Why don’t we see electric buses on Chennai roads?

The Union government has been pushing cities to opt for electric buses, by leveraging its FAME scheme. Why has Chennai been slow in adoption?

In 2019, the Tamil Nadu government gave a serious push to green mobility, when the erstwhile Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami flagged off two electric buses in Chennai for a trial run. This was in fact the second attempt, after an earlier trial run conducted in July 2017, again with a trial test for an electric bus. In 2019, the buses, operated by Ashok Leyland, plied on two routes — Chennai Central to Thiruvanmiyur and Koyambedu to Broadway routes. The three-month trial was completed in late 2019. But since then, Chennaiites have not seen any major progress on the electric bus front and adoption and implementation of the new technology at scale remains a pipe dream.

To encourage electric vehicle adoption, the Tamil Nadu government had introduced a policy for electric vehicles (EVs) in 2019. According to that policy, the State Transport Undertakings (STUs) would strive to replace around 5% of the buses every year; around 1000 EV buses would be introduced every year. But it has been more than a year since the experimentation phase was kicked off and an EV policy formalised. The recently introduced Singara Chennai 2.0 plans also puts e-buses in focus, but the roadmap is far from clear. What’s stopping Chennai from making the switch?

Read more: Trying out eco-friendly initiatives for public transport

Subsidies for promotion

The switch to electric vehicles has gained significant momentum across India over the past few years, particularly after the introduction of a scheme titled Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Electric Vehicles – I (FAME-I) by the Department of Heavy Industry in 2015. The objective of the FAME scheme is to support market development and manufacturing of hybrid/electric vehicles in the country and encourage adoption through provision of subsidies. Under the initiative, the Union government selects cities where the scheme would be applicable. The ciies fall under the following categories: ’Smart Cities’, major metro agglomerations, state capitals and other urban agglomerations/cities with 1 Million+ population and cities of the North Eastern States.

In 2019 however, when the FAME-II scheme was rolled out, Chennai was not among the cities chosen for subsidy grants under the scheme. Several tier-2 cities from Tamil Nadu, namely Coimbatore, Tiruchi, Madurai, Erode, Tiruppur, Salem, Vellore and Thanjavur, were selected

Read more: Report card: How charged up are electric buses in Indian cities?

The latest amendment to the FAME-II scheme, though, states that cities with over 4 million population (Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Chennai, Kolkata, Surat and Pune) will be targeted for promotion of electric buses. The details would be worked out by Energy Efficiency Services Limited (EESL), an energy service company affiliated to the Indian government, for demand aggregation and implementation.

Even though Chennai had not initially qualified under FAME-II scheme, the Tamil Nadu government had signed a contract with the German KfW Development Bank in 2019 for acquiring 500 electric buses, of which 100 e-buses were allocated for Chennai’s Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC). In 2018, the state government signed an agreement with C40 Cities (part of the Climate Leadership Group), to induct electric buses to its fleet. Chennai was the first Indian city to sign the agreement and would receive subsidies for procuring electric buses under it. 

Challenges and hesitation

But despite the Tamil Nadu government’s thrust on electric mobility, Chennai still appears to have a lukewarm response to e-buses in particular.

“Electric buses are a very new technology. We require sufficient research to be done at the local level to understand and determine the likely performance of e-buses given the city’s weather conditions and other such factors,” comments a transport expert, who had earlier worked with the MTC. While the 2019 trial run was completed within the stipulated period, officials from the transport corporation refused to divulge details of the outcome or takeaways from the pilot run.

Read more: When will Delhi see electric buses on its regular routes?

Ease of operation, cost factor and infrastructure facilities are the major considerations that need to be factored in while considering the introduction of electric buses. Across India, many cities like New Delhi and Pune have stepped up experimentation with e-buses. But Vaishali Singh, senior researcher at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), points out some very real challenges in operating intra-city electric buses. These include traffic congestion, battery efficiency and setting up of charging stations.

Pune is one of the Indian cities that has scaled up its experiment with operating electric buses in India. Pic: Colonel Warden at en.wikipedia/ Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license

“In city traffic conditions, any bus has to halt multiple times that leads to reduction in efficiency (mileage). Even if we dismiss the congestion factor, a bus on a city route must make stops every few metres/kilometres to pick up passengers from bus stops. On the other hand, the inter-city buses may operate without having to stop as often,” adds Vaishali. The more a bus stops, the ability to perform — whether in terms of scheduled vs actual trips, scheduled vs actual kilometres etc — goes down.

It is to be noted, though, that the impact on performance due to frequent stops is not just true for electric buses, but to all buses. In case of e-buses, however, the hesitancy is compounded by the cost factor. Explaining this, Sivasubramaniam Jayaraman, manager, ITDP, states, “The infrastructure required for electric buses is quite expensive and the cost of e-buses is twice as much as normal buses. Although there is an exclusive EV policy, implementation depends on these factors. Practically, funds pose a challenge and of course, political will is needed to adopt the upcoming technology.” 

However, Sivasubramaniam also points out that the operating cost for electric buses is less than for internal combustion engine/diesel buses. Instances of breakdown are much fewer and there is significant savings on fuel cost. Given the advantages as well as drawbacks or challenges, most cities are experimenting with the new technology by conducting pilot runs. The scale of adoption finally depends on state policy and political will to take it forward. 

On the cost issue, Daniel Robinson, Senior Urban Specialist, Asian Development Bank, calls for cross-correlation budgeting, where other agencies or departments also contribute to the project. “The major advantage of switching to electric buses is bringing down emissions that can reduce the diseases caused by the pollutants. When we look at it from this perspective, the health department can allocate a significant sum for this.”

Financial concerns aside, the transport corporation lacks human resources with sufficient knowledge about electric buses. Since the buses operated by the transport corporation are diesel buses, they have engineers from automobile and mechanical streams to look after the engines. “For electric buses, we need chemical engineers who are good at handling battery packs and electrical engineers who can understand connections. So when you are adopting a technology, but you do not have suitably trained or knowledgeable manpower, it is something you are always apprehensive about. This is something the government ought to address,” adds Daniel.

Lessons from the Pune experiment

In early 2019, Pune began a trial run with 25 electric buses on seven different routes in the city that generated significant interest among commuters. By August, the city had been allocated 150 additional e-buses by the Union government under the FAME-II scheme. Further, the Pune Municipal Corporation plans to buy 350 e-buses for the transport corporation, Pune Mahanagar Parivahan Mahamandal Limited (PMPL). By the end of 2022, a fleet with 560 e-buses is expected to be operational in the city. 

In Pune, the electric buses are operated under a gross cost capital (GCC) model, where the buses are owned and operated by a private operator, in this case, the manufacturer. The city transport corporation, Pune Mahanagar Parivahan Mahamandal Limited (PMPL), decides the bus routes and the revenue is collected by the government. The government pays the electric bus operator on a per-kilometre basis.

There are two models on which Indian cities are running electric buses: one is where the transport corporation/government buys the buses and then runs and maintains them; this is termed the Ownership/Capex model.

The other is the Gross Cost Contract/Opex Model, where you let a private party — whoever has won the competitive bidding process — own it, maintain and operate the buses. By and large, the consensus among all experts is to go with the latter in Indian cities.

Vaishali says that this model works well, as management is under the control of the transport corporation while operations and maintenance are overseen by the operator: “The maintenance and creation of infrastructure is the responsibility of the electric bus operator. The transport corporation Pune Mahanagar Parivahan Mahamandal Limited (PMPL) just ensures the buses are as per the benchmarks.”

After successful trials, the Pune transport corporation received funding from the Smart City Mission for scaling up the fleet. The transport corporation has a mix of Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) buses and electric buses in their fleet at present.

Explaining the charging capacity, Vaishali states, “Pune has a combination of slow and fast charging e-buses. A large number of them are slow charging and are charged overnight at the depots. In terms of coverage, Pune buses cover lower distances in one trip than Chennai’s. Due to this, when a bus comes to the depot after the trip they do a quick charging. There is no difference in the number of kilometres that e-buses and CNG buses cover in Pune.” 

Pune’s experience shows that with the right financial support and model, e-buses can be a feasible choice. But every city has to figure out the best option for itself. “Since the climatic conditions and terrain in Chennai are different, the performance of buses can vary. And hence Chennai is conducting pilots to check performance and find out what would work best for the city,” adds Vaishali. 

While plans are in the pipeline to float a tender to acquire around 100 electric buses with KfW funding in Chennai, it is time to expedite the process and get started with the preparatory work. “We need not necessarily wait for the discoms to invest in charging stations but can rather invest on large solar panels,” says Daniel.

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  1. ungalil oruvan says:

    I heard from an MTC driver that the buses have been sent back to modify the battery i.e. bigger size is needed as the ones in the pilot program were found inadequate to complete daily running without charging in the middle. Not sure what stage that is at currently though.

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