(Born: 1975, Allowed to die: 2009)
Fifteen years ago, while operating motorcycle tours across India, Bhutan and Tibet, I lived with my family in Kathmandu. Weekends were for exploring, by bicycle or when there was petrol by Bullet motorcycle.
One Saturday we found the gates of the trolley bus terminus at Baneswor open, and cycled in. Grey scenes of decay and neglect. Tired, rusty, worn out machinery. A vintage fork-lift truck sat where it was parked for the last time. Overhead-line repair vehicles, cannibalised for crucial parts, lay awkwardly on wooden blocks. Battered bodies clung to rusty chassis. A bus parked over an inspection pit, waiting for a mechanic.
Recently demobilised Maoist guerrillas had settled in the administrative block. Some had made homes in the old trolley buses. Red hammer and sickle banners hung across broken windows, next to laundry on lines. A young man played tunes on an old wooden accordion, a sad tribute to Kathmandu’s pioneering mass transit project.
Opened in 1979, the inter-urban transport line covering 13km had operated for three decades. Suffering persistent faults, theft of overhead wires and lack of investment, the service finally came to an end in 2009.
The trolley bus system was opened in 1975 with a Rs40 million grant from China for 22 standard trolley buses adapted to left-handed operation. Ten newer model buses were donated in 1997. The line was operated by the Nepal Trolley Bus Service, a branch of the Nepal Transportation Corporation (NTC). In 2001, the NTC was dissolved and the trolley bus operation was suspended, as it did not turn any profit since 1990. The reasons for NTC’s failure were stringent government bureaucracy and overstaffing, coupled with cronyism in management that resulted in poor technical expertise and inept operational policy.
After 18 months, Kathmandu, Madhyapur Thimi and Bhaktapur municipalities agreed to restart the service and the trolley buses rolled again. Less than a year later, the Madhyapur Thimi and Bhaktapur municipalities opted out of the scheme as the service failed to attract riders and continued to lose up to Rs2 million a month. Consequently, the line was reduced to only between Tripureswor and Tinkune, and most wirework beyond city limits was removed.
A rather marginal and unreliable service was maintained during the last few years of operation, with sporadic interruptions due to losses and debt. The trolley bus service was finally laid to rest in November 2008. A year later the Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC) permanently shut the operation and dissolved the undertaking. All assets were sold to private entities.
The project to widen the Arniko Highway threatened the removal of wirework support poles, and the closure of the service. Although there were calls for trolley buses to be revived along the Ring Road, the plans never materialised and the buses became extinct.
As of 1990 the trolleybuses operated between 7:00-21:00 and ran on irregular headways. The officially stated headway was 6 min during rush hours, 12 min at other times. About 15 trolleybuses were operated in peak service, carrying up to 10,000 passengers daily. By 2007, the service was irregular and sporadic. The headway had increased to up to 25 min. Total running time along the remaining 5 km-long line was up to 35 min, depending on traffic conditions. Only three vehicles were operating, and average passenger loads were just above seated load.
As of March 2007, a total of 32 trolley buses had been deployed. They included models Shanghai SK541 (1974) and Shenfeng SY-D60C (1997). But by 2008 only five buses were operable, all of them were 33-year-old Shanghai SK541 vehicles, which despite their age were simpler to maintain and operate. All newer Shenfeng SY-D60C remained out of use due to complex maintenance requirements. Shenfeng SY-WG110 vehicles rebuilt for left-hand operation, were to be delivered from China in 2004, but this deal never materialised. Curiously, even though adapted for left-handed operation, older Shanghai SK541 vehicles retained the driver’s seat on the left side, while newer Shenfeng SY-D60C vehicles (right) have the driver’s seat on the right.