Collapse of Private Bus Service

CEYLON TODAY | Published: 2:00 AM Jan 14 2022

Railway station masters resumed their strike yesterday on allegations of the breakdown in the administration of Sri Lanka Railways (SLR) among others, thereby once more disrupting the country’s train services.

This follows the virtual collapse of the 31-year-old private bus transport service, throwing commuters into disarray and further scarring the already haemorrhaging economy, while the Government, like the three proverbial monkeys, ‘see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil’, remains nonchalant. 

It’s paradoxical that the collapse of the private bus transport system took place after the Government allowed the bus transport system, both public and private, to increase bus fares from between 17-21 per cent, the latter, vis-à-vis the minimum fare being up by Rs 3, i.e. from Rs 14 to Rs 17, another case of the Government missing the bus, by treating the symptoms and not the causes of the disease. 

Three reasons have been adduced for the near collapse of the private bus transport system. They are the high cost of living, forcing bus operators to sell off their assets to make ends meet, the inability of bus operators to pay their leases due to the downturn of the economy leading to the seizure of such assets and lastly, private bus conductors and drivers giving up their jobs due to the disruptions caused to the public transport system by the frequent lockdowns and shutdowns led by the Covid-19 Pandemic, beginning nearly two years ago in March 2020.

Therefore, the macroeconomic problems facing bus operators need to be resolved and resolved fast, in the larger interest of the economy.

If in 1981 the bus commuter problem was solved by opening up this sector to private bus operators, in 2022, the resurfacing of this issue may be once more be resolved by providing handouts and other means of relief to private bus operators by the Government.

The Rs 220 billion relief package announced by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s younger brother, Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa, on 3 January doesn’t address bus operator woes and by an extension bus commuter woes, in other words, masses’ woes, showing how out of step with the masses the present Government is, though only a little over two years in power, vis-à-vis the President being elected to power on 16 November 2019.

This has to be rectified and rectified fast, to prevent the wholesale collapse of the economy. 

 On the eve of the 16 November 2019 Presidential Poll, Gotabaya Rajapaksa launched his election manifesto titled ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’. 

Vis-à-vis the country’s bus service system, Rajapaksa said, to quote excerpts, “We will modernise the Ceylon Transport Board (CTB) and make it a world class transport service on par with any other developed country. We also intend to re-fleet the current bus stock and introduce environmentally-friendly buses (electric and hybrid buses) to ply within the city limits of the New Colombo. 

The current privately-operated buses will be also supported, and we will ensure that public transport coexists as they work to a common timetable, thereby ensuring they too are profitable and can operate within the established public transport framework. 

Private bus owners would be given all needed bank loans, tax relief and assistance to re-fleet their bus portfolios and comply with the ‘Green Transport’ concept.”

Where is the fulfilment of these promises?

It’s now more than two years since Rajapaksa was elected to power, but Sri Lanka’s bus transport system, contrary to the President’s vision, is slowly but surely, descending into the abyss, reminiscent of the parlous state of the bus service that existed in the 1970-77 period, when this service was a monopoly of the Government.

But, with the reintroduction of the private bus service 41 years ago, in 1981, coinciding with the change of Government on 21 July 1977, the public transport system was alleviated, led by the public now having a choice, after the monopoly enjoyed by the State-run Sri Lanka Transport Board (SLCTB), the successor to the Ceylon Transport Board (CTB), was broken.

Previously and up to 1957, Sri Lanka’s bus services were a monopoly of the private sector, before this service was nationalised by the Government that was voted into power in 1956, giving birth to the CTB.

When the bus service was a State monopoly, commuters travelling on buses running on Galle Road, known as  ‘A2’,  Sri Lanka’s busiest road, sometimes had to wait for as long as 40 minutes or even longer, for buses connecting to certain Colombo suburban routes, byways of the Galle Road.

Due to the scarcity of buses, commuters also had to travel jam-packed.

But with the reintroduction of private buses, these twin afflictions were treated.

However, the unbroken transformation experienced in Sri Lanka’s bus transport system for 31 years from 1981 to 2021 (last year) took a turn for the worse with the virtual collapse of the private bus services of this country beginning from this year, another of several wake-up calls for the Rajapaksa Government. “There’s none so blind as those who will not see.”

CEYLON TODAY | Published: 2:00 AM Jan 14 2022

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