Regularize private bus operations

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By 2017-10-10

By Chandra Tilake Edirisuriya

There is a need to get all private buses under one controlling body, like the Sri Lanka Transport Board (SLTB), to ensure a quality service and address a number of issues faced by private bus operators, president of the Lanka Private Bus Owners' Association (LPBOA) Gemunu Wijeratne has said, as reported by my brother journalist Rathindra Kuruwita in the Ceylon Today newspaper of 18 September 2017.

"Currently the National Transport Commission gives route permits for the long distance buses; meanwhile, Provincial Councils give permits for the buses that ply shorter routes. This needs to change and we need to get rid of the concept of route permits. We need to get all private buses under one controlling body, in a way like the Sri Lanka Transport Board," he has said.

He has added that this board will allocate buses depending on the need of an area. This method will also ensure that all buses get an equal opportunity to operate on the more profitable routes.

"This will also get rid of the friction between short and long distance bus operators because one day your bus can operate between Kandy and Colombo, and the next day it can be sent on the Battaramulla - Dehiwala route. This is how the SLTB operates as well," Wijeratne has added.

Straight from the horse's mouth!

It has come straight from the horse's mouth! Although he has looked at the issue very comprehensively it is a pity that our so-called transport and logistics specialists, whose theories don't suit this country, have not been bothered about it at all!

All this connects up with the article titled 'Private buses an anachronism: Iron rod culture has come back' written by me in November 2013 to Ceylon Today, excerpted below:

President J. R. Jayewardene, perhaps unwittingly, brought back in 1977, a system of public bus transport which the British colonial government had discarded, on the recommendations of the Nelson Commission, as being unsystematic, over 80 years ago. Omnibus transport began in this country as far back as 1907. However, most of the buses were run, initially, by owner operators, with buses of more than one person plying on the same route without route permits, leading to fights among owners and employees, for the load and routes, ending in brawls, fisticuffs, stabbings and even shootings. In the 1930s a bus rivalry at Anuradhapura led to one owner attempting to murder his rival by firing at him. On the Colombo-Negombo route the manager of one concern was murdered by employees of another.

Worst driving

There's no gainsaying the fact that the private bus drivers even today are notorious for the worst driving on Sri Lanka's roads.

The conductors also have earned infamy for being discourteous to the public in general and unnecessarily cuddlesome to females.

Some time ago the Route No. 261 private buses that commenced journey from Mahara Junction were relocated to Kadawatha as two women were run over at the bus stand on a land belonging to the Mahara Pradeshiya Sabha. Barely a few days after the private bus operators struck work asking for the former site as the bus stand another woman was crushed to death sandwiching her between the bus and a wall by a private bus driver at Dalupitiya. The SLTB had to come to the rescue as the private bus operators were prevented from running buses for a day by the irate villagers.

In marked contrast the SLTB crews, to recruit whom at least the minimum of educational qualifications are stipulated, are generally more civilized if not more cultured. The drivers who are properly trained at the Board's driving school are definitely an example to others on the road. The trouble with the SLTB is primarily that it is top-heavy in the sense that owing to the scheme of promotion in the service, drivers, conductors and mechanics become executives with no work to do but getting their pay in time, while there is a dearth of the former types to handle the daily operations owing to leave entitlement and so on. There has even been a tendency for them to go on leave and drive private vehicles to make up for less pay and even not being paid at all for months on end.

Nationalization

After the nationalization of omnibus transport by Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike on 1 January 1958 by the setting up of the Ceylon Transport Board (CTB) blue-printed on London Transport, on the recommendations of the Rutnam Survey of 1948, Sansoni Survey of 1954 and Jayaratne Perera Survey of 1956, long distance bus services commenced and the CTB functioned well under its first Chairman Vere de Mel of Ceylon Civil Service and the country's first radio cab service, Quickshaws, fame. However, its golden era dawned with Anil Moonesinghe becoming the Minister of Communications in 1964 and after a five-year interruption, he being appointed its Chairman in 1970. It saw its doldrums after his exit in 1975 never to be resuscitated again. The CTB had its worst period from 1975 to 1977 for J. R. Jayewardene to take omnibus transport to the pre-Nelson Commission era before mid-1930s.

Today, four decades after the JRJ system was introduced, no Minister of Transport has been able to make all private bus conductors issue tickets to passengers. It's like pavement hawking where conductors, criers and even drivers shout at the top of their voices to solicit passengers, just as the former do so to sell their wares. They fight shy of wearing the short sleeved shirt that goes for a uniform because it is worn out and even torn. However, the SLTB is likely to be restored to its former glory sooner than later as evidenced by the private bus sector importing only 1,000 buses in the first three quarters of 2013 as opposed to 3,000 in 2012.

In the short-distance routes where no tickets are issued passengers travelling free is rampant, especially in over-crowded buses, the down and out who find it difficult to find the money even to have a cup of plain tea, tend to travel on the sly invoking merit on J.R. Jayewardene as there are no ticket checkers, unlike during the bus company days!

The conductors shouting at passengers to give them the exact change also prevents them from paying at all. So except the few owner operators, others find it hard to pay even the finance installments, not to mention make profits and in the result most buses are mere ramshackle contraptions.

This is also the reason why bus owners ask for frequent fare hikes because they haven't even the funds to repair their buses. No one including the authorities has realized that with the pilfering of money by the bus crews added to this, the whole private bus operation has become a complete mess. This has remained un-rectified for as long as four decades probably because the transport experts in this country are aware of worse situations elsewhere in the world!

No ticket checkers

I haven't seen the colour of an SLTB ticket checker for decades although I happen to be a daily commuter patronizing omnibus transport for almost seven decades. Anil Moonesinghe utilized the Fiat cars he got as commission from the company, Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino (FIAT), for importing buses and bus chasis for the CTB, for his flying squads of ticket checkers. He also deployed two conductors in large two-door buses and in standee buses run to even to Anuradhapura during Poson season, to make sure that no one travelled free. He himself was a one-man flying squad driving his signature metallic blue Volkswagen Variant or his Citroen 2CV, on the prowl for errant bus crews even at dawn, at places such as the Dematagoda Junction. He once personally carried out eight vehicle services at the Central Workshop, Werahera to prove that that number could be serviced in a day.

He had a fleet of 50 light brown Leyland Comet luxury buses to be given on private hire. During the last two years of his tenure as Chairman the CTB ran at a profit while providing a service which was never previously or subsequently matched. He attracted even graduates to serve as bus conductors and one day in the early 1970s, I as a sectional head of Terrence N. De Zylva Maha Vidyalaya, Kolonnawa, was borrowing books from the American Centre Library, a graduate conductor attached to the Meetotamulla Depot was also at the counter there to borrow books. One cannot expect such wonders from pygmies who cannot hold a candle to him!

If Anil was made the Minister of Transport by President Chandrika Kumaratunga in 1994 he would definitely have turned around the SLTB to its pristine glory as reminded by his son Vinod almost every year writing his anniversary appreciation of his father to the newspapers. The stark fact is that the Democratic Socialist JRJ policy is followed to the letter vis a vis omnibus transport even though Socialist Democracy is supposed to be the political dogma of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. To go back to pragmatic Anil, one of the measures he would definitely have taken was to make the former drivers, conductors and mechanics promoted as executives, to man buses, to make up for the daily shortage of those who really operate bus services, paying them an additional allowance!

Need of the hour

What needs to be done today is to bring all private buses under one umbrella as the Lanka Private Bus Owners' Association President suggests and run the way the SLTB operates to do away with the shortcomings of the present private bus operation. Of course, there are certain things the SLTB has to learn from the private bus operations and vise versa.

For example in the matter of recruitment of staff for private buses under the new set up, educational qualifications have to be looked into as done by the SLTB, as those who deal with the public have to have a fair education, as any Sociologist would say.

Likewise the Sri Lanka Transport Board has to emulate the private bus operations in being economical and maintaining buses well.

Most importantly, there has to be a healthy competition between the two entities for the benefit of the people because public transport is by and large a service and not a business per se.

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