Expansion Drive: Deployment of BRT and electric buses gains momentum

India is witnessing transformational changes in public transport as a result of rapid ur­ba­nisation. Efforts are being made to make bus rapid transit (BRT) systems much more reliable and convenient, and faster than regular bus services. Also, there has been a growing focus on the use of electric buses (e-buses) since they significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, air and noise pollution, and depen­dence on fossil fuels. Recently, in October 2022, the union minister for road tra­nsport and highways launched Toyota’s pilot flexi-fuel strong hybrid electric vehicles (EVs) project in India. These EVs will run on 100 per cent petrol as well as 20-100 per cent blended ethanol and electric po­wer. Overall, the de­ployment of BRT and electric buses is playing an important role in transforming the country’s urban bus sector.

BRT system corridors

The BRT system consists of large buses that run in dedicated lanes. BRT system corridors offer convenient commute. They are as efficient as the metro without the cost of acquiring land, laying tracks, building large-scale stations and a pedestrian foot over bridge to get to them. The BRT system has been implemented in India at Surat, Pune, Indore, Ahmedabad, Hubli, Dhar­wad and Rajkot among other cities.

Gujarat is the state with the highest number of BRT systems. Three cities, namely, Ah­medabad, Surat and Rajkot, have operatio­nal BRT systems with a total length of about 164 km. With the opening of the Kumbharia-Kado­dora BRT system corridor in July 2021, Surat has become the city with the longest BRT system network of 108 km. The city will also see the development of a modern metro rail that will integrate all public transport systems. Ah­me­dabad, which has an operational BRT network of 45 km, inducted 50 e-buses to its fleet in the past year in order to reduce pollution. These Eco-Life buses are powered by fast char­ging lithium-ion batteries and can run for up to 250 km per day. The buses are expected to help save 1,000 tonne equivalent of carbon dioxide and 350,000 litres of diesel over a 10-year period of operation.

Pune has made significant headway in terms of BRT expansion. So far, over 60 km of its BRT network has been operationali­sed. As part of its smart transport initiatives, Pune Smart City launched the Smart E-bus project in 2019 to improve the city’s transportation. In the first pha­se of the project, 150 e-buses have been procured – 125 BRT AC e-buses of 12 metres each and 25 non-BRT AC e-buses of 9 metres. The civic body has made the charging station at Bhekrai Nagar operational for the 150 e-buses of Pune Mahanagar Parivahan Mahamandal Li­mi­t­ed (PMPML), of which 90 buses get charged at Bhekrai Nagar. As of September 2022, there are a total of 1,630 BRT buses running on the seven corridors, out of which 668 are owned by PMPML, 662 are run by private contractors and 300 run on the BRT corridor on a daily basis. Further, the PMPML authorities will be construc­ting a dedicated mega charging station at its Manjri-Budruk-Shewalewadi depot to cater to the rising demand for e-buses in the near future. In addition, PMPML is planning to allow private e-vehicles to use charging stations set up at PMPML depots.

Fare collection

Generally, BRT systems make use of off-board fare collection with electronic smart cards to improve the customer experience and reduce revenue leakage. Further, off-board fare collection reduces delays caused by fare collection and payment verification inside the bus.

In a notable development, Ahmedabad Jan­marg Limited has announced that it will offer monthly and quarterly passes for daily commuters. Senior citizens and students will be given a discount of about 40 per cent. Mean­while, the authorities of the Hubballi-Dharwad BRT system are planning to introduce QR-based digital cash transactions in addition to the existing contactless transaction service.

Electric buses

The electric mobility space in India has recei­ved significant attention from governments, industries, think tanks, research institutions and others over the past few years. In this context, NITI Aayog has announced the launch of the e-Sawaari India E-bus Coalition in partnership with Convergence Energy Service Limited and the World Resources Institute, India, with support from the Transformative Urban Mobi­lity Initiative. The objective is to share knowledge and learnings on e-bus adoption in India am­ong various stakeholders, including central and state governments, city-level government agencies, transit service providers, original eq­uipment manufacturers, financing institutions and ancillary service providers.

Many cities are rapidly replacing their existing fleet with e-buses in order to transition to clean mobility alternatives. Innovations in the field of rapid charging and smart charging are contributing to the accelerated adoption of e-buses across the country. Taking cognisance of the pollution woes in Delhi, the government is taking proactive steps to transform the city’s public transport. The government is committed to its mission of plying more than 10,000 bu­ses on the city roads by 2025 with the electrification of 80 per cent of the bus fleet. A total of 250 e-buses currently ply in the city, in addition to over 7,000 CNG buses. The government is already in the process of acquiring 1,500 e-buses, which are expected to be delivered by No­vember 2023. Meanwhile, emphasis has been laid on EV charging infrastructure for public transport vehicles.

As part of the green mobility initiative, the Chandigarh Transport Department will replace all its local diesel buses operating in the city with e-buses in the next five years. The government had sanctioned 80 e-buses under Phase II of the Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Electric Vehicles (FAME) scheme, of which 40 buses are plying in the city. Recently, 60 more buses were laun­ched in two lots, including 40 intra-city e-buses and 20 long-route AC buses.

Another city swiftly moving towards electric mobility is Bengaluru. As part of the FAME II sc­heme, 300 e-buses will be operated on a gross cost contract model in the city. Of this, 75 e-buses of the Bengaluru Metropolitan Transport Cor­poration were launched in August 2022. These have been fitted with tracking units, CCTVs, LED route display boards and emerge­ncy panic buttons for passenger safety. They are also equipped with modular batteries to en­able a higher range.

Moreover, private companies are expanding their horizons and entering the electric mo­bility space. Switch Mobility, the UK-based electric mobility arm of Ashok Leyland (Hinduja gro­up), recently launched its e-bus platform, Switch EiV 12, for the Indian market. This platform will allow Switch to make e-buses for intra-city, inter-city, staff, school and tarmac (airport roads) applications. The company has localised about 60 per cent of its manufacturing components and is currently in talks with Indian cell manufacturers that have applied for the government’s production-linked incentive scheme to localise cell sourcing too. Of late, electric mobility solutions have emerged as via­ble solutions for resolving last-mile connectivity issues. ETO Motors, for instance, has ex­pan­ded its last-mile connectivity service to Noida in conjunction with the Delhi Metro Rail Corpo­ration in a bid to ensure safe and clean to-and-fro transportation from the Electronic City metro station in Noida. There are many more such collaborations being done by metro corporations in the e-mobility space.

The way forward

With the introduction of new transit systems such as MetroNeo and light rail transit, the role of BRT has started to diminish. Given the move towards a more sustainable future, EV adoption will increase rapidly. Electric mobility will also help combat pollution. The recent impetus from the centre to aggregate the demand for e-buses from the nine largest Indian cities under the ambit of FAME II has encouraged more state governments to change their bus fleet to electric. Going forward, an enabling ecosystem for access to funding and financing for e-buses is essential for their large-scale adoption.