City bus blues won't go away

City bus blues won't go away

Less than a week after the government increased bus fares in Bangkok last month, an air-conditioned bus was found broken down in the middle of a road in the city centre after having lost its back wheels.

This prompted criticism among netizens that the Bangkok Mass Transit Authority (BMTA), which owned the bus, was paying scant attention to improving service quality -- one of the reasons used to justify the hikes.

Their rebukes reflect a general sense of dissatisfaction felt by many Bangkok commuters when it comes to city bus services provided by the BMTA and private operators it has subcontracted with.

The fare increases of 1-7 baht per ride have affected commuters, most of whom are low- to middle-income earners who often take connecting buses to reach their destinations.

Owning a car, grabbing a cab or using a rail service is for many beyond their means.

While the government has cited higher operating costs as the chief reason for raising the fares, it should work out with the BMTA how to bring about improved service quality.

For decades, bus commuters have tolerated poor services, ranging from ageing bus fleets to inefficient bus networks that are not responsive to their daily travel needs. Worse still, safety has remained a key problem, mainly due to competition among drivers of the BMTA's sub-licensed operators or their tendency to speed and drive recklessly.

The loss-ridden BMTA has suffered bad reviews for years. Yet it has been unable to bring about a better experience for bus passengers. Even though a new fleet of 489 NGV buses was recently added to replace some of the existing buses, most of the buses in Bangkok are old and poorly maintained; the one that lost its back wheels being a case in point.

The arrival of the NGV buses also came too late: it took 13 years since the project was initiated.

In 2017, the agency spent 1.6 billion baht on its automated bus fare collection project, which soon emerged as a waste of taxpayers' money. After the installation of e-ticket machines on buses plying routes in the capital, the BMTA had to terminate the project because the system was found to be too impractical. Such a large investment could have been put to far better use buying new buses.

Such fiascos demonstrate how inefficient the BMTA has become.

It needs to revamp its management and get tougher with those operators it has granted sub-licences to. The BMTA's inability to regulate them suggests there are deep flaws with the current regulatory framework.

Critics say the BMTA has created a conflict of interest by acting as the bus service operator, competing with the privately run rivals, while adopting the role of regulator. The poor service on the part of the BMTA may stem from the fact that it is tasked with regulating its own bus service.

As long as the BMTA runs the bus service, its authority to give sub-licences to private operators while also monitoring their services should be passed to other agencies like the Department of Land Transport.

The new regulator should set strict standards for all city bus operators, the BMTA included. Once a balance of power has been achieved, the system could be improved. And commuters could breathe a sigh of relief.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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