RANGOON — For residents of Rangoon, this week was full of excitement, dissatisfaction, and frustration as the city embraced a new bus network.
Reform of the city’s decades-old notorious public transit system is now five days in, but the shift has not been smooth.
Volunteers and lawmakers have suggested modifying the system and considering new routes for the convenience of commuters.
The new Yangon Bus Service (YBS) replaced the infamous 300 bus lines registered under the Rangoon Motor Vehicles Supervisory Committee known as Ma Hta Tha with 70 bus lines, which downsized the bus lines to eliminate overlap in a move to avoid “races” between buses—a practice in which vehicles compete for passengers and make unscheduled stops.
Since its launch, it has met with an insufficient number of buses, as not all bus owners had registered with the Yangon Region Transport Authority (YRTA) to continue under the new system and others were not ready to operate, which led to overcrowding, delays and short supply, especially late in the evenings.
After five days, there is still a shortage of buses.
The plan was to operate with more than 3,700 buses. But on the first day of service, only 2,900 buses were ready to serve commuters. On the second day, the number increased to 3,300 and on Friday, 3,600 buses ran, according to the YRTA.
Regional lawmaker Ko Nay Phone Latt of Thingangyun Township, who is on the supervisory team overseeing the volunteers, said he observed long waits at some major bus stops and in the hub of the city due to insufficient or irregular buses that were not operating according to schedule.
“The official schedule for operation is until 9 p.m. But some buses didn’t operate after 5 or 6 p.m.,” he said.
However, Ko Nay Phone Latt said bus drivers and conductors have to work long hours starting in the early mornings, and that there should be two different shifts.
From Saturday, there will not be volunteer groups assisting commuters’ and the transport authority body must prepare a mechanism to resolve issues during the transition, he added.
“There are many issues to iron out,” he said. “There should be more bus routes or existing ones should be modified.”
He added that the [regional] government should analyze recommendations and feedback received from commuters and volunteer groups this week to remodel the system.
Dr. Maung Aung, secretary of the YRTA, told The Irrawaddy that the government would add additional buses soon and import more than 1,000 buses to fill the gap.
“We still have some difficulties. Some buses are still competing against each other and there are some complaints about misconduct and overcharging by bus drivers and conductors,” he said.
He added that the transport authority has taken immediate action this week to address more than 20 cases—including a bus driver assaulting a commuter, destruction of a route directory at a bus stop, overcharging, and traffic violations.
“We won’t relax the regulations,” he said.
“We are working to fix the issues. Also, I hope commuters will soon become more familiar with the new routes.”
The YRTA has said it will consider extending or changing the routes based on commuter requests.
The vehicles will be updated with new imported ones manufactured in 2006 or later next month and a digital payment system will be implemented in the next three-month phase.
For now, vehicles manufactured after 1995 are currently allowed for temporary use and around 70 percent of the buses operating under the new system are old.
“We have concerns about what will happen next in this new system. Nothing is certain. Buses could be told to stop operating tomorrow or an order could be issued to install CCTV and air-conditioning the day after tomorrow,” a bus owner who operates five buses under the new system told The Irrawaddy.
“Mine is just a small business. I can’t take a risk which I’m not sure will bring about profit or loss,” he added.
He said he does not think the new system will work if the bus fare remains at 200 kyats (US$0.15) and plans to operate new, air-conditioned buses with digital payment systems. When his line was operating from Hlaing Tharyar Township [on the Rangoon outskirts], he said he faced many unruly passengers and others who did not pay the fare.
“I will just go back to my native town and drive highway buses. I am getting tired of Yangon’s traffic and this system,” he added.
But Ko Ta Yote Lay, the owner of Power Eleven Co., who operates 69 buses, is optimistic about the new system— a profit-sharing system among bus owners that is in place until a public-private partnership takes effect in the next phase of the transport authority’s reform plan.
“Well-established bus companies prefer this system to the old one that required bus owners to work for their own daily income,” he said, commenting that the old system was not benefiting anyone.
U Kyaw Myint, a 67-year-old volunteer assisting commuters in Lanmadaw Township, said buses should be running on schedule and that more shuttle buses are needed in the concentrated areas downtown.
“We need more new buses. With the old ones, there will be the same old system,” he said.
A passenger said, “There are still many inconveniences with YBS. But I don’t want to go back to the Ma Hta Tha era. Never again.”