AC buses stranded in the Barasat field. Picture by Sanat Kumar Sinha
When the city is burning under the scorching sun, 50 air-conditioned buses are cooling their wheels in a slushy field.
The Tata buses, acquired by the state transport department under JNNURM, are stranded in Barasat since April because conditions set by the government have kept potential operators away.
They are asking for an upfront payment of 15 per cent of the cost of the bus and an EMI of Rs 50,000 a month per bus. In Calcutta, this will be a loss-incurring venture for transport operators because people are not willing to pay higher fares, said an operator who runs a fleet of AC buses that are not part of JNNURM.
A low-floor AC Tata bus, which can seat 35 people, costs Rs 55 lakh.
The new buses, whose ownership will be with the government, have to be maintained better than the retro-fitted AC buses the operator, unwilling to be named, now runs. The maintenance cost of the new buses would be higher, he admitted.
Some of the potential operators have suggested to the transport department that a part or whole of the upfront money be turned into a bank guarantee, but the transport department has not accepted the proposal.
The transport department wants to give franchises to operators who can afford at least five buses. That will ensure that the buses are easily available on every route and passengers do not have to wait for long. Moreover, this will also benefit the operators. They can make up for the possible loss on one route from another route, a transport department official said.
But he also admitted that the operators have been shying away from a deal because of the conditions set by the government.
As a result, even four months after they rolled into the city, the buses have not hit the road. They are parked in a field opposite the Lexus Motors workshop in Barasat.
Many operators have come here and checked out the buses but they could not reach an agreement with the transport department, said an official of Lexus, the Tata Motors dealer through which the AC buses were to be distributed.
Under JNNURM — Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission — the Centre provides states with financial assistance to upgrade city transport services.
The Bengal transport department was to take 240 AC buses from the Tatas under the scheme, but it has not taken delivery of more than 50 since not a single franchisee has accepted the offer yet.
But the experience of those running Volvo buses in Calcutta may have also scared other operators. After shelling out Rs 12.5 lakh for every bus as security deposit and paying Rs 75,000 a month per bus as EMI, Kaushik Logistics, one of the largest Volvo operators in the city, is running them on a no-profit basis. We are nowhere near breaking even now, an official said.
Volvo, the international bus manufacturer, had provided 60 AC buses to the West Bengal State Transport Company under JNNURM last September. Forty-eight of them are on the roads now. But with fares starting from Rs 20 and going up to Rs 60 — the average bus ticket starts at Rs 5 — the Volvos havent found enough passengers to make them immediately profitable.
However, Kaushiks Dhananjay Singh thinks the market is big enough for more AC buses.
Some transport operators said they were also being cautions after recent reports of Tata buses catching fire in Delhi. The engine of the Tata bus may not be strong enough to support the air-conditioner, said one of them.
A Lexus official dismissed the possibility. These are baseless allegations. The buses meet the highest safety standards.