News Features  


National transport system needs complete overhaul

By Tharindu Prematillake And Ishtartha Wellaboda

“Better coordination needed”

Q: What is your opinion on where Sri Lanka’s bus system stands today?
We have a responsibility to help the citizens of this country. We will do all we can to make sure that they are comfortable when they are using public transport. Transport is one of the most integral parts of citizen, it’s an essential service, and therefore we can never afford to neglect it. I understand that certain changes need to be made in order to improve the service and we are committed towards making that happen.
When you talk of busses there are two sections - the CTB busses and the private busses. There are around 18,000 private busses out of which around 17,000 run and there are around 5500 CTB busses out of which around 4500 run.
In 1958 when the CTB bus system started there was a long felt need for that. It was created to help people in far away distant places. The CTB doesn’t run for profits. It runs to give a service to the people. On the other hand, private busses run for profit. We give season tickets to students. If the CTB was looking for profits then just imagine how many doctors and engineers we would have lost by now.
In the CTB service even if we can’t get profits we should try to cut costs. That should be our aim, to continue providing the great service that we give while cutting back on the costs.

Q: When compared with other countries, our bus system is lagging behind. What do you plan to do about this?
Yes, when you compare our service with that of a developed nation I can see that there is progress to be made.
We need to add more busses into the system to make sure that people get busses whenever they want to. Yes, in the cities you get busses regularly. But there are areas around the country where very few busses run, and people have to wait for hours to catch one bus. If the private sector also thought of service a little more and ventured into these areas it would be very helpful.
However, even when it comes to the CTB certain changes need to be made. The treasury can’t just be pumping money into it. The CTB should at least be able to cut its costs. The corruption, the waste of money all that needs to be taken care of in order to develop the CTB. Today, only 4500 CTB busses are running. I’ve made a few visits to bus depots and there are even busses that aren’t running because a battery is not working. We will ensure that such drawbacks are taken care of. We can’t put the breaks on the CTB. We will keep driving forward.
We will hold discussions with the private sector as well in order to come to an agreement where the entire system is more streamlined. We are willing to work with anyone who wants to develop the system.

Q: Do you think an organised franchise system should be introduced?
Yes, I believe that the bus system should come under institutions so that the system can be more organised. There needs to be better coordination between all concerned.
Right now the CTB works according to a timetable which is something that could be implemented to the private bus service as well.

Q: The former transport commissioner as well the private bus owners seem to agree on the need for a franchised bus system. However, there are allegations that politicians don’t want a more streamlined bus service in order to protect the commissions and dirty money they get from the current system. What are your thoughts on this?
I don’t agree with the argument that politicians are the ones who are dragging back the development of the public transport system. We work for the citizens and we will only be satisfied when the people get the best service possible. So I don’t see how we can be an obstacle to the development of the bus service.
Yes there is corruption in the system. We have received complaints and reports of drug addicts and other unqualified people running busses. And there are these money collectors at certain bus depots as well. The biggest gangsters in the area and sometimes the provincial politicians collect money for allowing busses to run in the area. There are cases where some CTB busses won’t even run in the route having taken money from the private busses. They use power to collect money. That is wrong and needs to change.
It is the bus owners who are giving this money. So they need to stop doing that as well. If there was a timetable for the private busses none of this would exist. We would be able to control most of the corruption that is going on if we had a more organised system.
All of these things need to change, and we are committed towards making that change.
Within the next few weeks we will hold discussions and come to agreements with all parties in order to make the necessary amendments.

Q: The provincial transport authorities refuse to work according to a national transport policy. Can there be true development in the bus service with this ongoing clash?
When it comes to that situation the court has given certain decisions. If we want real development we need all the provinces working together under a national transport policy. You can’t have one system for one province and another system for another province. We can’t have the provincial councils threatening the government on transport policy. All these provinces need to cooperate and work in harmony with the national policy. The ministry will take steps to ensure that happens. Otherwise it’s going to be very difficult to see any real development in the bus service.

Q: You have taken steps to remove route permit tenders. There are allegations that this has led to corruption and even more losses?
When a new government comes into power, certain things are changed. We look at the old system see what is not working and then change it. If the tender system was working then we should be having profits. But we are actually loosing money. So for the moment we decided to get rid of the system. There can be a lot of corruption in the tender system as well, and we were not making profits from it so we decided to scrap that system. But there is still room to decide whether the old system is good for us. We will hold more discussions with all parties and decide on what is the best way forward. I believe if we make certain amendments to the tender system it could be brought back.

Q: There is still no transport commissioner. Private bus owners are calling for the former commissioner Professor Amal Kumarage to be brought back as the Commissioner?
The President has always taken very good decisions whether it’s fighting terrorists or appointing people. I am sure that whoever he appoints to this post will be highly capable of doing a very good job.

The traffic congestion on the streets of Colombo is getting worse by the day. The large numbers of private vehicles converging on the streets is a message from the people that they no longer want to use the unorganised, outdated, and overcrowded, public transportation system in Sri Lanka.
A change in the current public transportation system is a must for several reasons.
The Nation spoke with some of the leading figures in the transportation industry to get their views on what needs to be done to revive our public transportation.
Following are the thoughts expressed by the former Commissioner of the National Transport Commission Professor Amal Kumarage, the Chairman of the Lanka Private Bus Owners Association Gemune Wijeratne, and the Deputy Minister of Transport Rohanda Dissanayake

Former Transport Commissioner,
Professor Amal Kumarage:

A lot of catching up to do
We should have hope because at one point of time we had, maybe, the second best public transport system in Asia. In the 60’s we had tram cars, we had trolley busses, busses, railways and all what you would want to have now you had back then. We even had timetables and standards. For various reasons we have gradually lost that. We have lost the technology, the management capabilities and so on. That is unfortunate. We have a lot of catching up to do in transport. Having had the system once I would say that it is definitely possible. But it is more difficult when something comes down to restore it to what it should have been. The backbone needed for a successful transport system is there. There are a few key things that are missing now.

Results of politicisation
“If you look at some other countries and how they have developed their transport system and why we haven’t been able to do so, you will see that there are a few key factors that stand out. One is a matter of professionalism and the standard of things that went out in the 1960’s. This eroded particularly with the government domination of the supply of transport. Professionalism was replaced by politicisation and with it transport was considered something that anybody could do. Transportation departments and institutes were headed by people who didn’t have the required educational background. That was partially the reason for the decline, for the lack of long term planning, for the non introduction of innovative new technologies, for not keeping up with world development, changing with the economic developments, changing with the social desires of the people. Basically, nothing much has changed over the last 40 to 50 years. Even in a typical bus even though the size and shape might have changed it is still the same comfort as it was decades ago. Sometimes it’s even worse. The railway carriages are the same, the stations are worse off, bus terminals are probably worse off. So we’ve lost a lot.

Implement national transport policy
“With the devolution of power under the 13th amendment we have the situation where provincial or within province transport has been devolved. Bus transport has always been the backbone of the public transportation system ever since road motorisation took place in the 1930’s and so on. What has happened is that with the decentralisation the intra provincial transport is now a provincial subject. So there is really not much coordination between the centers that manage inter provincial issues and the provinces that manage intra provincial issues. The coordinating mechanism doesn’t work. There is a issue of standards. If you look at timetables, each provincial authority has its own stand on timetables.

One of the things that has been done in the past is the new national transport policy where the standards have been set up. Standards for input in terms of technology, human resources, operational standards as well as certain norms in terms of how to manage bus systems and so on. These have to be adapted by the different provincial councils. Again the center has no coercive power to get that done.
When you look at the transport system there is nobody who is really responsible for it. There are eight transport ministers when you count the ones in the provinces as well. The Western Province is basically responsible for around 7000 buses. That’s a fairly large number. Even when we do improve a certain section of the system the other section will be lagging behind.

Lack of innovation and development
“Another area would be the lack of innovation and development. You can see that the private modes of transport have grown in leaps and bounds. A simple comparison is that in 1995 we had about 20,000 busses and there were less than a million private vehicles. Today, that number has gone up to almost 3 million and busses are basically at around the same level. We are in a stage of development in the country where the per capita income is at a stage where more and more people are able to afford private modes of transportation. If the per capita income increases beyond lets say 2000 dollars their disposable income is such that they can afford private transport. Where people live, what they do, all that depends on their mode of transport. Once people buy a car and then decide to build a house in an area where there is no public transport, there is no going back. We have seen this in many countries. There is a huge shift from public to private transport. We have come to that stage”.
“The import of cars and vans is heavily taxed. If the government removed those taxes there’ll be a huge number of people who would want to get vehicles to the extent that public transport will suffer serious setbacks”.
“Most agencies that are responsible for public transport live in the assumption that we have a very vibrant market. But that is not so. We have a captive market, because most people cannot afford private transport. Now that has changed. Every year we lose 1 to 2 percent of the share from public transport to private transport. That is not a something that we will feel suddenly, but gradually it will have drastic effects”.

Change of mindset
“We have to convert the mindset of those who control public transport and who think along the lines of here is a train, here is a bus, so get on it and go. That kind of mentality has to change if public transport is to survive in the next 10 or 20 years. You got to think of the passengers and their comfort. Then you have to create a public transport system that meets those needs”.
“You can say that if you have private means of transport isn’t that good? No. For Sri Lanka that is not a good thing. We are a small country, our population density is very high. Our cities are not that big. We cannot widen our roads and build enough new roads as we like. Therefore, we will not be able to accommodate this huge demand for vehicles. Presently, only around 25% of travellers use private transport. Now if that were to be 50% we would have twice as many vehicles on our roads. That will only create chaos. You can’t build your way out of this problem. Even if we could build roads, it’s going to cost a fortune, and that is money we could spend on a lot of other essential things”.

Countries like Hong Kong have successfully made public transport a viable option. Many European cities are also moving in that direction. What we need in a successful city is more people and fewer vehicles.

Improve standards
“Let’s take a standard private vehicle today, it has air-conditioning, it has a stereo system, every year there is something added on. We have to be able to do the same or better it in public vehicles. Then only will we be able to attract people to use it more”.
“Last year we did a successful experiment of the City Liner. For the first time the ministry of transport offered something for people who were virtually captive to their cars. We offered them something to draw them back to public transport. Never have we ever done something like that before. People didn’t really buy the idea at that time. Now within a period of six months almost all the busses are full and we are carrying over 200 passengers a day. We are almost breaking even on the cost. This is a little micro experiment where we are offering a high quality product compatible with cars. 82% of the people, who use these buses, were in private vehicles earlier. That is a huge achievement. That means it can be done. What do we need to do?”

“In terms of improving the system timetables are a must. Having a public transport system without a timetable is like trying to manage a school without a timetable. The overcrowding, the lingering of busses, the reckless driving, all of this is because we don’t have that controlling mechanism called a timetable”.
“The National Transport Commission has been implementing timetables for long distance routes. But for a lot of other places there are no timetables”.
“Why should the public be offered public transport where the buses are old and the crew is not trained? It’s a public facility. It’s the same as the government building a road which is full of potholes or having hospitals which have doctors who cannot treat patients and rooms that can’t be used. Why should we have a second level expectation for public transport?”

“If we go back to the development in the telecommunication industry, we see a very good example. 20 years ago telecommunications was something we didn’t have much choice in. We were captive to one provider. If that provider said we had to wait five years for the connection we had to be thankful if it was just five years and not ten years. Today, look at the choices you have. We all carry a phone. If we don’t like the facility, the shape or colour of the phone we can go and change it the very next day. That has become almost a necessity today. In public transport we haven’t seen that development. If we were still stuck with the same phones that we had a few years ago we wouldn’t know about all the facilities that exist today. The same goes for public transport, we are at a stage where we have been stagnating in the same old system that we don’t even know what it is like to have a proper public transport system”.

“We have to be aware of the qualitative developments. We are in a stage where people are willing to pay a little more for a better bus and a better ride.”
“With the anticipated growth I think we will have five years in the urban area, and ten years in the rural areas before it becomes too late to develop public transport”.

Take the bull by the horns
“We need to consolidate what we have. The management of the busses should move from individual bus owners to a more collective management. As regulators you should be able to talk to a competent manager than to a room full of bus owners. It’s very difficult to get any work done or have a consensus when it’s a room of people where everybody has personal goals. We have to take the bull by the horns in order to change this”.
“In certain South American countries you have very successful bus traffic systems where the roads are reengineered to give a higher level of service for buses. One lane can take 40,000 passengers per hour. A traditional lane of cars will only be able to take around 4000 passengers per hour. These are the methods they have used. India is building 20 such new systems, China is doing the same. We need to do the same at least in Colombo.”

Create a franchise system
“We need to have a good balance between the State and private buses. In passenger transport the State transports 25% of the passengers. In goods transport it’s something like 3%. So the State must go beyond its preoccupation as an operator of the CTB. It should be a planner a regulator, a facilitator for the huge chunk of private transport that is provided, directing them improving their quality. So the role of the state must change from the traditional concept of the most important function of the state in transport in only operating the CTB and railways. They are important but the wider management of the sector is more important”.
“To deliver quality, there must be a chain of command. Now the chain of command is from bottom up. Today, the top is powerless in a sense. We need to change that.”

Successful experiment
The transport commission successfully experimented with six bus companies that are registered under the registry of companies. These were buses running inter provincial routes from Colombo to Badulla, Ratnapura, Kataragama, Ambalangoda, Giriulla, Negombo and Matara. We wanted to make bus owners entrepreneurs and make them work together. We wanted to make these people who have been competing against each other come together and work together. That is something that has been embraced by those bus owners. Now they are business persons not just bus owners. They are shareholders of a business entity. So they hold identity changes, and they realise that having a manager to run around and do things is better than all of then trying to run around and try to do things. They can even manage their other businesses. We’ve seen a huge reduction in the number of accidents. Timetables have been implemented. We’ve seen them investigate their own complaints and take action against their crew which is unheard of in the rest of the system. So the potential for a better organized system under franchises has been established with this experiment. It can be done, and it has to be done.

Chairman of the Lanka Private Bus
Owners Association,
Gemunu Wijerathne:

Ministers and officials clearly responsible
“In my opinion politicians and bureaucrats are mainly to blame for Sri Lanka’s under developed transport system. One of the main downsides is that there are only a handful of competent experts on transport. The National Transport Commission (NTC) still does not have a chairman. The lack of competent people to guide the authorities is a major drawback for the development of the national transport industry.
“In Sri Lanka, there are 10 ministers to manage transportation but significant development hasn’t been seen in the industry for years. The number of experts on transport economy is a handful. The government needs to consider these things and appoint educated competent people to important sectors like the NTC.
“The NTC today is a failed institution. The private sector takes care of the bulk of the country’s public transport requirements providing services to 75% of the daily commuters while the Ceylon Transport Board (CTB) only accounts for 25%.
“Still the National Treasury gives the CTB Rs.5 million per year while the CTB operates at a loss. There are so many ways through which the government could have changed this but the lack of experts to manage these institutions keeps things from developing. The private busses, on the other hand, return over Rs.2 billion as taxes to the government annually.

Transparent tender system to issue route permits needed
“One clear example of poor management and the lack of foresight is the prevalence of the route permit system. Issuing route permits upon request without proper assessment of the national transport requirements or the transport requirement of a particular locality. As a result we see too many busses in some roads and no bus services at all for others.

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