The rebirth of the Sri Lanka Transport Board, more popularly known by the acronym CTB, last week is an acknowledgement that the privatisation of the public bus service has not been as successful as desired.
So many years have passed since private buses were introduced on our roads (or re-introduced) but neither the authorities nor the private bus operators themselves have been able to ensure a good enough service to the commuting public.While the privatisation of the road passenger transport sector certainly did have some notable benefits for hapless commuters, the main one being more frequent buses, it failed to solve all the problems that plagued the transport sector and spawned a new set of problems.
Buses may now be available every few minutes on most routes but the service thins out once the rush hour is over and late night services and those on less populous routes are far from adequate. This is because private bus owners shun less profitable times and routes.It is here that a public bus service is required since private operators cannot be relied upon to provide a good enough service.
Successive administrations have also failed to organise an adequate system where bus operators are compelled to operate services on less profitable routes and times just like the incentives given to private telephone companies to roll out their service in rural areas. Nor have the authorities been able to arrange a system that seems common sense to most people - joint time tables for private and public bus services to ensure a smooth, uninterrupted service.
Instead what we have seems like absolute anarchy ? a private bus service that has been allowed to run amok and become a law unto them selves.
The competition among private operators has led to speeding and reckless driving. Private buses now invoke fear in the public mind and are seen as killing machines given the frequency with which they run down and kill pedestrians and other road users. Also, the public has had enough of rude conductors and aggressive drivers. Despite repeated promises by the private bus operators association, most bus crew still do not issue tickets and still resort to overcrowding. The National Transport Commission has also proved ineffective in trying to ensure private bus operators adhere to the law and in improving the service.
We saw recently how the private bus mafia went on strike and disrupted the public transport as they opposed increases in fines for roads offences. No government can tolerate such blatant attempts at blackmail. This outrageous attitude is one of the reasons that prompted the government to revive the CTB.
The move not only has been able to win bipartisan support in parliament but also has beenhailed by no less an organisation than the J-Biz (Joint Business Forum) which issued a statement welcoming the revival of the CTB. It is very rare for the business community to support a state venture and say it is better than the privatised bus service.
The Sri Lanka Transport Board has degenerated over the years and now accounts for only around 15 per cent of the bus transport service. The importance of an efficient public transport system has been underscored by the fact that even with only around eight per cent of the population owning private vehicles, there is already severe congestion on our roads and that if this were to merely double, the roads would become impassable and we would be in permanent gridlock. The private bus mafia, as they are now called with some justification, cannot be allowed to bully the public and government and hold them to ransom.