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Sweeping reforms for private bus transport

The National Transport Commission has effected sweeping reforms for the private bus transport sector.Here Chairman of the National Transport Commission, Co- Chairman of the Transport Cluster of the National Commission for Economic Development (NCED) and Moratuwa University Professor of Civil Engineering and Head of the University’s Transport and Logistics Department Prof Amal Kumarage is in conversation with the Daily News where he spells out the reforms which revolve round homogenous destination boards, benchmarked sound emissions , standards regarding the bus interiors, attire for crew, streamlined computerised time tables and a host of others.

Prof Amal Kumarage at his Moratuwa residence

The National Transport Commission’s identified transport reforms date back to 2005. It was determined that Sri Lanka’s transport needs cannot be met by private car transport alone.

The constraints of road space and parking space also add to the woes of a densely populated city such as Colombo. This has been further aggravated with only 10 per cent of the population owning cars.

The constraints of having additional road space and parking space simultaneously also exist. Even if the vehicle ownership is continued, the free usage of these private vehicles is also constrained.

This is the time that a new measure and concept of vehicle restraint measures or demand management measures have to come in where the limited road space is managed, leading to efficient traffic management.

Congestion and pollution

Any city which does not manage these fundamentals will end up in congestion and pollution. The plans for protection of the transport system, environment and quality of life are now in fine tune.

Colombo is a primary node and the inefficiency of Colombo will make the primary production less. Keeping roads motorable and a level of mobility acceptable to all the stakeholders is the number one priority.

One of the concepts which have been identified is the need to just not improve the quantity of transport but its quality. All this time, it has been a case of providing more and more buses only and not studying the quality.

Quality private transport has improved tremendously while public transport has not. So, the need has arisen to dramatically improve the quality of transport.

Quantitatively, there is information that the availability of buses in actually 20 per cent more than the required number. So, importing more and more buses and issuing of permits, at this stage, is the worst thing for the industry.

The National Transport Commission has taken the leadership in this area and especially in the last few years in the arena of private bus transport. However, there are also some more progressive reforms which have to be made prior to the culmination of a much more effective, widely used and reliable transport system.

It has also been discovered that of the people who arrive in Colombo, 65 per cent use bus transport. Islandwide, it is 60 per cent. Therefore, there is no dispute that it is the single largest contributor to passenger transport in this country. However, it has lost all its attraction but been captive with the prohibitive prices of owning a private car.

The ideal bus transport system that the NTC envisages to implement will be for even the owners of private cars, to use buses as an alternative mode of transport due to convenience and reliability. But, that is indeed a far cry today. This is the point up to which bus transport should come to.

The unplanned public transport has been going on unabated for the last two decades or more and the system has been operated on purely market based principles.

Bus operators also have been operating the services at their own whims and fancies operating when they wish to and there has not been a quality of service offered to the passenger. There has been no pre-qualification for the buses or the bus crews. These are some of the root causes to the problems. There is also rough and aggressive driving on the roads as well.

The commuters also cannot expect a thriving bus industry to suit their needs and satisfaction as there are no proper standards. Without proper standards, one should not be surprised at all if the present day industry status of the bus transport system is abysmally low.

The only criteria that is laid down and subject to constant review and regulation is merely the fare. Of late, passengers are getting more and more sensitive of the non-fare factors such as comfort levels, punctuality, reliability, the courtesy levels of the crew and the traffic spread of the service of the buses which is the time of the first and the last bus.

Sweeping reforms, new standards

Of late, the National Transport Commission has given due consideration to the non-fare regulatory mechanisms, which are also qualitative reforms as well effective from February 2008 encompassing the buses coming under its purview, which are the long distance private buses which run on Inter- Provincial Routes.

One will also notice that all the buses which run between the inter- provincial routes have a uniform destination board with the lettering in black on a yellow background. All these buses have the NTC logo on their rears with the telephone numbers so that passengers who have their grievances will also be able to complain as well. There are 3,000 such buses.

The seating has been standardised, ensuring that the minimum legal requirements of the seats are met. All the stickers and the material have been removed as they are meant for the public in sharp contrast to private vehicles. All the distracting fittings have been removed.

They should represent a certain level of sobriety. However, there have been the recalcitrant drivers who go back to fixing this lewd material which has met the wrath of the NTC and disciplinary action will follow soon.

Even the sounds of the buses have been regulated. Decibel standards have been set for both the engines and the horns in the passenger compartments. This will also mean that all the buses which will be imported from January 2009 will also have to meet these stringent requirements. Further conditions will also include automatic door closers.

Training is also provided to those who are illiterate. There are other issues if they are to be terminated as that is the only livelihood they know. Eliminating them will also have social hazards. There have been a total of 1,700 who have been trained and there are 4,000 more.

There is also a stipulated dress code. It should be either long trousers or a well clad sarong. No more shorts and three quarters. They have to work in shoes or at least sandals. No more rubber slippers. There will be 100 per cent compliance or they will face disciplinary action.

Ticket machines have been issued from August 1. There will be 100 per cent compliance at the end of three months. Non compliance will be met with the cancellation of the route permits. There have been 40 such permit cancellations already. Over 200 buses have not come for the physical checking. Over 200 letters have been sent to such people

Kataragama bound private bus

There has been a computer- generated time table which is also in consonance with the passenger requirements.

The problems start when the time tables are decided between the bus drivers and the runners of the buses who follow the principal of “fill and go” They depart only when the bus is full. This is a failure on two counts. (a) the passenger has to wait for a long time and the passengers further down the routes are not getting in. (b) By the delay the number of minimum trips/ kilometers that a single bus has to do is also not done.

Bus operators

An efficient urban area bus is expected to do 150 kilometres while a long distance bus is expected to do 300 kilometres to be commercially viable.

Roads are congested with parked buses with idling crews. Bus operators have been made to wait for 6-7 hours to get a trip of four hours. Now that there are organised computer generated time tables, they are now in a position to know what time they have to report to work and what time they can leave for home.

This process of buses waiting to queue in has been done away with. Each bus has to leave according to the estimated time of departure stipulated in the computerised time table. Even if anyone has grievances they can also complain. But the heart of the matter is that the computerised system cannot be tampered with unlike in the past where the favourites had their way.

Even the revenue collections will also see an improvement. In sharp contrast to the earlier system where at least 20 per cent of the revenue was pilfered, now the entire revenue, which will be generated with the ticket machines, will be channeled to the owners. However, the redeeming factor is that Sri Lanka’s private buses are the newest in the region.

No bus is used for more than three years. The belching buses are less than 4 per cent and the stringent standards imposed will also see that the lofty standards will be maintained

These are some of the parallel measures which have been implemented hoping that the industry will be brought into shape. The industry has been wanting a dramatic change. Prof. Kumarage is more concerned about getting it right rather than getting it quick as Sri Lanka’s private bus industry enters a new phase matching the needs of contemporary times.

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