. The bus can seat 31 passengers and has standing room for 25 more.

Electric Bus
The new electric bus launched by the The Metropolitan Transport Corporation. (Picture courtesy: P.R.O office of the MTC.)

Chennai’s new electric bus runs on battery-swapping technology which allows the vehicle to simply replace its used battery with a fully charged one. A charging station has been set up at Central Depot on Pallavan Salai. The bus also has a whole host of features that look after the passenger’s comfort and safety – apart from air conditioning, the bus is fitted with i-Alert technology which encompasses vehicle tracking, performance monitoring, GPS, a fire detection & suppression system and more.

Interestingly, this isn’t the first attempt to bring electric buses to Chennai; reportedly, the MTC had tried to procure an electric vehicle from Telangana a few years back and was unable to do so for various reasons. The latest attempt comes on the back of a memorandum of understanding that was signed with London-based ‘C‑40 Cities Climate Leadership Group’ in March 2018, pledging to phase in zero-emission public transport vehicles in the city. MTC decided to go in for a Chennai-based manufacturer this time.

But they haven’t purchased the electric bus just yet. Ashok Leyland is offering the bus on a trial basis for 3 months, free of cost, while looking after maintenance as well as the charging platform facilities at the depot. The company has also provided a trained driver for the trial. In turn, MTC has allotted a bus conductor for the vehicle and picks up the electricity tab of the TNEB.

The 3-month trial will test how an electric bus performs as a mode of public transport in Chennai, with a view to gathering data for scaling operations down the line. Among other things, the trial will measure how the battery is discharged, its efficiency in ideal as well as congested road conditions, how long it takes to recharge etc. So far, the bus is able to cover 40 km on a single charge, lasting roughly 2.5 hours. Ashok Leyland and MTC will also be simultaneously testing a different kind of electric bus, a ‘fast-charging’ model. This model can be recharged much the same way that one would top up fuel in an ordinary vehicle. The trial will compare the suitability of both models as each has its own pros and cons. For instance, the ‘fast-charging’ model is expected to run 200 km on a single charge, but the ‘battery-swap’ model is probably easier to handle when the charge runs out as a backup battery can be carried along. Most countries deploy a mix of both models based on city needs.

The initial capital cost of each electric bus is significant, with the current battery-swapping model carrying a price tag of Rs. 1.5 crore. ‘Fast-charging’ electric buses are even costlier. But the solution could be cost-effective in the long-run – apart from a lighter environmental footprint, the cost of recharging the buses is relatively cheaper than buying fuel.

It is heartening to know that eco-friendly public transport solutions are making their way into Chennai – in fact, if TANGEDCO can tap into renewable energy such as solar or wind power to charge the vehicles, it would be fantastic. However, it has to be acknowledged that the solution needs to be practical and scalable, given that the state is looking to expand its fleet of electric buses – the Centre has already allotted 525 buses to TN and another 300 are expected to get further approval.

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