3233 buses. 633 distinct routes. Serving a ridership of 28 lakh commuters per day through the dedicated efforts of a workforce of 19,762 employees stationed at 31 depots across the city. That is a snapshot of Chennai’s bus network run by the Metropolitan Transport Corporation, or MTC.
With able support and financial assistance, it could well prove to be the most efficient means of public transport in the city, but ask any commuter, do they really see it as the most comfortable, hassle-free mode of travel? The answers in the negative will perhaps outweigh the positive ones.
Amulya, a frequent user of buses in Chennai, says, “It often feels like a game of luck. I find myself waiting for hours on end, hoping to catch a bus, but there are days when I don’t succeed.” She also points to the fact that certain city routes are grossly underserved by buses, and recounts her personal experience of waiting for over an hour for a bus from Besant Nagar terminus to Egmore. To no avail.
Ursula, another commuter from Adyar, says, “Everyone blames metro work, but waiting for hours is something I find hard to comprehend.”
Staffing shortage, combined with lack of adequate funds and government support, has made the MTC service far from optimal, and the ones bearing the brunt of it are not only the commuters, but also drivers, conductors, technical staff, and other depot employees.
In fact, they are among the worst sufferers of all that’s wrong with Chennai’s bus system. Faced with unfair, disagreeable work conditions, the workers are now making their grievances and complaints heard through a number of petitions and protests.
Challenge in running buses on time in Chennai
The daily challenges faced by bus transport employees are glaring in the operational struggles of Chennai’s bus system. Despite adhering to fixed timetables, buses routinely contend with substantial delays. The delays are primarily attributed to the city’s congested streets, making it exceedingly difficult to maintain the designated one-hour timeframe for each route.
Selvaraj, a driver stationed at the T Nagar depot, says, “Our job demands that we reach our destinations within an allocated one-hour timeframe, but accomplishing this has become increasingly impractical due to various barriers. After all, to operate a bus, one needs a clear and unobstructed road, doesn’t one? Many of our routes are blocked by perpetual construction debris and ongoing roadworks.”
To illustrate the severity of these challenges, Selvaraj extends an invitation for anyone to accompany him on his Poonamalle route for a day, providing them with first-hand experience in navigating Chennai’s streets.
Kumaran, the time chart keeper at the Adyar bus terminus, corroborates these claims of time delays, stating, “As a record keeper, I can personally attest that it’s a daily occurrence for buses to encounter run-time delays. My understanding of this issue stems from my experience as a bus conductor. Even though I’ve since transitioned to my current role due to heart surgery, I remain aware of the intricate challenges of maintaining the buses’ schedules.”
The staff at Besant Nagar echo similar concerns, particularly regarding the outdated transport chart, which has remained largely unchanged for the past 10 to 15 years. A bus conductor says, “Perhaps the crowd was more manageable back then, but today, not only has the crowd swelled in size, but there is also a conspicuous lack of awareness regarding traffic safety.”
The repercussions of these challenges have been the cancellation of shorter routes, known as singles, in order to manage run-time delays and service longer routes.
K Arumuganainar, General Secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Union (CITU), highlights that such delays and cancellations affect a significant portion of Chennai’s working-class population as they rely on public bus transport.
Crew shortage in Chennai buses
It is not just the congested city streets that cause these delays.
“Staff shortages and insufficient allocation of buses to routes play a key role,” says Arumuganainar.
With a fleet of around 3,200 vehicles, there is a commensurate number of routes that demand servicing, placing substantial demands on the available crew. As a practical example, on routes such as the one from T Nagar to Parrys, the shortage of crew forces the operation of only 8 or 7 vehicles, despite a demand that warrants 10. Consequently, passengers find themselves crammed into fewer buses, significantly increasing the workload for conductors, as each vehicle now accommodates 100 to 110 passengers.
This challenging scenario also has another effect, as employees struggle to apply for leave. Even in cases of medical emergencies, management often rejects their requests due to the severe staff shortage, resulting in extended working hours for drivers.
While their shifts should typically span from 6 am to 2 pm, MTC drivers often end up working until 3 pm or 4 pm, all without receiving extra wages for the additional time spent on the road.
Other issues faced by MTC workers
The challenges faced by drivers and conductors extend beyond these overarching concerns. Delays in uniform deliveries have been a frequent complaint, while the absence of canteen facilities and adequate rest breaks has made their already lengthy working hours exhausting and potentially hazardous.
An MTC employee who wished to remain anonymous says, “In the rush to maintain our schedules and cover the routes, I often forget to eat.”
Regarding the workplace environment, an MTC worker who is attached to the Thiruvanmiyur depot notes, “It’s a mixed bag – sometimes it appears to be improving, but then an unfortunate incident occurs, and we don’t know what to comment.”
Ageing buses is also another challenge encountered by the MTC workers. The buses present issues with brake systems and steering mechanisms, thereby creating operational difficulties for drivers. According to Arumuganainar, buses are typically expected to run for 7 lakh kilometres, equivalent to 6 years. “It is a long time”, he adds.
High operational cost affects bus service in Chennai
The poor state of the finances of the MTC is one of the reasons the city’s bus system has been suffering.
In Chennai, a typical bus covers an extensive distance of around 300 kilometres each day, serving approximately 1,500 passengers. However, despite this significant service, the total daily revenue generated from passengers and government reimbursements amounts to a mere Rs 10,000. Remarkably, this amount is expected to cover all maintenance and operational expenses.
Arumuganainar says, “The cost of diesel alone for a 300-kilometre journey stands at approximately Rs 7,000. When factoring in other expenses and spare parts, an additional Rs 1,200 is incurred.”
Moreover, the daily operation of a single bus requires the dedicated efforts of seven employees, including the driver, conductor, technical staff, and administrative personnel. Their wages are about Rs 10,000. In reality, therefore, operating a single bus entails an average expenditure of Rs 20,000 per day.
This vast disparity between expenses and revenue results in a substantial financial shortfall. The transport body’s operational losses constrain its ability to upgrade and expand its fleet and also provide better working conditions for its staff.
Demands of MTC workers
Keeping this bus transport network going has evidently taken a toll on the workers.
In a significant development, bus workers issued a strike notice, directed towards the Special Joint Commissioner in Teynampet in April 2023. The primary demands set forth by the workers encompass critical areas such as the appointment of additional drivers and conductors, the full-scale operation of all bus routes, and the establishment of a well-defined timeframe for the implementation of these essential actions.
Conciliation efforts have been underway for nearly four months but with no concrete commitments from the transport body.
Arumuganainair strongly emphasised the workers’ collective objection to the recent attempts at involving private entities in public transport. He says, “Private operators may prioritise financial gains over the quality of service provided to passengers. Consequently, there might be a focus on cost-cutting measures that could compromise the safety, maintenance, or reliability of transportation services.”
Having borne the brunt of the slow but steady deterioration of the bus system over the years, the MTC workers’ unions now demand an acknowledgement of systemic issues that have been building up and call for their swift resolution – a move that will no doubt also benefit the public transport users in the city.