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One for the road

What’s tall and broad and red all over? For Fiona Fernandes, that would be Mumbai’s iconic doubledecker buses. They once dominated the city’s roads; now, they are slowly disappearing.

mumbai Updated: Jul 15, 2013 13:24 IST
Aarefa Johari
Aarefa Johari
Hindustan Times

What’s tall and broad and red all over? For Fiona Fernandes, that would be Mumbai’s iconic doubledecker buses. They once dominated the city’s roads; now, they are slowly disappearing.

“I grew up travelling in these buses. As a child, my earliest memories of public transport are of clambering up the spiral stairs, making a dash for the seats right in front and wondering why the upper deck didn’t have its own driver,” says Fernandes, 51, laughing.

Since older citizens found it difficult to climb the stairs of the moving vehicle, the upper deck was typically filled with children, students and young couples enjoying the cool breeze and ‘aerial’ view, says Fernandes, a school teacher.

The bus she took to her workplace in Dadar every day — No 66 — used to be a double-decker until about 10 years ago. “Single-deckers have never looked half as elegant to me.”

This July, the iconic BEST double-decker completes 75 years of plying the streets of Mumbai, but fans like Fernandes are struggling to remember the last time they travelled in one.

These buses were launched in July 1937, eleven years after single-decker buses became an important mode of public transport in colonial Bombay.

Although the public had been familiar with double-decker electric trams since 1920, the bright red buses, designed to look like their counterparts in London, were an instant hit.

“Double-deckers were introduced to cope with the growing number of commuters in the city, and, since they could accommodate 1.5 times the people, they were also cost- effective,” says Manoj Varade, deputy public relations officer with the Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport (BEST) undertaking.

“The first double-deckers, made by the British automobile company Daimler, had mechanical gears and weak brakes, so driving them was a very delicate task,” says Yatin Pimpale, 45, a mechanical engineer with BEST and a part-time graphic designer whose hobby is making miniature paper models of buses and trains.

Pimpale’s collection of miniature buses reflects the historical journey of double-deckers in the city, from the special buses designed during World War II — single-deckers modified to create an open-air top deck for additional seating, since more people were turning to public transport as fuel prices rose — to the trailer buses of the 1970s and the sky-blue, open-roof top tourist buses introduced in 2004.

“I find riding double-deckers more fun because you get to watch children enthralled by the views from above, and tourists often climb aboard just for a joyride,” says Sachin Khavre, 29, a bus conductor who has been working on double-deckers for five years.

After a 75-year run, however, the double- decker story may now be approaching its end.

Over the past two decades, the BEST has been gradually phasing out double- deckers, replacing retired buses with singledeckers or mini-buses.

“Double-deckers have become very expensive to maintain, and with streets getting more crowded, their mobility is restricted and they are becoming more difficult to manoeuvre,” says deputy PRO Varade. “Eventually, it will not be feasible to continue plying them.”

The BEST now has 122 double-deckers running on just eight routes across the city, down from 158 in 2007 and 873 in 1981. Most of these buses ply in the island city, where roads are relatively wider.

Mohan Kale, a BEST driver who has been plying the ‘1 Special’ doubledecker from Nariman Point to CST for six years, admits that driving the massive buses is far more exhausting than driving single-deckers.

“Balancing such a heavy vehicle is very demanding, and when it gets crowded, it gets riskier,” says Kale, 39.

Ask if he will miss the double-deckers if they are phased out completely, and he grins. “These buses are the pride of Mumbai.

Being at the steering wheel and watching passers-by invariably turn to look has always been a great feeling.” Transport experts such as Jagdeep Desai, however, believe it is time to say goodbye to the double-decker.

“In a city like London, where crowds are thin and roads are pothole-free, such buses make sense,” says Desai. “In Mumbai, they are cumbersome, dangerous and must be restricted to tourist use along specific routes.”

First Published: Jul 15, 2013 13:19 IST