Steep drop in intercity sleeper bus occupancy after the recent Maha Samruddhi Expressway incident
Bus and Car Operators Confederation of India to work with OEMs and bus body manufacturers to implement additional safety measures and rebuild customer confidence.
Following the poignant bus accident at Mumbai-Nagpur Maha Samruddhi Express earlier in July in which 25 passengers were trapped and charred to death has already started impacting the business of inter-city travellers who avail long-distance bus services. The driver, his assistant and eight passengers only survived the ordeal.
According to the industry body Bus and Car Operators Confederation of India, the occupancy levels for such buses have more than halved from the levels of 90-95 percent in the past couple of weeks.
The sharp drop in traffic and drop in business has prompted the industry's apex body, the Bus and Car Operators Confederation of India (BOCI), to call a meeting in Pune last week.
Maharashtra has nearly 67,000 registered contract carriage buses, as per officials and only a third of the 25,000-30,000 intercity sleeper buses plying out of Maharashtra were reported to be doing business.
The emergency meeting was attended by 100-130 bus operators as well as local RTO authorities, who deliberated on what steps needed to be taken to avoid such calamities in the future and what is the role of respective authorities. In fact, questions have been raised about certain procedural delays regarding issuance of fitness certificates to this particular ill-fated vehicle by the authorities.
According to BOCI officials, the RTO has increased vigilance along key checkpoints monitoring the health certificate of the ageing fleets.
Autocar Professional spoke to Mohammed A Afzal, General Secretary of BOCI who said that the industry body is equally concerned about the consumer concerns and trust for such routes and they are fully willing to cooperate with the authorities and move towards a robust safety regime.
Is it correct that most intercity sleeper buses are old and aging and are not fit for the purpose?
No, I disagree, because even if you take the bus that was involved in the accident, it was only four years old since it was manufactured at the time of the accident.
You must understand that the inter-city sleeper market is one of the most profitable routes for bus and transportation companies.
Because there is so much competition among fleet operators, every bus operator goes above and beyond to have the best and newest fleet in operation.
To stay ahead of the competition, the majority of operators have placed orders for new buses with OEMs, and OEMs have also introduced their latest offerings, anticipating strong demand.
What is true, in the aftermath of the recent bus accident, consumers, particularly families who would have normally taken an intercity sleeper bus for long distance travel have shifted to other modes of transportation.
So, what safety measures were discussed to regain customer faith?
During our meeting, from their end, bus operators have agreed to integrate their online booking platforms, and screen a mandatory educational safety video that will instruct what to do in an emergency, including how to use the special hammers (to break glass) placed in each seat.
A tall bus can tip on a side on impact and trap passengers who are unable to access emergency exits. It becomes tough for rescue workers to access trapped passengers. Can this functional problem be solved?
You are absolutely correct. Transporters at the meeting also discussed ways to collaborate with the bus body maker and develop solutions. One idea that was offered was to custom-build an emergency exit safety feature that can be activated in an accident situation. The device could allow occupants to escape from the bus rooftop safely.
In addition, we will task bus body manufacturers to redesign the emergency exit door at the back by altering its dimensions – width in particular and also add foldable steps that can be used to transfer out passengers in the event of a mishap.
To answer your question about how an accident affects customer confidence, I will simply state that an accident is an accident. We see similar accidents in trains and other modes of transportation, but as the association and its members have agreed, learning from mistakes and improving is within our control, and you will notice the difference.
What steps are you taking to improve bus maintenance? Currently, the majority of buses are maintained by OEMs as part of the long-term contract you enter with them.
Our operators typically work on long-term maintenance contracts, but the issue is the need for more bus maintenance facilities where buses can be repaired or maintained when traveling long distances. This will lead to a better turnaround of operations and improve the quality of bus service.
The state government has given the RTO stringent instructions to check on bus drivers' compliance with various rules that are in place like alcohol levels in drivers on duty and roadworthiness of the buses regularly.
BOCI also plans to hold driver training programmes at key 'bus addresses,' where bus drivers typically stand to clean their vehicles and educate them on motor transportation norms and regulations.
We are also in regular contact with the bus owners about keeping a close eye on the various checks and not compromising on quality and safety standards.
Maharashtra Transport Commissioner has also written to ARAI about flaws in sleeper bus designs that need to be addressed to help improve passenger safety.
From our side, we are doing our best to work with the regulators and OEMs to support the industry and will continue to do so.
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