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Vol. XXXIII No. 22, March 1-15, 2024

MTC announces fleet expansion, includes a significant portion of e-buses

-- by Varsha V.

The Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) plans to increase its fleet strength by a hundred new buses this year, comprising 500 electric buses, 250 low-floor and 250 standard buses. This will include 100 low-floor AC e-buses which will reportedly accommodate 70 passengers and ply 27 routes including 29C (Thiruvanmiyur – Perambur), 570 (Kelambakkam-Koyambedu) and 40A (Anna Square-Pattabiram), facilitating the connection of transit centres such as Tambaram, Broadway, Tiruporur and Chennai Central. The AC e-buses will have batteries with an 8-hour capacity and charging depots are planned to be set up at the depots. Each vehicle will reportedly cost an estimated Rs.1.2 crores, and will be operated and maintained entirely by a private supplier soon to be selected by way of a tender.

This is good news for the city, of course. Buses in general are the most affordable, accessible mode of public transport and e-buses bring further benefits to the table – they save on fuel, are less likely to break down and also carry lighter operating costs compared to traditional buses. With zero tailpipe emissions, they are an integral part of green mobility plans. Chennai, in fact, has attempted to transition to e-buses in the past, including those with air-conditioning. After an initial trial run in 2017, the city saw a second three-month test attempt in 2019 with e-buses operated by Ashok Leyland on two routes – Chennai Central to Thiruvamiyur and Koyambedu to Broadway. However, these attempts did not bear fruit. Part of the reason why was the lack of expertise in e-mobility – given that the city’s fleet is largely comprised of diesel buses, MTC engineers tend to hail from traditional automobile streams. The operation and maintenance of e-buses, on the other hand, demand a deeper understanding of the chemical and electrical science at work in the battery packs. Other challenges in transitioning to e-buses include the lack of charging infrastructure and the heavy initial capital costs, for e-buses are nearly thrice as costlier than diesel buses. There’s also the problem of drawing up a feasible financial model – the MTC, for instance, has already come under criticism from some quarters for not earning as much revenue as it purportedly can, and the launch of e-buses in the city will understandably take some time to find solid financial footing.

This time around, however, these challenges seem to have been accounted for in the renewed push for e-buses. The full outsourcing of the operation and maintenance of e-buses to the supplier will address the lack of suitably skilled manpower. The Times of India quotes transport minister S. Sivasankar saying as such – “We neither have expertise in electric mobility nor have training facilities. So, it is better to leave it to the suppliers. We have explained it to the unions, and they have agreed to it.” Another responsibility that will be handed over to the supplier is that of establishing the requisite charging infrastructure. As for the financial hurdles, the government will fund the venture through a loan acquired from German bank kFw; it will also claim the full ticketing revenue from these buses while paying the supplier a fixed fee based on the working hours. Chennai seems to be attempting to implement lessons learnt from past trials.

A successful transition to e-buses can be wonderful for the city. At present, the metro is served by 3,500 buses – a fleet strength that is not nearly enough for its dense population. The optimist, however, will see the need to bolster these numbers as an opportunity to gradually introduce more e-buses and further its agenda of eco-friendly, sustainable transportation. After all, cities such as Pune – which operates one of the largest fleets of electric buses in India – have had success with operating e-buses and report commensurate benefits. Here’s hoping that Chennai will catch up soon.

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