Hill states need a different demand-aggregation model for procurement of electric buses to meet their unique requirements

When there is so much focus on expanding electric bus (e-bus) services in the cities located in the plains, there is little understanding of what it takes to establish and sustain e-bus programmes in the hill states of India. 

The ecologically sensitive hills face choking congestion on pollution corridors and require zero emissions mass commuting solutions.

But as the experience of the hill state of Himachal Pradesh has shown, despite being the front runner in establishing the e-bus programme in the country, it has hit a roadblock as there is no clear policy pathway to address the unique challenges of the hills. 

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This needs deeper insight into these unique imperatives when several other hill states, including Uttarakhand, Jammu & Kashmir, Ladakh and Sikkim, are also considering e-bus initiatives. E-buses have arrived in Dehradun, Srinagar, and Leh.

However, there is hardly any clarity about what it takes to roll out a scalable e-bus programme in hilly terrains. This makes the experience of the Himachal Road Transport Corporation (HRTC) and its learning curve so crucial to understanding the electric mobility roadmap in the hills. 

“Given the rugged terrain, limited urban operations, greater need for providing connectivity with rural areas, the requirement of bus specifications more suitable for hill terrains, the hill states need more customised support and a financial strategy from the Government of India,” said Sandeep Kumar, managing director, HRTC who is responsible for implementing the state’s vision target of 100 per cent bus electrification.

Environmental imperatives of e-bus services in hills 

The original driver of the e-bus programme in Himachal Pradesh was the National Green Tribunal (NGT). It had clamped down around 2015 to restrain tourism and commercial activities in the ecologically sensitive Rohtang Pass to check environmental degradation and melting of the glaciers.

Reports on the melting of glaciers in the Rohtang Pass region had triggered concerns about the deposition of black carbon and its impact on ice melting. This had also indicted diesel black carbon. The NGT ruling of April 7, 2016, gave a choice of moving either to compressed natural gas or to an e-bus programme. 

This led to the first-ever e-bus trial on the hills — from Manali (1,200 metres) to Rohtang Pass (4,000 m) in October 2016. It subsequently spread to the other regions of the state, including the capital city of Shimla. 

Electric mobility takes roots

The initial support for the e-bus programme came from the central government’s incentive scheme, Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Hybrid and Electric Vehicles (FAME II). The Union Ministry of Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises had financed 25 e-buses on cost sharing basis with the state government at 75:25 ratio. 

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According to the information available from HRTC, the total cost of the initial stock of Goldstone buses was Rs 47.75 crore. About 50 more e-buses, including 30 e-buses (nine metres) and 20 e-Buses (seven metres) from electric vehicle manufacturer PMI Photon also rolled out in 2019.

Yet again, the cost of Rs 39.36 crore was shared between the Centre and the state at 60: 40. HRTC made an outright purchase of these buses and is in charge of running them.

Towards scale

After successfully operating these 75 buses, the state is now poised to make a scalable transition.

Chief Minister Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu has recently announced the vision plan for clean and green Himachal Pradesh 2025 that aims to replace diesel vehicles with electric vehicles and also harness solar energy for this purpose. 

One of the specific targets is to replace nearly 2500 internal combustion engine buses with e-buses within five years.

What is holding back the transition? 

Buses are not designed for hills

HRTC officials have pointed out how their buses are not designed to suit the terrain conditions of the hills.

Buses (including 9 metres and 12 metres) do not have adequate ground clearance, have low angles of approach and departure that make manoeuvring difficult on roads with narrow width, sharp bends and steep slopes. Due to such restricted operations, their daily utilisation remains low. 

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There are questions about the adequacy of the bus specifications to meet the requirements of the hills. Currently, the policy focuses on standardised bus specifications for demand aggregation to keep procurement cost-effective for deployment in cities that qualify for FAME incentives. 

But those are for densely populated states in the plains and do not consider the unique requirements of the hilly terrains and low population density areas. 

Unique challenges of bus operations

Buses, especially e-buses, cannot attain a similar level of operational range in hills as they do in the plains. Difficult terrain with high gradients, low load capacity, body design with low skirt height and inadequate angle of approach and departure, etc, restrict bus operations. 

Negotiating steeper slopes further limits the operational range of the e-buses. Therefore, their utilisation is low. Buses do, however, gain some energy back from their regenerative braking system while going downhill. 

E-buses on hills cannot meet all the key criteria of the amended FAME II incentive scheme of November 2022 that are needed for the demand aggregation for e-bus procurement for targeted cities.

These criteria include the minimum number of buses per state transport corporation, minimum buses per depot, duration of the contract period, annual assured kilometres and minimum daily assured kilometres.  

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As per the HRTC assessment, while the HRTC qualifies on all other criteria, they cannot meet the requirements of annual assured kilometres of 122,500 and minimum daily assured kilometres of 350 kilometres, informed HRTC officials.

In Himachal, the average kilometers per bus per day on local routes can be as low as 158 km in Shimla, 137 km in Hamirpur, and 173 km in Una. Shimla chapter does not have adequate long routes. 

Even the long routes that connect rural hinterland fall in the range of 224 km in Hamirpur to 233 km in Nalagarh. In Manali and Shimla, buses are severely under-utilised — as low as 55 km and 71 km, respectively. The average regional bus utilisation is just about 198 km. Passenger load is also lower than plains. 

In contrast, the regional or rural routes in other states can be as high as 364 km in Andhra Pradesh to 365 km in Karnataka. 

More expensive to run buses: 

The cost factors play out very differently in the hills. E-bus costs 4-5 times higher than diesel buses. But given the lower range of operational kilometres and the challenge of creating bulk demand for buses, cost recovery remains a challenge. 

Predictably, the operational costs of e-buses are much lower than that of diesel buses — 36 per cent lower than the diesel buses in Himachal. Fuel cost is 73 per cent lower. This is evident from the assessment carried out by HRTC.

But when the cost of the loan and equated monthly instalments and provision of electric and civil works are added, the total expenditure for diesel and e-buses become nearly equal. But this expenditure is estimated to increase substantially if the new batch of buses is procured on the operational expenditure model.  

Under the FAME-II scheme, the central government had offered 100 buses to the state of Himachal Pradesh on an operational cost model basis in 2019. 

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“But the state could not take advantage of that scheme as the operating losses to HRTC were expected to increase. Operating costs on the opex model due to low occupancy and less daily coverage are higher than diesel buses and will require committed viability gap funding,” said Kumar. 

Where is the e-bus model for hills?

“Why do small, environment-friendly green hill states that act as lungs for the entire nation suffer due to this restrictive planning? Ordains of the EV policy should be such as not to consider only the polluted and high-density cities of the plains but also consider the ecologically sensitive hill states like Himachal Pradesh that are more vulnerable,” added Kumar.

The newly released report Evaluation of Electric Vehicle Policy by the 26th Committee on Estimates 2022-23 of the Ministry of Heavy Industries in the 17th Lok Sabha does not have a spotlight on the special needs of the hill towns yet. 

Going forward, it is necessary to create a separate demand aggregation model for all the hill states of India with appropriate bus specifications and incentives to support low occupancy and low-range operations in the hills. 

It is necessary to prioritise a national framework for e-bus procurement and deployment to support capital and operational expenditure of e-buses in the low-density hill states where buses are the prime movers. 

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Additionally, the state government needs to consider innovative fiscal strategies based on polluter pay principles that can mobilise resources from additional pollution cess on petrol, diesel, and tourist traffic to create dedicated funding for electric mobility. 

In Shimla, people are boarding e-buses in crushing loads. E-buses need to provide mobility solutions in the hills and also reduce diesel black carbon emissions.

Due to poor connectivity and the pressure of tourism, car congestion and toxic exposure on roads is becoming unbearable in hills. An alternative model for e-mobility in the hills is non-negotiable. 

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