Minister finds taking a bus is no easy ride

Transport Minister Chadchat Suttipunt almost hit the right mark on his mission to please passengers relying on public buses in Greater Bangkok.

For him, the best way to truly understand the problem and feel the plight of commuters is to be a part of them. That was translated into an instruction to officials from C-9 level up at the Transport Ministry to keep their cars at home at least once a week and take a bus to work until the end of next month.

The idea popped into his mind after commuters lodged complaints about the long wait at bus stops, especially during the evening rush hour when they just want to return home from a long day at work.

''This order is not funny. I want all officials at the management level to experience this and other problems first-hand, and then come back to discuss how to best tackle them in a comprehensive manner,'' the minister said.

The Bangkok Mass Transit Authority has ordered a new fleet of natural gas-powered buses to improve its service but that, according to him, was not ''a magic pill'' that would put an end to problems at the city bus agency.

Mr Chadchat realised that himself on June 17 when he had to give up on taking a bus to Don Mueang airport after a long wait for the air-conditioned No.509 outside the Education Ministry, and he was not even half way along the journey after 80 minutes. The minister then had to go back to his car.

It's good to see a minister seriously trying to end the suffering of bus riders. Officials being forced to take a bus to the office will feel the same pain as others experience every day.

But with unpredictable traffic in the capital, especially during morning and evening rush hours, it could be difficult to see the end of this problem. The BMTA once tried to tackle it by installing a global positioning system and general packet radio service technologies on four routes. The trial project lasted a year and involved 100 buses equipped with the high-tech tracking system.

The system monitored bus movements to give officials an idea of the flow of the bus fleet. But the pilot project obviously ended in failure. Bus arrivals are still unpredictable, just like the traffic in Bangkok.

In fact, a more serious problem is not the long wait for a bus, but the bad behaviour of drivers of private buses, especially mini-buses.

The BMTA oversees 445 routes in Greater Bangkok, according to its website, which presented this figure in 2011. Only 108 routes are operated by the agency, accounting for almost a quarter, and another 101 are run by private firms under its concessions. The rest are routes given to song thaew or passenger vans.

Mr Chadchat could be upset at the experience of seeing time fly past while sitting at a bus stop. But at least he should be satisfied with the overall performance of the drivers and conductors of BMTA buses. Most of them are polite and willing to service passengers.

The problem lies with the private mini-buses. The latest move of the bus agency was to force them to dump ageing vehicles and bring in new ones powered by compressed natural gas. The buses now are in much better condition _ but that has not changed the behaviour of the drivers.

The agency should be credited for improving the performance of drivers and conductors of all BMTA buses. But that is not enough. What BMTA executives are doing with the privately run buses is not enough. The bus agency seems to not care about anything else except collecting concession fees from them and leaving the rest for passengers to face.

Bad drivers and rude conductors will continue on the many mini-bus lines if the problem is not tackled. The safety of passengers who have no choice but to take mini-buses every day is at risk.

A strong suggestion for Mr Chadchat is to try taking the non air-conditioned mini-bus No.20 from Phra Pradaeng to Tha Din Daeng, or the No.82 from Phra Pradaeng to Phahurat and he will realise that a long wait for a bus is better than riding in one with the devil behind the wheel.


Saritdet Marukatat is digital media news editor, Bangkok Post.

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Writer: Saritdet Marukatat
Position: Digital Media News Editor