Hi-tech buses, low-tech repairs

Hi-tech buses, low-tech repairs

Poor maintenance due to the high cost of spares is taking a toll on the BMTC's big fleet of hi-tech, low-floor Volvo buses. Drivers, mechanics and reg

Hi-tech buses, low-tech repairs

The hi-tech, low-floor Volvo city buses had given the Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC)’s image a dramatic hyper-boost. But nine years later, poor maintenance has reduced many of these into a fleet of creaking, leaky, breakdown-prone buses. What happened?

In routes across Bengaluru, drivers, conductors and BMTC mechanics are in complaint mode. Drivers say they are told to operate the buses somehow despite the recurring faults. Mechanics have no fresh spares. Instead, they are told to replace parts from other buses. How long will these shortcuts work?

The reason is obvious, as Harindranath TS, a former divisional mechanical engineer of KSRTC, explains. “BMTC should have inducted these buses in a phased manner. Instead, they acquired these buses in one go. Result: Within a few years, all the buses have got old,” he elaborates.

But the government dismisses these charges as baseless. Transport Minister Ramalinga Reddy says he has been personally monitoring the maintenace aspects, taking officials to task when complaints are received.

Lapsed contracts

The Volvo acquisitions did come with maintenance contract deals. But once the required batches of mechanics were trained, the contract period lapsed. Rising costs made spares unaffordable. “Big numbers might have been acquired due to price concessions. But in the long run, it has not helped.”
Preferring anonymity, a Volvo bus conductor well-versed with the operation, discloses that new spare parts are hardly purchased. “Old bus parts are used in new buses. Many a time, the buses break down during trips. Only a few mechanics know how to repair these buses,” he says.

City traffic police often complain about these nightmarish breakdowns. Since only authorised or trained mechanics can operate them without further damage, the buses are often left right in the middle of the road for hours. This triggers massive traffic congestions, a recipe for further chaos.

Volvo depots

If a bus breaks down, mechanics are alerted in the BMTC’s Volvo depots at Hebbal, Subhashnagar, HSR Layout, Whitefield and Kathriguppe. But, as another Volvo conductor notes, such breakdowns can be avoided if red alerts on the display systems are heeded to.

What the conductor discloses next is shocking: “The red message is an indication that there is a fault somewhere in the system. It could be in the wiring or engine. When it is seen, the bus is not supposed to be taken out of the depot. But often we are told to ignore it!”

Volvo buses are equipped with sensors such as the multiple pressure sensors, brake pad wear sensors and valve feedbacks. When any of the harnesses is loose or wires damaged due to abrasions, the error reports are flashed on the screen.


Engine-overheating is a recurring affair. “Due to this, the speed cannot go beyond 30-35 kmph. The temperature in the engine system, which should be 70 to 80 degrees Celsius, goes beyond 100 degrees. This affects the engine and other components,” explains a mechanic. When buses halt, drivers find coolants unavailable since they are costly and not stocked.

Enquiries with Volvo bus drivers and conductors bring out the full extent of the problem. Issues linked to brakes, air-conditioners, switchboards, wiring, lights and even the hydraulic doors are common. Lack of cleanliness is another problem. Passengers complain of rats, that could be gnawing at the cables.

Long-distance Volvo buses operated by KSRTC have fared better. But, as Harindranath points out, the wear-and-tear in inter-state buses is far less than in city buses.

He explains, “KSRTC buses can cover 1,000 km in a day, moving on National Highways without many stops. But BMTC Volvo buses hardly cover 200-250 km daily, halting every one to two km. This reduces the life of brakes, gears and other key parts.”

Wear-and-tear in city

The multiplicity of signals, traffic congestion and constant gear changes in the city have only worsened the condition of these buses. “The bus starts at 6 am and the engine is in running condition till 10 pm. Unless the bus is maintained in ship-shape condition, the components are bound to create huge problems.” Efforts to extend the life of these buses have not vastly improved their performance.

The high cost of acquisition and maintenance of Volvo buses has also sparked questions of sustainability. Contends Muralidhar Rao from Praja-RAAG, a collective of urban mobility experts: “For the cost of every Volvo bus, you can purchase four regular buses. There is a shortage of affordable buses even as these AC Volvo’s are running empty on many routes. We need buses in thousands, not hundreds.”

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