Airlines not to blame for bus problems
Inter-provincial buses are not running out of gas; they are running out of passengers. Transport Co is apparently following in the footsteps of another state-owned enterprise under the Transport Ministry as it struggles to fill up its fleet with passengers. The firm is on course to see net profits drop sharply from 342 million baht last year to around 217 million this year.
Its outlook for next year casts an even gloomier picture as its profits could drop further to 120 million baht or less, according to Deputy Transport Minister Omsin Cheewapreuk.
Transport Co is not the only firm experiencing a drop in passenger numbers. Private bus operators for medium- and long-distance lines under the concession of the state-owned enterprise are also suffering, including that of Suchinda "Je Kiew" Cherdchai, the woman in Korat who runs several inter-city routes.
Like trains, the bus services are falling victim to no-frills airlines which have changed the way people in the country travel by luring them away from buses and trains with cheap air prices.
What is even more troubling for the bus and train services is the price war among budget airlines as they strive to grab market share.
Who could imagine that an air ticket from Bangkok to Nakhon Si Thammarat would only cost 375 baht. That is an offer by Thai Lion Air as it opens a new route to the southern city this month.
Transport Co's air-conditioned first-class bus fares from the capital to the same destination are 539 and 693 baht, depending on the class of the bus.
Travelling by bus down south is more expensive and it takes at least 10 hours longer.
Bus services between cities will not become extinct as many travellers still enjoy travelling on land for various reasons.
But companies like Transport Co, Cherdchai Tour and other firms need to make big improvements to keep passengers and ensure their businesses don't fold amid fierce competition from low-cost airlines.
One idea from the deputy minister is to seek approval from a committee controlling bus fares to make the rules more flexible so bus operators can offer promotions or other incentives for passengers as no-frills airlines do now.
At present, the bus companies cannot do that as the price is calculated on the distance while airlines have more freedom on setting prices.
"We have to equip Transport Co with the weapons it needs to make it competitive such as launching marketing and promotion campaigns," Mr Omsin said.
Modern buses and better food options are other areas that need to be improved for Transport Co, he added.
However, to keep passengers and lure new customers, bus firms will need to do more than that.
Better measures to guarantee the safety of people on buses must be one of the first measures implemented.
Transport Co and Nakhonchai Air are only a few operators which have done a good job. But many private operators out there are infamous for unsafe driving and the poor condition of their bus fleet.
Accidents involving inter-provincial buses occur from time to time and, as as evidence shows, they could have been avoided.
Three passengers would not have died on their bus journey from Udon Thani to Chiang Mai if the brakes hadn't failed causing the bus to hit two vehicles.
One passenger died and 12 others were injured last Wednesday after they could not escape the bus from Phuket to Satun when a fire broke out inside because the automatic doors were locked.
In other cases, the accidents involved reckless driving or the driver falling asleep behind the wheel, and in some cases "the driver fled the scene".
These accidents have tainted the image of bus services and because travellers now have more options, some think twice before booking a bus ticket.
Budget airlines are not to blame for the decline of the bus industry. The bus operators and regulators play a part too, as they have failed to provide adequate safety measures to ensure a safe ride for passengers.
Saritdet Marukatat is Digital Media News Editor, Bangkok Post.
Digital Media News Editor
He is Bangkok Post's Online Editor and is in charge of all online content.