A business class air conditioned (AC) bus of Green Line Paribahan left Cox's Bazar for Dhaka Thursday with only nine passengers on board.
The bus had 27 seats and could transport 17 passengers following the health guidelines issued by the health ministry.
However, from that particular trip, it earned just Tk18,000 although an AC bus costs at least Tk25,000 to operate, per journey.
Green Line Paribahan is now running only five to six buses – of its fleet of 170 AC buses – thanks to a passenger crisis. The rest of its buses are sitting idly in the depot and incurring losses every day because of the interest on bank loans taken to buy them.
The luxury bus business in the country is now on the brink of collapse because of a dearth of passengers amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
Bus owners said it will be difficult to recover the losses as bank interest keeps piling up and their vehicles' fitness is diminishing.
According to the Bangladesh Road Transport Owners' Association, around 6,000 AC buses of different companies operate across the country. Among the companies, 25 have more than 100 buses each.
The owners said they had invested over Tk12,000 crore in this sector.
Khandaker Enayet Ullah, general secretary of the Bangladesh Road Transport Owners' Association, told The Business Standard that an investment of Tk1.5-2.5 crore was required to buy an AC bus while most of the investors took bank loans for that purpose.
They are defaulting on the loans as they have not been able to operate their buses since March, he added.
Passengers assume the cold facilitates the spread of the novel coronavirus and thus many are avoiding AC buses at present, he said.
"We have already applied to the prime minister and other offices concerned seeking help and cooperation to save the luxury bus sector. However, we have yet to get a response," he continued.
Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA) sources said there are 51,413 registered in the country, nearly 73 percent of which operate in Dhaka city. However, data on luxury buses is not available with the organisation.
Md Alauddin, owner of Green Line Paribahan, said his business is threatened owing to the novel coronavirus.
People now hardly come out of their homes. Even recreational journeys have stopped. Meanwhile, the fare for luxury buses on Chattogram-Dhaka route has been increased to Tk2,000 from Tk1,200 because of the health guidelines, he added.
"People in an emergency now travel by air. So, our buses run with a low number of passengers. It will be almost impossible to save our business," he said, adding that he had to count Tk10,000 in losses per day to operate an AC bus.
"However, nobody takes care of us. We have been demanding government help, but we have not seen any initiative yet. Not even banks have helped us," he claimed.
Suvenker Ghosh Rakesh, managing director of Shyamoli NR Travels, said they had 100 luxury buses but were operating only 30 now.
"We are in big trouble as we cannot realise the operational costs from the trips. We cannot continue the service if the situation continues," he said.
Shyamoli NR also runs buses on five cross-border routes: Dhaka-Kolkata-Dhaka, Dhaka-Agartala-Dhaka, Dhaka-Sylhet-Shillong-Guwahati-Dhaka, Agartala-Dhaka-Kolkata-Agartala and Dhaka-Khulna-Kolkata-Dhaka. But now, all the routes are closed.
"Actually, I do not know how I will save my business," he said, adding, "we can save ourselves if the government allocates special funds for us or the banks reduce the interest."
Luxury passenger vehicles began their journey in Bangladesh during the late 1990s in an aim to cope with the changes in tastes of consumers who were increasingly choosing buses over trains due to shorter journey times.
According to a Planning Commission report on sustainable transportation and infrastructure, roads carry over 88 percent of passengers while waterways and rail carry the rest of the passenger and freight traffic in Bangladesh.
Shohagh Paribahan pioneered modern bus transportation in Bangladesh with a concept of sophisticated customer service. They started their journey with a luxurious AC bus service in Chattogram in 1992. They are now operating bus services also in: Cox's Bazar, Jashore, Khulna, Magura, and so on.
Passengers averse to journeys by AC bus
Rakibul Hasan Chowdhury, a resident of Chattogram, used to travel by AC bus to Dhaka at least twice a month, but in the last five months, he has avoided the bus service. This month, he chose a flight to go to the capital.
"It is risky now to travel by the AC bus. Similarly, the fares of the AC bus and the air travel are almost the same. So, I prefer to travel by air now," he said.
Rifat Hossain, another traveller on the Jashore-Dhaka route, echoed this.
Bus staff struggling
Most of the bus staff – including drivers, conductors and guides – are facing a severe financial crisis as a result of reduced trips.
The sector employs around 25,000 people.
Shamim, a driver of Shyamoli Paribahan, said he has been passing his time idly since March.
"My bus has been in the garage for a long time. I do not get paid if the bus does not run. I am helpless now and only see darkness," he said.
Md Azam, ticket seller of Green Line Paribahan's Bus Stand office in Cox's Bazar, said they had been getting half their salaries since March.
"It is tough to lead our daily lives with a poor salary. The company was going well but Covid-19 hampered the pace," he added.
Md Alauddin, owner of Green Line Paribahan, said he could not pay the salary to his staff but gave 100 kilogrammes of rice, oil and pulses to them.
"I had Tk2 crore savings in my account. I have given all the money to my staff. Now, I am unable to pay salaries," he said.