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Sunday, 5 October 2008

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Streamlining private bus services

There have been endless complaints against private bus drivers and conductors from the late 70s since the private sector passenger transport was introduced.

The most recent incident was witnessed on the eve of the Universal Children's Day when the floor-board of a private school bus gave way killing an eleven-year-old girl, who was on her way to school in Kegalle.

Consequently, an irresponsible private bus operator robbed the life of the student of Swarana Jayanthi Maha Vidayalaya in Kegalle.

Initial police investigations have disclosed that the student had fallen after a part of the floor-board gave way. The student was later run over by a wheel of the bus killing her on the spot. It was reported that the bus had been in operation for the last couple of years with the broken floor-board.

A few months ago, we heard of another unfortunate incident of a bus plying on route number 175 between Kollupitiya and Kotikawatte when an elderly passenger died after being stabbed by a conductor following a minor argument.

These are not isolated incidents but regular features of our private passenger system. Sadly, no action has been taken to take these drivers and conductors to task. They care a dime for road rules or accepted norms of passenger transport. Regardless whether they have the right of way or not, private bus drivers often have a mistaken notion that they have priority over others.

With the SLCTB and the Ceylon Government Railways (CGR) providing an efficient service, the State sector handled the public transport system until 1978. However, with the open economy system under the UNP regime of President J. R. Jayewardene, the private passenger transport sector grew at an alarming pace.

Since then, the private transport system developed to take on the bulk of public transportation. There have been countless irregularities in the private bus service and it has now come to a point that we could barely call it a service. When the SLCTB handled the entire operation, it was purely a service and a social responsibility project of the Government.

Though the SLCTB's contribution has reduced to a great extent at present, it still continues to render a yeomen service to the public, especially in the rural and semi-urban areas. During the day and at peak hours, it is a mad rush, amongst private bus operators.

Even before dusk falls, private bus operators take their entire fleet off the roads, forcing commuters to depend entirely on the State-run SLCTB at night. Over the years, there have been many attempts by successive Transport Ministers to streamline the private passenger bus service, but still the hapless commuters are at the receiving end and undergo immense hardships.

Though private bus owners make a song and dance each time fuel prices go up, they never touch on the quality of their service and the rights of commuters. From the moment a passenger boards a private bus, the commuter is at the mercy of the driver and the conductor.

Overloading and reckless driving have become the order of the day and even on busy Colombo City routes, we often observe drivers killing time at certain bus halts. This is even worse in rural and semi-urban routes as the private bus operators hold passengers to ransom.

Fearing that they would be subjected to humiliation from drivers and conductors, most passengers prefer to keep silent though they are constantly harassed by private bus operators. There are enough and more incidents to depict the cruelty of private bus conductors and drivers.

Most of them are compelled to do so as they are pressurised by their owners to collect every possible cent.

In their greed to earn money, most private bus operators are willing to do anything and everything, not only putting the lives of passengers at great risk but also posing a severe danger to other commuters and motorists as well. They often obstruct roads by killing time at bus halts, causing severe traffic blocks.

Sri Lanka Private Bus Owners' Association Chairman Gemunu Wijeratne has said that a combined SLCTB-private bus timetable would help streamline the bus service, but we have our reservations on how successful it would be as it might only weaken the SLCTB further. There have been several occasions where this system had been tried out previously with little or no success.

Even under a combined service, the SLCTB will be compelled to do the night shift. If a combined timetable comes into effect, there may not be a single bus for the night commuters on the days the private operators are rostered to run after dusk. If such a system is to emerge, the private operators must give a firm assurance that they would operate their assigned night fleet on schedule.

Though Wijeratne has said there was a 30 per cent excess of private buses in the Western Province, commuters in the Colombo, Kalutara and Gampaha districts are the most affected due to the poor private transport system.

Though Wijeratne has attributed unnecessary competition between private buses and SLCTB buses as the main cause for accidents, it were the private bus drivers who have been the most dangerous causing untold hardships to all other motorists.

Most SLCTB drivers are duty-conscious and maintain a high standard. We could hardly witness that among private bus drivers and conductors. Private bus operators often wax eloquent about their profits and benefits but there is hardly anybody to speak on behalf of the rights of commuters.

We fervently hope the Transport Minister would take steps to strengthen the State transport sector further and take stern action to discipline private bus drivers and conductors.

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