A lot has been happening with the Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) of Chennai over the past year. The transport body has embraced technology for live tracking. The process of fleet expansion is also underway, along with the procurement of more e-buses. The ‘free travel for women’ scheme has been well-received and earned plaudits, in addition to increasing ridership among women.
We present a round-up here of all such recent developments related to the city’s most important mode of public commute, its bus service.
Dedicated app and GPS tracking
The much-awaited mobile application to track the movement of MTC buses in real-time was launched in May this year. The app is named ‘Chennai Bus’ and is available at present only for Android users. It has two language options, Tamil and English. Passengers can find the live location of all 3,233 MTC buses, which run through 602 routes and halt at 6,026 stoppages, their estimated arrival time and the nearest bus stops from any given location in the city.
In case of an emergency, commuters can use the app to also send distress signals to their contacts or police officials. The SOS button will send a message to the contact number added by the passengers. To prevent fake complaints from being raised, the escalation mechanism includes the respective drivers/conductors verifying the complaint on the spot as the first step.
The app’s home screen lists the names of all the bus stops within a 1 km radius. Using the ‘Trip Planner’ feature, users can find out the route numbers of buses they could take to reach their destination. Commuters can also save their favourite routes and places using the ‘Favourites’ option.
The ‘Contact Us’ option has complaint numbers (Whatsapp/Telegram) and contacts of 31 bus depot branch managers. The app also accepts feedback from people.
Since its launch, the app has come to the rescue of many passengers who had difficulties accessing the bus schedule. Once the app becomes popular among the public and works effectively, the MTC officials are hoping that passengers, who had moved to share-autos for regular commute, will return to taking buses.
R Raja, a regular commuter of MTC said, “The app helps reduce the uncertainty of waiting for buses through the live tracking feature. Before the launch of the app, passengers had to rely on the bus schedule pasted on the bus stops. Most of the time, these schedules would not be updated, leaving us stranded.” Raja, who uses the bus app now, finds it easy to track his buses regularly. “I can now go to the bus stop by the time the bus arrives, rather than go there and wait for an indefinitely long time,” he added.
The MTC has also planned to install GPS speakers in 500 city buses. These speakers will announce the names of upcoming stops and the route followed by the bus in both Tamil and English. The announcement will be made 200-300 metres ahead of the bus stop. Each of the buses will be fitted with six speakers (two each at the front, rear and middle), one GPS receiver, an antenna, and an audio amplifier.
Following the pilot project in which the announcements were made in 50 MTC buses for six months along some prominent routes like Chennai Mofussil Bus Terminus Koyambedu-Kelambakkam, Thiruvottiyur-Poonamallee and Anna Square-Poonamalle, the MTC has decided to expand the project to 500 buses.
Welcoming the initiative, H Kavitha, who is new to the city said, “Every time I boarded the bus in Chennai, I would be very anxious as I am not very familiar with the localities here. I would always be scared of missing my stop. Though I would request the conductor or a co-passenger to alert me before my stop, they forgot sometimes, and one couldn’t be sure. These announcements come as a huge relief now.”
MTC’s schemes for women
Schemes have been rolled out to ease the daily commute for women after the DMK government came to power last year. The state transport department rolled out a scheme that allows women to travel with ‘free tickets’ in ordinary city/town buses in July 2021. This has increased the footfall of women commuters on MTC buses from 40% earlier to 61% over the past year.
Transport Minister SS Sivasankar recently said, “In the past one year, more than 132 crore women have benefitted from this scheme and the state government sanctioned around ₹1,600 crore as subsidies to various state transport undertakings including the MTC to implement this scheme effectively.”
Notably, State Finance Minister Thiaga Rajan has allotted ₹1,520 crore for free bus travel for women, ₹928 crore as subsidy for student concession in bus fares and ₹1,300 crore as diesel subsidy.
A study by the State Planning Commission also revealed that every woman travelling to work using state buses under the scheme is able to save roughly ₹1,000 a month.
The transport service largely runs three kinds of buses — ordinary, express and deluxe. The free travel scheme for women is applicable only on ordinary buses. Following complaints from women passengers, who said that it was hard to identify the ordinary buses, the MTC has planned to paint ordinary buses pink.
Similarly in an attempt to ensure the safety of women and children, an Artificial Intelligence (AI)-enabled panic button-cum-CCTV surveillance project has been launched in 500 Chennai buses.
This is a part of the initiative of the state transport department under the Nirbhaya safe city project. This facility would be provided in around 2,500 buses. In the first phase, about 500 buses in the metro city have been given four panic buttons, AI-enabled Mobile Network Video Recorder (MNVR) and three cameras each, respectively.
Whenever women passengers face any inconvenience, discomfort or threat from fellow passengers while travelling, they can simply press the panic button to record the entire incident. Once the panic button is pressed, the MTC headquarters in Pallavan Salai will get an alarm bell or an alert along with a video recording of the incident on the bus.
The project is not only a part of an initiative to ensure the safety of women and children, but this would also help in detecting and identifying missing people. It could also assist in identifying criminals and can be used for other work of the civic body, the transport department and the police.
Status of current MTC services
MTC runs 3,233 buses through 602 routes and halts at 6,026 stops. As of a report from MTC released on June 30, 2022, an average of 27.58 lakh people use MTC buses daily.
MTC has cut down the frequency of buses along 26 different routes, which connect Chennai with its western suburbs, allegedly due to increasing fuel prices. As a result, the waiting time has increased by 15 to 20 minutes per trip.
However, the MTC officials have said that route rationalisation is a dynamic process and buses were being operated as per demand. Every time field officers notice a spike in demand or excess crowd, buses will be diverted to that route.
An increase in demand has seen the MTC double the number of night bus services compared to pre-COVID years. MTC was operating only 53 night buses before the onset of the pandemic. But now a total of 115 buses are being operated between 10 pm and 5 am due to demand. Among them, 77 are operated within city limits connecting key transit hubs like Chennai Mofussil Bus Terminus in Koyambedu, Tambaram, Ambattur, Broadway, Chennai and Egmore railway stations. This includes the operation of buses on prominent routes like 570 (Kelambakkam-Koyambedu), 70V (Perungalathur-Koyambedu) and 77 (Koyambedu-Avadi). The remaining buses are operated to villages in and around Red Hills, Vandalur, Thiruvottiyur.
In a bid to improve last-mile connectivity, Chennai Metro Rail Limited has joined hands with the MTC to operate 10 more small buses. The MTC has been operating 12 small buses on six routes. These 10 buses will be operated from Government Estate, Guindy, Little Mount, Shenoy Nagar and Airport stations. The MTC has also planned to operate 40 more such small buses to improve the last mile connectivity.
Francis John, a commuter who uses both Metro and MTC buses on a regular basis, said that the number of small buses should rather be increased. “As there are very few small buses in use now, the share auto drivers hike the commute charges once in a while. Operating more small buses would not only improve last mile connectivity, but also rein in arbitrary hikes in the cost of other modes of commute,” he said.
This apart, the government has decided to purchase new buses for transport corporations across the State with financial assistance from a German bank. The procurement would be undertaken in five tranches. MTC would be allocated 642 buses out of those procured as part of the first tranche. Further, the MTC has also called for an Expression of Interest from manufacturers for the procurement of 100 E-buses.
Accessibility of MTC buses
The Madras High Court has ordered that all buses to be procured by the State government for public transport must conform to the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act of 2016, the statutory rules framed under it in 2017 and the Harmonised Guidelines and Space Standards for Barrier Free Environment for Persons with Disabilities of 2016 issued by the Centre.
In a counter affidavit filed before the court, Transport Secretary K Gopal said all government buses could not be made low-floor buses due to poor road conditions and the possibility of rainwater getting into the buses. He said that 37% of the new buses to be allotted to the MTC in Chennai would be low-floor buses.
Also highlighting the huge cost difference between regular buses and low-floor buses, the Transport Secretary told the court that an ordinary diesel bus costs around ₹22 lakh whereas a low-floor diesel bus costs around ₹90 lakh. He pointed out that the cost of a low-floor electric bus was approximately ₹1.5 crore.
Of the 642 buses that are to be allocated to MTC in the new procurement, 242 (37%) would be low-floor buses. Similarly, 100 of the 500 e-buses would be low-floor. A technical committee has also identified the routes where the number of physically challenged people travelling in buses is the highest. During the technical committee meeting, the MTC placed a request to modify 956 bus stops in Chennai city to make them accessible to differently-abled passengers and the committee also discussed the feasibility of conceptual bus stop options.
Impact of COVID and MTC’s recruitment plans
Around 27.5 lakh passengers use the MTC buses daily as per the data from MTC. The number has dropped drastically since the onset of COVID-19. Prior to the pandemic, around 35 lakh passengers used the MTC buses daily.
Due to soaring diesel prices and other reasons, the State transport corporations have been collectively incurring a loss of more than Rs 500 crore per month over the past few months. While the fleet strength of eight government-run transport corporations in the State has not been reduced, officials said a study is on to rationalise routes to improve earnings.
The Transport Minister said the government will do everything possible to bring back commuters to buses but it may take some time to reach pre-pandemic levels.
“The per-day patronage is yet to reach one crore across the State. The sales of two-wheelers increased many times during the COVID lockdown. Registrations of second-hand cars also went up. We will do everything possible to bring back the commuters,” he told.
Meanwhile, the government is also planning to improve recruitment.
“We have just started distributing appointment orders to kin of deceased employees on compassionate grounds. The proposal for new recruitment has been sent to the Finance Department for approval. The number of vacancies is yet to be finalised and we will ensure that appointments are carried out transparently,” the minister said.
Meanwhile, on July 1, the MTC workers went on a flash strike over payment delay and alleged salary cut, leaving unsuspecting commuters stranded. Following talks with the government, the strike was withdrawn.
The department has also decided to double the incentive amount given to conductors, who have to lose out on account of the free travel scheme offered to women as conductors get incentives based on ticket sales.
Increasing ridership in MTC buses has become the primary focus that is in turn expected to improve the financial health of the transport body.