Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Woes and worries: perspectives on the bus service

An industry or service depends on success and success, at the end of the day, is determined by how users see that industry or service. Every other consideration and factor is at best trivial in light of the way those users use the service provided. In other words, it’s not a question of quality for the sake of quality, but quality for the sake of what’s demanded by the people or customers and what will be needed in light of changing demographics. Sri Lanka’s public transport service, in particular the bus service, clearly needs to be aware of this vital point if it is to progress beyond the landmarks, milestones, and achievements it’s been coveted with.

This week’s article is about our public bus service, the Langama Sevaya, and the many institutional pitfalls and problems it’s fallen into. It is not an attempt at a verdict, but rather an attempt at finding out what those problems are and how, in the light of its once bright prospects, we can salvage the industry from the maladministration it’s been subject to.

Defining a service and an industry

But first, a clarification: are “service” and “industry” interchangeable terms in the context of the Sri Lanka Transport Board (SLTB)? Not really. I realised this for myself when I sat down to talk with Vinod Moonesinghe. Vinod’s father Anil was, as everyone knows, the Minister for Transport under the government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike (in 1964) and later Chairman of the Board (from 1970 to 1975), and during his tenure he uplifted the system so well that he left it as an efficient sector which could reckon with any other country (more on that later).

Vinod was clear on his point: “When you use the word industry, you are implying that it privileges the profit-motive when it theory it should not. The confusion between these two terms is more than just linguistic: at times it has served to blind us into the real potential of the public services.”

That’s true. It goes without saying, after all, that the Board offers affordability to its users, in keeping with the main function of a public transport system: to take workers, visitors, and travellers from A to B with relative ease, comfort, and quality. The statistics, I believe, speak for themselves: between 2011 and 2015 the number of buses in operation increased from 5,333 to 6,268 (a rise of 17 percent), while the number of tickets issued annually rose up from more than 670 million to more than 770 million (a rise of 15 percent).

On the other hand, I don’t really think this offers reason for complacency. While both figures did rise, it doesn’t seem to have meant more comfort for the typical traveller: the ratio of passengers to buses in operation (per day) in 2011 was about 345, while four years later it was about 337.

Sure, the drop indicates that there are fewer passengers per bus per day, which in theory should mean that there’s less discomfort aboard the SLTB. One can, however, make assertions. One can draw inferences. One can say, for instance, that this drop can be accounted for by a faster service by the private sector, and that the difference in fares between the public and private systems is so minimal as to make commuters consider factors other than price in their decision to opt for the latter. What are those other factors and how, considering the glaring instances of congestion, accidents, and severe inefficiencies inhibiting progress in the private sector, can the Board hope to improve in the public sphere?

That is where history becomes a guide. Well, sort of.

A brief history of the Board

The Board was predated by a monopoly owned, managed, and run by the British. By 1940, constraints in the system, together with the absence of any proper regulatory framework, compelled authorities to create the country’s first limited liability omnibus service. A decade later, the government of the country attempted to clamp down on discriminatory market practices by bringing in a licensing system, which however managed to dent those discriminatory practices only slightly.

It was S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike who, in keeping with his election manifesto, nationalised the bus service and the companies that had until then been running various transport lines within the country. That led to the creation of the Ceylon Transport Board (CTB), which was responsible for many of the characteristic features of the service today: in particular, the formation of bus routes in areas that were not considered as feasible by the market players who’d dominated the industry before. A record number of buses were imported to connect the more outstation parts of the country to the capital, in part to facilitate much needed mobility for a developing economy.

From its inception however, the CTB was blighted with mismanagement. It wasn’t until 1964 (when several Left parties, in particular the LSSP, joined the then ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party) that the service found an apt and suitable Minister: Anil Moonesinghe. Despite the fall of the SLFP barely a year later, Moonesinghe was able to leave behind certain features in the CTB which survived the succeeding UNP regime until his return as its Chairman in 1970.

While the service wasn’t meant to make a profit but rather to provide an affordable transport route throughout the country, he managed to turn it into a surplus-making institution by increasing efficiency, enforcing discipline (his experience as a trade unionist helped gain the respect of workers), and take it to hitherto unchartered areas (in particular Jaffna, where he was able to break down the private illicit monopoly in sway at the time).

When he inherited the CTB in 1970 however, political patronage and cronyism had all but crippled it, which led him (under the then Minister for Transport Leslie Goonewardena) to move from merely increasing efficiency to increasing inputs, especially by proving that the public service was well stocked to service eight buses a day at the Werahera Central Workshop (rather than five, as was officially recommended). With a concomitant system of obtaining feedback from commuters and standardising buses while preventing a monopoly being created in the purchasing process (by importing chassis from not just India’s Ashok Leyland but Japan’s Isuzu and Hungary’s Ikaru as well), patronage was on its way out and a strong meritocracy was developed in the sector.

A regime of self-reliance, compounded by Workers’ Councils and several self-management initiatives, helped boost it further, and at the end of the day the outcomes were staggering: because of these policies, the entire service were made to terminate at railway stations, thereby making it easier for hundreds of thousands of passengers to commute to work from faraway places.

Small wonder, then, that when talking about the CTB Anil Moonesinghe is a name one can neither forget nor marginalise.

Deterioration seeps in, resurgence looms

The regime of cronyism that had marked out the period before Moonesinghe’s chairmanship of the Board came back after 1977. From an efficient sector it ironically became a loss making institution despite the attempts by the government of the day to increase productivity through privatisation. Workers’ Councils were scrapped, existing structures were sold. The Board was broken down into Regional Transport Boards, which contorted the previous system of bus lines converging at railway stations, while political patronage, theft, and pilferage aided a new culture of mismanagement that saw, inter alia, the return of unregulated, unlicensed private bus operators.

It got worse after 1994. Not only did deregulation become the order of the day, even existing government-owned enterprises were sold to cronies and incompetent managers. The Werahera Bus Workshop, which had its heyday in the 1970s, was sold to someone who did away with the entire scheme for the sake of profit. While the government of Ranasinghe Premadasa had attempted to bring the people back to the Transport Board with its Peoplised Bus Services scheme, that too was backtracked and done away with in the early 2000s.

Fortunately, things got better after 2005. To sum up what happened: the CTB was brought back, it was rebranded as the Sri Lanka Transport Board (SLTB), and a program to increase the fleet of buses in the public service was begun. By 2011 these programs began to bear fruit: the fleet went over 5,300 and would rise even more at a time when the private bus operators owned more than thrice that amount.

All this provides some pertinent lessons. First and foremost, regulation didn’t automatically translate into efficient service provision. It was under the more statist regimes of Sirimavo Bandaranaike that the CTB went through its best, most mature years. That had less to do with the regulatory framework than with the presence of authorities who knew what they were doing and instilled some sense of discipline in the service.

Secondly, the reverse was also true: privatisation couldn’t be an answer to inefficiency if the ultimate result was the cartelisation of an industry that began to abandon less profitable routes outside the metropolis.

Thirdly and perhaps most importantly, it showed that policies touted and proved as successful by the previous regime didn’t always remain that way even if it was continued by the following regime, IF it was continued WITHOUT maintaining the structures and procedures enforced before. Thus the CTB, which was marketed well by 1964, deteriorated owing to the institutionalisation of political patronage between 1965 and 1970, while the CTB that became a service to reckon with from 1970 to 1975 went down almost immediately when unlicensed private operators were allowed into the industry after 1978.

Which means, quite possibly, that the gains made between 2005 and 2015 in terms of infrastructure, quality, affordability, and what-not can well be reversed and obliterated if the wrong policies and the wrong policymakers are in place.

Present issues and woes

And if that is the case, it would not only create new problems but would conveniently shield existing ones from much needed reforms and solutions. Himself no stranger to the state of the industry, and being a person intimate with facts, figures, statistics, and perspectives, Vinod Moonesinghe was quick to weigh in on the situation and draw out the necessary assessments we need in measuring the plight of the industry and service. I put to him that the SLTB needed more buses, which is to say that reforms in that area must be quality-oriented. He disagreed, much to my surprise.

He then returned to the dichotomy between private and public and made an interesting observation. “When we see Sri Lanka’s bus industry we think and we believe that it is exactly that: an industry. But that’s not the case. Think of it this way: you don’t find private operators calling the shots in the transport sector of any advanced economy. In continental Europe, in the UK, even in India, you don’t see a few monopolistic service providers maintaining high profits by packing as many users and customers as possible, even beyond the limits of reason, in one bus. You see comfort and you come across their services at affordable rates, which is to say that it is the public sector that predominates in those economies.”

What of quantity? “That was always a problem. When my father was Minister the CTB was carrying about four million passengers a day. Mind you, this was in the early sixties and seventies. The only difference back then was that underserviced areas, outside Colombo, were never short of buses: you could catch them until two in the morning and had to wait only until about four in the morning for them to commence for the day.”

Vinod argues that what we lack is a cohesive, all-encompassing network in the country. “You get individual bus routes which are not coordinated properly. It’s more or less a slipshod system where buses come and go. More to the point, they aren’t coordinated with the railway station, which is quite a problem for commuters who have to regularly travel to and from work.

“Imagine that you are coming from Piliyandala. The bus would take you about two hours to reach Colombo (because of traffic), whereas it would take you about half-an-hour to traverse the same distance. If the two were connected, as they were in my father’s day, you’d more or less take a bus from Piliyandala, get down by the Panadura or Moratuwa Station, leave for Fort or Maradana, get down there, and take a bus which would take you to your workplace. Simple.”

He contends furthermore that more buses don’t translate into a better network. Vinod contends that even with a fleet of more than 20,000 buses in the private sector, they are more concerned with speed and profit. That is true, and that goes on to show that there’s a vicious circle between economics and travel: if with all these numbers the common workers of the country are at the receiving end of a profit-oriented industry that operates on the principle of piling as many passengers as possible inside a bus, that means that the drudgery they undergo every day, to and from work, is compromising on productivity and whatever efficiency gains we could have got if the transport sector was more amenable to their daily routine.

So what’s a plausible solution? More regulations? Not really. Vinod argues that there’s little to no point in forcing more red tape on bus operators, if that we ignore the inefficiencies of the public sector AND clamp down on the profit-making ability of the private sector. On the other hand, with a well coordinated and well oiled network for the SLTB, more inputs may well be a solution in the long term: “The private bus operator runs slowly during off-peak hours and faster but with an impossible amount of passengers during peak hours, which the public service does not do. That’s an advantage the government has over the market, which policymakers unfortunately don’t really understand when they decide on privatising, deregulating, and cutting down on the public sector.”

Concluding remarks

The government is underway with two broad projects: one, the aligning of the SLTB with the private sector (the recent price hikes are evidence for this), and two, the installation of a monorail system. The first is tragic, the second unnecessary. In a context where railway services need to improve and bus services are grossly underdeveloped, these two decisions cannot and will not help the government salvage a sector it once had great potential in.

Here one remembers the bus service laid out in Britain during the Labour Party years until the advent of Margaret Thatcher, and one remembers the unparalleled transport system within London pioneered by Ken Livingstone. One remembers also the near-perfect system we could have implemented had our leaders and policymakers thought of the long term.

We don’t have enough Livingstones in Sri Lanka, sadly. We should. Those who believe in more red tape are as blind to reality as those who believe in opening the service to private players and transforming it to an industry. No amount of buses (however impressive) and no amount of regulations (however strict) can hide an essential truth: that a public service primarily depends on comfort and affordability, variables which are mutually exclusive in the profit-motive and variables which, for some reason or the other, have become mutually exclusive even in the public sector.

It’s time to look for solutions, therefore. And it’s time to enforce them. Starting now.