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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.