In FY21, a total of 13,435 km of new highways were built, bringing the overall length of national highways to 1.32 Lakh km, and the government has pledged that another 1 Lakh km will be developed in the next four years. However, bus travel, the most extensive and affordable mode of road transportation, was never ramped up accordingly.
“In 2019, I met someone who would never let his sister take a [long-distance] bus ride. That statement always stayed with me, underlining the general perception of this industry, “said Kapil Raizada, cofounder of IntrCity.
But first things first. Since 2014, Raizada, an industry veteran, has been instrumental in running RailYatri, a train and bus ticket booking platform under the parent company IntrCity, along with co-founder and CEO Manish Rathi. And throughout these years, the duo noticed a distinct lack of improvement in bus services in terms of operations and amenities. The company had earlier told Inc42 that people preferred to book train tickets on the waiting list even when buses were operating at 65% capacity.
Raizada revealed that in 2019, around 29% of female travellers booked train tickets on the RailYatri platform, but it dipped to an appalling 9% when it came to bus ticket booking. The insight on what’s hurting the ecosystem was clear—a massive gap in reliability, safety, and convenience compared to other modes of public transportation. He also felt that the narrative should change immediately, and the quality of services must be the focus, irrespective of the ticket prices.
Although plenty of private bus operators and aggregators were active at the time, very few had the holistic vision of Raizada and Rathi. So, the duo took the plunge and launched IntrCity SmartBus on the Delhi-Lucknow-Delhi route in early 2019 to create a platform for bus owners/operators and build a never-before travel experience for commuters.
Building IntrCity SmartBus
The RailYatri platform was built using AI-powered predictive algorithms to analyse train ticket booking patterns and help users book confirmed tickets. It also used data analytics to offer detailed information about train commutes, including the route, journey time, and live status, indicating the train’s current location. Leveraging the rich data of intercity travel with the capability to build large tech-based platforms, the company felt confident venturing into the segment. The aim was to build a RailYatri-like centralised system to connect long-distance buses and develop a standardised travel experience.
IntrCity SmartBus has adopted an asset-light aggregator model wherein it provides the technology platform that creates the travel experience while bus owners/operators handle on-ground operations. The company has expanded its original tech team for additional development and set up a new operations team, including local managers for handling operations in different cities and the bus crew that includes a captain and a driver. To implement a network of ‘connected buses’ for seamless, on-the-go monitoring and smooth operations, it also uses IoT fleet analytics, which enables monitoring the real-time performance of each vehicle and analytics of the same for smooth performance.
Today, the company boasts a fleet of 220+ branded buses connecting more than 270 cities and a dedicated team of 200 employees. With an average ticket size of INR 900, this bus service is positioned in the mass segment. The company claims to witness 160K monthly travellers on its platform, with an average fill rate of 88-90%.
The Three Pillars of The ‘Smart’ Bus
IntrCity SmartBus builds a comprehensive experience across all of its bus fleet and for every journey by staying connected with every stakeholder. Its services can be bucketed into three categories— reliability, safety, and convenience, highlighting the areas where it aims to improve.
Reliability: Online ticket booking has largely defined bus schedules and departure locations, but in-transit waiting and riding times are still not standardised. IntrCity SmartBus offers a live-tracking feature where passengers, their families and friends can input the PNR/ticket number to view the live location and status of the vehicle before and during the journey. Passengers can also check the designated stops on predetermined routes. As buses do not allow unauthorised pit stops, commuters get a better sense of predictability during a journey.
The 24X7 command centre uses the data from fleet analytics for real-time tracking and ensures that all buses follow pre-defined routes and take corrective actions wherever needed.
Safety: Improving safety parameters is another core focus of IntrCity. To ensure the same, the company has built a central command centre to monitor and manage each bus journey. The command centre is connected with the driver’s interface in the bus, the crew app, the consumer app, all waiting areas/lounges, and all boarding points.
Every bus is assigned a captain (similar to a steward on a flight) who offers in-person assistance throughout the journey. In case of an emergency, they can directly contact the command centre for quick resolution. The buses are also equipped with cameras and sensors, helping the company keep track of the passenger count at all times.
In the wake of the pandemic, the company has intensified its sanitization drive. Every bus is sanitised before starting its journey, and the ‘cleaning’ is uploaded on the passenger app to build their trust. The in-bus staff wear protective gear and are thermally scanned before resuming their duties. Travellers are similarly checked and are provided with a hygiene kit with a sanitiser and disinfectant wet wipes.
Speaking about the impact of these safety measures, Raizada told Inc42 that the percentage of female travellers booking tickets on the platform rose from 9% in 2019 to 25% in 2021.
Convenience: Convenience and comfort cannot be ignored, especially during long-distance intercity travels. IntrCity SmartBus has in place a whole range of amenities. As of now, the company has 51 boarding lounges where travellers can wait for the bus and board it safely. All of these lounges come with air conditioning and Wi-Fi.
Similarly, its buses are equipped with Wi-Fi, air conditioning and an entertainment unit for each seat for watching movies or listening to music. Then there are sleeper berths and cabins for a more comfortable experience. Besides, each bus comes with an onboard washroom to minimise pit stops.
Is The Overhaul Sustainable?
The team at IntrCity believes nothing less than a complete overhaul can truly improve the public transportation ecosystem. And the changes it is bringing in the area of bus services seem to find favour with passengers habitually pushed into a cheap ticket, low-quality service environment. The company projects an ARR of $45 Mn for FY22 and expects to clock a YoY growth of 400% in the financial year.
It also plans to grow its fleet to 5,000 vehicles by 2025 and expand to new routes and more locations.
Despite a bumpy ride, the bus service segment in India has grown consistently. In 2020, more than 95.5 Mn people travelled by bus, and this number is estimated to reach 120 Mn by 2026, a Statista report says. Given India’s booming highway segment and overall road development, experts believe that this segment is poised for growth. Although the market size fell to $385 Mn in 2020 due to the pandemic, (it was valued at $944 Mn in 2019), it is expected to recover and grow by 2023 to reach $1.03 Bn. The company also told Inc42 that the total market size of the segment could be as high as $26 Bn.
However, the key growth driver for bus aggregators will be better coverage. They need to connect more destinations, especially the far-flung and remote ones, and continue to offer top quality services to create sustainable demand across Bharat.