Yangon’s infamous public bus system – where commuters are dragged by callous conductors onto ageing vehicles operated by drivers with scant regard for road safety – is about to change.
A long-awaited transformation of the bus network, which some 80 percent of the commercial capital’s 2.8 million daily commuters depend upon, will begin at the end of this week, the regional government’s chief minister U Phyo Min Thein said on January 6.
He added that the main request he received from ordinary people on his social media page was for an overhaul of the transport system as soon as possible. “It became the most important problem so we’ve changed the system,” he said.
The most immediate change is that starting from January 16 the chaotic web of some 300 bus individual lines will be whittled down to just 58. But although the region government has been working on the new system for months, other elements are still being finalised.
The Yangon Region Transport Authority (YRTA) has yet to announce the eight public-private partnership (PPP) firms that have won a tender to operate many of the new lines. The authorities are also taking applications until January 10 from individual bus owners that would like to operate lines under the new system.
Any bus owner wanting to take part in the new system has to register their vehicles with the YRTA office in South Okkalapa township, said U Phyo Min Thein.
Daw Nilar Kyaw, the regional minister for electricity, industry and transportation, said that “if the buses are not registered with the YRTA, then we will not regard them as official.”
The regional government had hoped to have the PPP firms and individual bus owners operate new vehicles on the new lines. But new buses are expensive and region government plans to provide financial assistance have been problematic.
The Yangon Region government initially proposed that buses unfit for Yangon roads be sold to other states and regions, but weak demand and low prices saw this idea abandoned.
The YRTA is now operating an exchange system under which anyone with a bus made before 1995 has to exchange the vehicle for a car import slip. That can then be sold for cash, allowing the bus owner to put the money toward a new bus or cash out of the public transport business altogether.
Buses made after 1995 are still eligible for the new system, and it is unclear how many of the PPP firms hoping to run lines have already purchased new vehicles. The first buses to carry passengers on the new lines could well be the same ageing hulks that Yangonites have watched weave in and out of traffic for years.
But if the buses are unchanged commuters can hopefully expect better service once they are onboard. During the first three months of the new system bus conductors will collect fares as before, but the fare will be based on the length of the route.
“Bus fares will start from K100 up to K300 except for very long routes that go outside of Yangon,” said U Phyo Min Thein, adding that travel cards and mobile payment options will be introduced later on.
The YRTA reported in October last year that overcharging topped the list of commuter complaints.
The government is also tackling the issue of the conductors themselves, who in the current system are exclusively male and have a reputation for bad behaviour. Under the new system the government will assign male and female conductors to the specific routes.
The new system will run until at least 10pm every night, unlike the present system, which finishes earlier and frequently charges commuters a higher fare for travelling late. Bus stops are also in line for a makeover, including the addition of more advertising space to help fund the reform. A call centre will help commuters navigate the new system, while timetables will be available online and through pamphlets.
“We will implement the operation in three-month phases and everything will be finished by the end of this year,” said U Phyo Min Thein, adding that a central control center has been built at People’s Park.
Daw Ni Lar Kyaw said that some commuters are worried there will not be enough buses operating on the new system, but that there is no cause for concern.
“We’ve arrange the lines based on current routes and it will be ok,” she said.
The government is hoping the new system will eventually run with at least 3000 buses, but it is still unclear how many buses will run on the 58 new lines.
Bus owners banding together to create PPP firms in the hoping of being allocated lines under the new system have also voiced concerns around profitability. Under the current system, bus owners make money from ticket sales on their individual buses.
‘’The problem is that bus owners in the current system want a daily income every evening,” said U Phyo Min Thein.
As part of a PPP firm operating multiple lines, profits will be shared, and bus owners will rely on the entire PPP venture being profitable. The regional government said last year that the government would help such ventures stay profitable by awarding them petrol distribution licences.
“Public transportation is a kind of business, and although there’s no need to get [very high] profits there also can’t be losses,” said U Phyo Min Thein.
Bus line operators need to be aware that they are providing a service for passengers, and “if the individual owners do not want [to operate the lines] anymore, we will replace them as other companies are waiting”, the chief minister said.
The government is hoping the new PPP-run system can help to develop the private sector, but it also plans to invest K60 billion in new bus system and can double this if necessary, he said.