In 2004-05, the Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport (BEST) undertaking had 3,400 buses in its fleet and would ply 45 lakh commuters daily. Today, it has more buses — 4,200 — but the number of passengers has come down to less than 30 lakh.
And during the same time, the suburban railways have recorded a major jump in daily commuters from 65 lakh to 85 lakh.
While the railways are the city’s lifeline, BEST buses are the second largest mode of mass transport. But the ubiquitous red bus no longer holds the same importance it once did for commuters.
So, who is to be blamed? The BEST undertaking for not keeping up with times, new and faster modes of transport, or increasing fares? All of them, say experts and BEST officials
The cash-strapped BEST undertaking’s transport division suffered a loss of more than Rs 750 crore in 2014. Its cumulative loss today amounts to Rs 2,500 crore.
If experts and BEST officials are to be believed, the undertaking’s financial health started to deteriorate after the introduction of the new electricity act in 2003.
“Earlier, the BEST would adjust the losses of its transport wing from the profit it made in the power department. But when the Maharashtra Electricity Regulatory Commission restricted it from doing so, BEST’s problem became severe,” said transport expert AV Shenoy.
Shenoy said all public transport systems need financial support from the government or the parent body, but the BEST has always been given step-motherly treatment.
According to former BEST official Suhas Nalawade, the undertaking also failed to introduce more passenger-oriented schemes to stop commuters from switching over to other modes of transport.
“The BEST was expected to provide better service than taxis, autorickshaws and private buses,” said Nalawade, adding, “The administration did not increase ticket fare on time to mitigate increased operating cost and fuel price.”
In the past decade, the public transport system has seen a makeover. The World Bank-funded MUTP helped improve infrastructure and passenger carrying capacity of the railways. Introduction of the metro and monorail were another blow, with commuters preferring the air-conditioned travel. Apart from this, the BEST failed to adopt modern technology, and congested roads affected the buses speed and punctuality.
“BEST buses were never given any priority. Places like London and Hong Kong put more emphasis on the bus service despite having world-class tube services,” said Ashok Datar, another transport expert.
The decline of BEST bus service
* On March 7, 1874, BEST started the first mode of public transport — a horse driven tram— in Mumbai
* On July 7, 1926, BEST introduced bus service (above) in the city
* On August 7, 1947, the BEST was brought under the control of the municipal corporation.
* At the time, it had 257 buses and on an average 22,097 passengers would use the services daily
* The BEST has around 4,200 buses in its fleet, which transport about 30 lakh passengers daily.
* It is the second most important mode of mass transport in the city after the suburban railways, which carry over 70 lakh passengers daily.
* Apart from providing last mile connectivity to city, BEST provide feeder service to railway, metro and monorail. It also provides bus connectivity to neighbouring Mira-Bhayander, Navi Mumbai and Thane city.
What ails the BEST: Rs 2,500 crore the BEST’s cumulative loss
NEW MODES OF PUBLIC TRANSPORT
In the past few years, the city has got two new modes of public transport — metro and monorail. Although the monorail has had little impact on BEST services, many commuters have switched over to using the metro.
BETTER RAILWAY SERVICES
The World Bank-funded Mumbai Urban Transport Project has increased the capacity of suburban railway infrastructure and also improved quality of services. Conversion of trains to 12-coach has helped increasing passenger carrying capacity. As a result the number of people using the suburban railway has gone up by 15-20 lakh in the past decade.
INCREASE IN FARES
In the past five years, BEST bus fares have almost doubled. In this year alone, the undertaking announced two back-to-back fare hikes, which resulted in drop in number of passengers
MORE TWO- AND FOUR-WHEELERS
Apart from taxi and autorickshaws, the BEST is also losing passengers to private vehicles, especially two-wheelers.
CONGESTION ON ROADS
Although the city’s road infrastructure has seen lot of change in the past two decades, the number of vehicles has also gone up. With increasing traffic congestion, the daily average speed of BEST has gone down, making it the slowest mode of public transport
INCREASE in COSTS
BEST spends almost 30% of its earning on fuel cost. Diesel prices have gone up by more than 500% since 1996, while CNG price witnessed 117% rise since 2003. Also, the undertaking’s administrative coast almost touched 100% of its earning in 2014
UNIONS AND POLICIES
Several times, the BEST finds it difficult to implement new initiatives for cutting down costs because of opposition from trade unions. Recently, the BEST decided to introduce conductor-less services on point-to-point routes in south Mumbai, but trades unions opposed it and threatened agitation
QUALITY OF BUSES
Passengers are unhappy with the quality of BEST buses. Broken handles, torn seat covers, noisy bus body are common in the buses. Frequent breakdown is another major problem
LACK OF GOVERNMENT SUPPORT
Being a mode of public transport, the BEST undertaking is demanding exemption from the 3.5% passenger tax on tickets and toll tax, apart from concession in VAT on diesel and CNG from the state government. Last year, the BMC had given the undertaking financial support, but it was less than expected