Though they have steadily declined in numbers over the decades, the red – if they aren't covered with advertisements – double-decker buses are considered iconic in Mumbai. The romance of trundling down the roads in them seems to have smitten at least two cities in the Mumbai metropolitan region (MMR) to such an extent that they want to introduce them.
For several reasons, this is surprising.
Thane city, the largest in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region after Mumbai in terms of population, wants to have ten double-decker buses for intra-city commutes. Further south, the twin-cities of Kalyan-Dombivli, another Municipal Corporation has done test runs, with the intent of inter-linking itself with Navi Mumbai, to provide an alternative to the circuitous train commute via Thane.
Introduced in 1937, these double-deckers numbered 242 in 1947 and in its diamond jubilee year, dwindled to 122. The operators of the buses, BEST, do not intend to have more of them on the streets but is firm that they will not vanish from them any time soon. They will continue to be operated, but not as a necessity.
The logic behind the two cities’ intent of operating the buses seems to be that being double-deckers they would carry twice the number of passengers as a single-decker bus, allowing their transport operations to offer some respite to their citizens.
But is it not really as simple that. A two-storey mass transport bus does not carry exactly twice the number of 72 passengers that an ordinary bus can carry, but only around 90 people. The 72 passengers in a regular BEST bus, which includes the passengers who are standing, cannot all be allowed on the upper deck of a double decker because of the centre of gravity of the bigger bus that ensures its stability.
As we know, and especially in cities like Thane where buses are operate far less frequently, buses squeeze in lot many more than the prescribed limit of 72. They resemble the crowed local train coaches that led the railways to coin the term ‘peak super crush dense capacity’, to describe something worse than the situation in cattle cars.
The ‘double the passengers’ is a fake argument for double decker buses. We do not yet know who has been persuading – or selling – the idea not just to the Thane Municipal Corporation’s transport wing but Kalyan-Dombivli’s civic body as well. As Livemint recently pointed out, the incremental capacity is ‘negligible’ and there are the other considerations like the running costs.
The cost of running regular buses is around Rs 45 per kilometre, while a double-deckers’ is around Rs 70 per kilometre, as per the latest data from the BEST. These buses “don’t exactly embody efficiency, what with the five-digit cubic capacities, power outputs that would suffice in a family car and around 2.49kpl.” It only means one driver less per bus.
That said, the policy-makers are selling the romance of a double-decker, with one newspaper, DNA, saying that Thane residents would now have chance to ride these beauties which almost everyone says are iconic of cities like Hyderabad, Mumbai, Bangalore, and Thiruvananthapuram. But even in those cities, they are only a portion of the total fleet strengths.
In Thane, it is said, they would “take the pressure off the present fleet”. The reality is that due to botched policies, purchase specifications, decisions and operations only about a half of the fleet is operational, and it is in poor state. If cars and autorickshaws rule the roads, it is due to the scandalous negligence of the Thane Municipal Transport (TMT). It is now tinkering at the edges, but it may not be enough. It does not even have a time table while operating running about half of its fleets on any day.
Operating double-deckers to meet the crying intra-city needs in a city like Thane would be a nightmare. The roads are always in utterly bad shape, rife with potholes, congested, and there are few straight roads, especially as one moves towards Thane Station, the main point as it were. Many roads with their sharp turns merit that the buses deployed are the smaller midi-buses, but it isn't done.
The Eastern Express Highway and the Ghodbunder Road are the only, but unlikely, routes the buses could be used in Thane, given the multiplying demand for transport is being met by illegally operated buses as well as by the dedicated housing society-to-station and back bus services. Even on these routes the tall buses would hardly pass under the flyover at the Golden Dyes Junction, making the bus a strict no-no for the city.
Even if narrow, most roads in these two cities have a healthy tree cover, and that’s an impediment. The damage double-deckers mostly suffer is due to colliding with the branches. With this in mind, I checked with two traffic experts, who expressed reservations about the plan.
One said, it was “not a bad idea if run on congestion-free wide roads” and Mumbai’s experience with the double deckers is studied first.
The other was less optimistic, even, in his words, “circumspect” because as he said, “These buses have only one door for entry and exit, which is a handicap. They are running well in London, but whether in Mumbai or Thane, it has a question mark. What with the kind of roads, safety issues etc.”
He said the buses were “a remarkable piece of history, but as an antique or relic, it is fine”. That pretty much says it all.
However, policy makers, being what they are when bent on their doing something, may well introduce double decker, though the chassis of midi-versions of the single-deckers, bought with support from Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, continue gathering dust in a stockyard in neighbouring Bhiwandi. The bus maker has waited for long for the go ahead from the mayor, and reportedly abandoned finally gave up waiting for it.