Following several poor decisions and financial constraints, the city’s only public bus operator has been labelled undependable by the general public
Since its inception in 1972, the Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) said it had never faced such unprecedented levels of low occupancy as recorded during the COVID-19 period.
Being the city’s only public bus operator, the MTC had gained the confidence of the masses. More than 35 lakh people travelled daily before COVID-19 struck, leading to the shutting down of services from March 25 to September 1.
The MTC had a healthy average of 60% to 65% occupancy rate before the pandemic struck. Amidst the pandemic, the government permitted the operation of 200 buses for the transportation of essential and government staff.
Though normal services resumed on September 1 with safety guidelines, the confidence level among commuters reached the nadir with the occupancy rate registering 14% at one point and averaging at 10 lakh passengers per day.
The MTC is going through a crisis of sorts, including poor occupancy, loss of public confidence, financial constraints and operating buses, and to top it all off, one-third of the fleet has been kept idle due to a lack of commuter strength.
Regular commuters pointed out that the MTC had become an undependable transport operator.
The transport corporation was criticised in the past for scrapping a number of regular bus routes citing poor patronage, irregular operation of buses against scheduled timings and stoppage of multi-modal small link buses.
A comparison of the data before and during COVID-19 presents a clear picture of MTC’s current situation. The body pays an average of ₹100 crore as salary and wages per month. It has sustained expenses of over ₹450 crore towards salary alone without operating buses for five months (April to August), leading to mounting financial losses.
A senior official of the MTC, confirming the poor patronage level, said the occupancy rate had improved from 30% in October to 41% in November.
Raghavan, a resident of Nanganallur, said thousands of commuters from localities like Keelakattalai, Madipakkam, Moovarasampet, Ullagaram-Puzhithivakkam and Adambakkam, depended on bus services to reach their offices, as there were no other public transport facilities.
After the lockdown was relaxed, owing to the absence of bus services people have begun switching over to private transport. He said, “At present only a few buses including 18R (Nanganallur to Broadway) and 45V (Nanganallur to Ice House) are operated at a frequency of two hoursI have started using my two-wheeler to reach the Metro station at Guindy.”
While the State government announced allowing 100% occupancy of passengers in MTC and the seven State Transport Undertakings (STUs) from Monday, commuters pointed out the relief measure was too late for people to switch over from their private vehicles.
Sivasubramaniam, of ITDP India, said the Karnataka government operated the public buses including air-conditioned buses during the peak COVID-19 period, boosting the confidence of the commuters.
M. Shanmugam, president of the Labour Progressive Front (LPF) and the transport trade union affiliated to the DMK, said more than 7,000 of the eight STUs, including 1,000 buses of the MTC, could not be operated because of non-payment of road tax. He said the STUs should create confidence among the public by operating more buses, as keeping the buses idle would serve no purpose.
A senior official of the State Transport Department denied that the MTC could not operate the full fleet because of non-payment of road tax and added that poor patronage was the actual reason.