Bye-bye, Blueline! Next: a golden age for Delhi buses?

Towards the end of my parents’ two-week visit with us in Delhi, my mom decided that she wanted to go to Aurobindo Market. Not a challenging task, on the face of it: a short walk comprised of two right turns and two left turns. My mother was certainly both physically and mentally capable of accomplishing it by herself. But I refused to let her go alone.

Because to get to Aurobindo Market, she would have had to cross Aurobindo Marg. And on Aurobindo Marg, there were Blueline buses.

Photo by The Delhi Walla, Mayank Austen Soofi.

The Blueline is tragically and justifiably notorious. The 1,600 buses running on 142 routes killed over 115 people in 2008 and over 1,000 people during the first ten years of this century.

Photo by The Delhi Walla, Mayank Austen Soofi.

I first became obsessed with the Blueline when I researched why they were killing so many people: not because the drivers are bloodthirsty madmen, but because the economics behind the system created deadly incentives for the drivers. (Each driver rents his bus for the day, which means he generates profits only after he’s picked up enough passengers to cover his costs. So he has to drive as aggressive as possible not just to make money, but to stay ahead of the competing Blueline drivers on the same route, who are each trying their damnedest to overtake him and scoop up his awaiting passengers.)

Neither owner nor driver have much incentive to invest in the upkeep of their vehicle. Photo by The Delhi Walla, Mayank Austen Soofi.

And while my mother and I had a lovely time shopping together at Midland Books in Aurobindo Market, the Delhi government has been working frantically to eliminate the careening deathtraps that made me accompany her to begin with. Not because they are against sons politely helping mothers cross the street, but because the city will be a far safer place without them.

Laws alone weren’t enough, of course. Every Blueline driver knew and feared the penalties of rash driving: not just legal deterrence, but angry mobs that routinely attack drivers who don’t frantically abscond the scene of an accident. Laws and vengeance haven’t impacted safety, they’ve just encouraged Blueline owners to legally insulate themselves from the actions of the drivers to whom they rent their buses.

Photo by The Delhi Walla, Mayank Austen Soofi.

The solution, Delhi’s government realized, was to eliminate the owner/renter framework of busing and replace it with an employer/employee relationship.

This meant decoupling profits from passengers.

Photo by The Delhi Walla, Mayank Austen Soofi.

The city has been working on this for years. The Bluelines were first supposed to be phased out in July of 2009. But every time the city made a move, the “Federation of Blueline Buses Operators” got the courts to make a counter-move. Now, though, it finally seems like the Blueline is destined for the rustheap of history. After some frantic legal back-and-forth in recent weeks — the city eliminated the Blueline, the courts reinstated it, the city eliminated it, the courts reinstated it — the latest decree looks like it’s going to stick.

Delhi High Court on Monday declined to restrain a government notification to phase out the capital’s Blueline buses notorious for their reckless drivers.

So what about all the commuters who rely on the Blueline to get around? Good news: all those fancy new buses the city bought for the Commonwealth Games are about to hit the streets:

According to senior DTC officials, about 1,400 buses, which were deployed on the Commonwealth Games duty to ferry athletes, delegates, officials, media and security personnel to the Games Village and the venues, will be back on road for ordinary people from October 24.

And that’s just from the public sector. The private sector is getting involved, too, including SpiceJet and Kingfisher.

According to the plan, the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) is to run 60 percent of the buses while in the rest 40 percent, the entry of corporate houses is permitted.

But wait — won’t those new bus companies operate under the same old profit-per-passenger incentives? The crumbling Bluelines might be replaced by shining new Tata Motors coaches, but won’t the drivers still be racing down the roads? Will the only improvement be that the people who get nailed don’t have to worry about rust stains on their clothes?

No. There’s more to it. This isn’t just a change of ownership. The city is actually changing the economics of running a bus company.

The Delhi government will provide the companies Rs.27-42 as earning per kilometre even when the service runs into losses, but it will take the ticketing amount.

These are very different incentives. From the narrow standpoint of the bus/passenger relationship, they’re probably not perfect incentives. (One could imagine bus owners encouraging their drivers to take meandering trips to run up the mileage reimbursement while picking up no passengers at all.)

But from the broader perspective of making the city safer and the commute more reliable, this framework is a huge improvement. Especially when one learns that the drivers themselves will be city employees, and the buses will be monitored by GPS.

Photo by The Delhi Walla, Mayank Austen Soofi.

All of which means that when we go back to Delhi in February for the book release events (we’re in talks for at least nine parties in six Indian cities!), it might be safe to cross the street. In fact, given that most of these new coaches are-conditioned, we might even travel to our events by bus.


10 responses to “Bye-bye, Blueline! Next: a golden age for Delhi buses?

  1. Hopefully this will help delhi roads being safer. I am not very optimistic about transportation being any better for the public, as govt bodies arent exactly known for professional service. My mom was recently on one of these DTC buses, and suddenly during its regular route, the conductor announced “the bus wont be going on its usual route, and its headed for the depot” and asked everyone to get off the bus. A few disgruntled voices didnt exactly make the driver change his mind, nor did they volunteer to return the money. People have to get to work so how long can they fight in such situations. I am sure safer buses, though tardy in service, are better than the bluelines, but govt running these services doesnt seem like good long term solution. A strict law enforcement for any traffic violation is another thing the people of delhi have been waiting for.

  2. Good article with a lot of nice pictures. keep writing

  3. The impending ban on the blueline, or should I say, the blue monster, is a respite for the padestrains of Delhi. I can say that because I have had a close shave with this devil a couple of times. This close down is a much awaited verdict.

  4. In case they fix routes, demand certain service levels (frequencies, etc.) and enforce what has been agreed upon: Delhi could be living up to its promise of world class city a bit more!

  5. So interesting. I thought the way buses are driven here in Kerala was terrifying enough, but imagining the same thing on busy Delhi streets… the mind boggles. I wonder what the incentive arrangements are down here, too?

    This article opened up a number of new concepts for me. Really hope this legislation works.

    And by the way, a photo of you in full evening wear riding Indian public transport would be a delight!

  6. To me this looks like a start for safer roads. I do not deny that government operations are pron to not very professional service. But It still will improve the situation from what it is today. Another thing that Govt. will have to immediately is add at least 6000 more buses (DTC or private) to reduce the load on the roads. Today we have more cars on the roads resulting in high Passenger car unit and thus the traffic Jams. These traffic Jams induce the impatience in the drivers and thus more accidents. We need more Public transport on the roads to encourage the average Delhiete to ditch his car.

  7. dave this is very good observation of why the blueline has failed, statistics of 1000 deaths in a decade are staggering. Heavy penalty’s on breaking rules, traffic signals, not parking at right spot is needed. CCTV monitoring with proper working cameras and high tech monitoring center is mandatory. In India rules are made and then broken every moment. I feel it can’t be just solved by fix rates per km etc but a strong moniotring would need to check the indian drivers pysche.

  8. Pingback: In Delhi, a Safer Bus Line? -

  9. A very well written blog 🙂 I really like your style of writing. keep writing!

  10. The blueline mafia is not dead. The high court again asked the govt to take steps to ‘rehabilitate these killers’. They have now successfully bribed their way in the pathologically corrupt Transport department of Delhi and got about 1000 of these rickety buses converted to Stage carriage permits .i.e Chartered buses . Aprt from that they are again lobbying for permits to run these buses in the outskirts or rural areas where they can have their free murder run.
    I will be lobbying to banish these buses forever.

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