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2023’s most awaited comeback is here — Mumbai double-deckers, this time in an EV avatar

BEST saw losses of Rs 2,000 crores last year. With higher capacities and no Diesel-guzzling, it’s now banking on the buses to stem the loss.

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Mumbai: The groaning, rumbling red double-decker buses, which were once as iconic to Mumbai as the kaali-peeli taxis, are back. But this time, they’re sleeker, quieter and more energy efficient.

The Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport Undertaking (BEST), which runs the city’s public bus service, has got its first fully air-conditioned electric double-decker prototype; five more are expected by February-end.

For long-time residents of Mumbai, the double-decker is a trip down memory lane. Sulbha Rudra remembers rides to the zoo and the Gateway of India with her children in the 1980s. They were as excited about grabbing the front seat on the upper deck as seeing the animals in the zoo. “The bus used to be fairly empty when we boarded it from Mahim. As soon as the bus arrived, our children used to run up the staircase to sit on the top deck,” she said.

The front seats offered a top-angle view of Mumbai’s roads, a peek into the windows of flats to catch a glimpse of the lives of others, and a semblance of privacy for young couples.

“Even we used to become children sitting in that bus. We were very sad when these buses were discontinued,” said Rudra. She’s now excited about seeing them back on Mumbai’s roads.

On 13 February, BEST unveiled its first brand-new double-decker EV bus, which resembles its London counterpart. It will be operational sometime next week.

Initially, the routes will be limited to some parts of the city. The first bus will run from Kurla to Bandra Kurla Complex and to Bandra station. Other routes include those through South Mumbai and Powai to the Airport.

By the end of March, 20 double-deckers will be operational in Mumbai. And if all goes as planned, BEST will increase its fleet by 25-30 every month till the end of the year.

Ticket prices will be the same as all other BEST buses, which is a minimum fare of Rs 6 for 5 km.

Mumbaikars often argued about which double-decker route offered the most picturesque ride. Bharat Gothoskar, city chronicler and founder of Khaki Tours, enjoyed the scenic route of bus no. 123 from Colaba to Tardeo via Marine Drive.

“Sadly, when the double-decker fleet was phased out, Mumbai lost a bit of its innocence. With AC double-decker buses, we may still be able to pass on the sense of wonder to the next generation,” he said.

Lokesh Chandra, general manager of BEST, acknowledges the nostalgia, but it is practicality with an eye on ridership that drove the corporation to bring back the double-decker buses.

“The bus is iconic for Mumbai. (Now) we can take double the number of passengers on the same route. This will decongest roads,” said Chandra.

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Electric future

The new versions of the double-decker are made from lightweight aluminium and promise to be more user-friendly than the discontinued diesel models. They have two doors like the earlier iteration but an additional staircase.

The buses have been designed in such a way that they can’t be accused of being road hogs. They’re only 10.5 metres in length, less than the 12-metre-long single-decker.

According to Chandra, they will also be more profitable because they won’t be guzzling diesel. The projected earning of one double-decker bus is Rs 75 per km while its expense is Rs 56 per km thus turning over a profit of Rs 19 per km, he said.

Anand Parthe, a driver with BEST since 2008, can’t wait to get behind the wheel of a double-decker. But he’s also relieved that the new electronic buses will be more easily manoeuvrable.

“This is a good initiative. The new bus is fully automatic and not difficult to drive, unlike the older ones especially when the passenger load increased,” said Parthe. Driving a double-decker needs a bit of practice but you get used to it in a day or two, he added.

Others are more circumspect about the move, especially if the ACs started malfunctioning.

“This bus is fully air-conditioned so the AC has to be properly functioning all the time else once the bus is full, it will get difficult without any other ventilation,” said one of the drivers who did not want to be named.

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Growing fleet

The push for electric buses was part of the previous Maha Vikas Aghadi government’s move towards green, eco-friendly modes of public transport. As the environment minister, Worli MLA Aaditya Thackeray announced last year that BEST would be procuring electric buses.

On Tuesday, he tweeted saying his promise has been fulfilled.

BEST’s fleet of 3,400 buses with nearly 400 routes has a daily ridership of 35 lakh passengers. If all goes as planned, by the end of 2023, it will have an additional 3,000 AC electric buses (including single-deckers, mini, midi, and double-deckers). With this, 50 per cent of its fleet will be electric. BEST plans to acquire a full fleet of 10,000 electric buses by 2026.

Chandra said that the double-decker bus has a carrying capacity of 80 passengers as against 60 for the single-decker buses. The midi’s capacity is 45 and mini’s 27.

The discontinuation of double-decker buses led to a steep fall in daily ridership—from 45 lakh passengers to 16-17 lakh at one point. “Since we reduced the fare, the ridership has gone up slowly. But we realised there is a need to increase the capacity,” Chandra said.

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History of BEST

The first BEST double-decker bus rumbled into Mumbai (then Bombay) in 1937, more than a decade after the city got its first single-decker in 1926.

“But Mumbai’s romance with the double-decker did not begin with the bus, it began with the tram. The first double-decker trams were introduced in 1920,” said Gothoskar.

That said, the double-deckers gained immense popularity over the decades. BEST had nearly 900 of them in the 1990s. But the old models weren’t practical, and the ageing ones were decommissioned without any replacements.

The growing app-based taxis, number of private vehicles, shared taxis and rickshaws all dented BEST’s prospective ridership, resulting in huge losses to the undertaking. It was impractical to maintain double-deckers and larger buses.

This led to BEST switching to smaller models like midi and mini buses. BEST still suffered losses in the last decade. One the last six years or so, the BMC has given crores of rupees to BEST to help the undertaking sort out its finances.

But BEST is still bleeding financially. According to Chandra, it incurs a loss of Rs 6 crore every day.

Now, it’s banking on electric buses to stem the loss.

“We expect that with these electric buses, we will break even in 3-4 years,” Chandra said optimistically.

(Edited by Theres Sudeep)

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