Dateline Irrawaddy: ‘This System Calls for Cooperation’

By The Irrawaddy 28 January 2017

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss the impact of the new public transit system on commuters more than a week after its launch on Jan. 16, the challenges facing the divisional government and bus line operators, and how the transition is going. Ko Thet Tin Win aka Ko Tayoke Lay, who previously owned bus line No. 45 and now owns No. 21, and Rangoon divisional lawmaker Ko Nay Phone Latt, who contributed to the introduction of the new bus system, will join me for the discussion. I’m Irrawaddy English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.

It has been eight days now since the launch of the new system. People had more than enough trouble under the old Ma Hta Tha [Rangoon Supervisory Committee for Motor Vehicles] system, which dates back to 1962. Ko Nay Phone Latt, what is your assessment of the new system so far? Is it a success? Has public transportation gotten better or worse?

Nay Phone Latt: It is not worse; it has improved. But it is too early to say the new system is a success. Because I worked as a volunteer, I see and understand the troubles that people face. In the first few days, some bus lines did not operate, there were an insufficient number of buses, and bus stops were crowded. Volunteers had to help commuters get home. These were the difficulties in the beginning. As more buses were added to the fleet, it became more convenient each day. But through Monday, I heard that there was a shortage of buses and that many buses overcharged or did not operate into the night, leaving commuters stuck on the street at night.

KZM: The habits of the old system are still alive.

NPL: Yes, as far as I have heard, they are. The public transit system has improved but it is too early to say it is a full-fledged success.

KMZ: Many things remain to be done, don’t they? Rangoon has a population of more than five million people. The number of commuters is estimated to be around 2.7 million. Bus lines were reformed out of necessity, but as Ko Nay Phone Latt has just pointed out, they are not yet ready. We have heard a lot of complaints. So what are the major problems for bus line operators and bus lines themselves, Ko Tayoke Lay?

Thet Tin Win: The major problem is that there are not a sufficient number of buses. But it was not because the new system was launched all of a sudden. We have worked in cooperation with concerned departments to implement the new system since May 2016. The process took a long time because the government wanted to make sure individual bus line operators could join the new system and were not negatively affected, as well as prevent big companies from monopolizing the system. The process took time mainly because the government wanted to help individual bus owners who have been engaged in this business for a while to join the new system. The new system was not introduced overnight.

So far, it is difficult to say if the system is successful or not. There are advantages as well as difficulties. The advantage is that the new system addresses problems like traffic woes and violations, as well as resulting violence. But the weakness of the new system is that there are not enough buses. We need replacements and at the same time, technical things like GPS, CCTV cameras and a digital payment system have yet to be implemented. The divisional chief minister said at a meeting on Jan. 20 that he wanted to introduce the digital payment system. We have found that the government is making an effort. The situation suggests that we should lend a hand to the government by giving it the information we have gathered. Bus line operators have to lend a hand and commuters have to report difficulties to the government in real time.

KZM: Yes, it would be difficult for the new system to be successful immediately considering the huge number of commuters it has to handle. It is perfectly understandable. But do you think it is on the right track?

TTW: It has started moving in the right direction and it is time we pushed it together because the system has been in operation for more that a week now.

KZM: Ko Nay Phone Latt, the Rangoon divisional government as well as the Yangon Region Transport Authority (YRTA) are primarily responsible for the new system. Do you think people are well informed about the system? Do they know which buses to take? There are around 70 bus lines now, and commuters are not yet up-to-date on some of the bus lines. How was the system managed over the past week to inform commuters in real time about the bus routes?

NPL: As Ko Tayoke Lay has said, commuters should put forward suggestions and report their difficulties. But, to be frank, there is no proper channel through which commuters can provide feedback or file complaints. We have set up a 181 hotline to receive complaints. You might have heard about it. But it is not free; there is a charge. And we heard that commuters could not get an answer from the hotline. There have been problems.

I am particularly disappointed that information could not be provided to the public swiftly and correctly. We did distribute pamphlets about the bus routes. Initially, we printed about 500,000 copies of the pamphlets when there were only 61 bus lines. Then, the number of bus lines increased to 70, and we printed new pamphlets again. Then, another bus line was added. Now, I have heard that there will be seven more bus lines though I still don’t have all of the information. To be frank, the routes in the pamphlets are full of errors. Because the information was not correct, there were severe difficulties for both volunteers and commuters. I have talked to the chief minister about it and he said he would fix it. He said he would also systematically rearrange bus route signs and provide updated pamphlets at bus stops for commuters.

KZM:  We’ve replaced an old system with a new one. There will also be people who oppose and resist change. Has there been any political intervention by families or relatives of former generals who operate bus lines? Have you seen them resist the change?

TTW: I haven’t seen this. The major weakness was that bus owners were less cooperative and slow to cooperate. So, we couldn’t change the public transportation system quickly.

KZM: I heard that the Rangoon divisional chief minister U Phyo Min Thein said that some bus owners were reluctant because of their greed, and he urged them to not think of themselves but to work for the convenience of their passengers. Did he do that?

TTW: To the government, it might appear that most bus owners, drivers and conductors didn’t want to join the new system or were going against it. But all the bus owners, drivers and conductors who have engaged in this transportation service for a long time like the new public bus system.  We accept the formation of public bus companies and shared ownership. It is clear who doesn’t like the new system. Some bus line owners previously leased their buses for a set fee, leading drivers to compete for additional passengers to earn more. They only cared about money and neglected everything else. So, bus owners, drivers and conductors who used that payment system don’t like the new system. But other bus owners, drivers and conductors—including me—who have long engaged in the bus service, fully support the new system.

KZM: Do bus owners see greater profits now?

TTW: We are earning much more than we did in the past. But, we don’t like it. Previously, when the bus fare was 300 kyats, we transported around 200 passengers and earned between 35,000 and 40,000 kyats for a completed route. Now, we are earning between 70,000 and 80,000 kyats for a completed route, but the bus fare is only 200 kyats.

So, we are transporting 500 to 600 passengers. During rush hour, a bus carries at least 400 passengers. This is totally unreasonable. We earn more money, but passengers have to take overcrowded buses. This is not fair. Bus lines will be successful only when the three parties—commuters, bus drivers and bus owners—are satisfied. Passenger problems are our problems. Problems facing bus drivers and conductors are our problems as well. So, the number of buses should be increased immediately. The new system is fine except for the insufficient number of buses. If passengers can take the bus with ease, they won’t mind transferring a couple times.

KZM: Both the government and the YRTA have said that about 1,000 buses would be purchased and added to the existing fleet as soon as possible. But the problem now is the lack of direct routes and that passengers have to change buses three or four times, paying 200 kyats each time. They have to pay more than in the past. How should this be addressed, Ko Nay Phone Latt?

NPL: According to Ko Tayoke Lay, earnings have significantly increased, mainly because buses have to carry many people. If there are more buses, it should be possible to regulate them to only carry a fixed number of passengers.

We also need to review the bus fares. People have complained. Previously, there were buses that went directly to their destinations. Now, they complain about having to transfer and spending more on fares. Another complaint is that passengers are overcharged to sit in the front of the bus. Aside from overcharging, passengers are already spending more on normal bus fares—especially students and workers from the outskirts. If these complaints are true, we need to think about how to fix this. It would be best if we could apply the card system used in Singapore, which charges according to the distance traveled. That system can even charge in cents. So, it would be best if we could apply a similar system.

KZM: As Ko Tayoke Lay has mentioned, there were problems with crime [resulting from the misconduct of bus drivers and conductors] on the buses and streets. This has been reduced. But, what other problems might arise, Ko Nay Phone Latt?

NPL: I have made three suggestions. The first is to provide information. There should be someone on standby who will take commuter questions about the bus routes. The second suggestion is about complaints. Though there are fewer fights now, but there are still traffic violations. I am still frequently receiving complaints along with photo evidence. People are active in that regard. They document the violations and file complaints. But there is still no proper complaint handling mechanism despite having technicians who will help us implement it. The third suggestion is to get feedback. The public is the most important if we are to truly become a democracy. I would like to urge the government to establish a mechanism that responds to the feedback and participation of the public with due respect rather than taking a top-down approach or just listening to the voices of the people without responding.

KZM: Overall, what do you think are the major problems, Ko Tayoke Lay?

TTW: Mainly, the Rangoon divisional government needs to install more buses.

KZM: Those buses should be in good condition as well!

TTW: Yes. And I would like to tell commuters that we understand their troubles. However, this system calls for cooperation and I would like to request that they keep being patient and pushing for a successful reform.

KZM: Ko Nay Phone Latt, Ko Tayoke Lay, Thank you for your contributions!