The Transport Ministry has made a step in the right direction by combining private and public time tables so that passengers can have a more efficient service. However there are several tasks that must be done before the service can be launched early next year as planned.
Public transport in Sri Lanka has long been a problem with commuters facing much hardship. Prolonged politicisation, strong unions, corruption, inefficiency and mismanagement have been cancers that have nibbled the transport system into a loss making sector for the government. It is astounding how the government buses are constantly running into losses even with subsidised fuel while the private sector manages to run around five times as many buses profitably.
Clearly there are many complications within the transport system. One being the many institutions that manage it at national and provincial level. Most of these organisations have their jurisdictions overlapping leaving the national authorities with little control over rural bus services. This has been one of the main reasons for the transport services to remain disorganised for so long.
One would imagine that the most obvious step would be to have time tables incorporating private and public buses so that commuters get a fair deal. However that does not seem to have materialised as yet. To be fair by the private bus owners they have been lobbying for this for several years and it is heartening that the government is at least now seriously committed to implementing integrated timetables countrywide.
Sri Lanka has invested billions in improving transport infrastructure in the country. However service levels remain poor and costly to the government. For example the State run railway and bus services annually make losses and little has been done to change this fact of life. It has been reported that the SLTB will need 7000 more buses to take on 40% of the routes stipulated by the new integrated timetables. To meet this target measures are underway to purchase new buses and one can only hope that this transaction happens with due process. Ensuring that this measure to lighten the load of commuters does not end up swallowing tax rupees needlessly will be one duty that officials will have to pay special attention to.
Launching an integrated timetable is not enough by itself. There must be special follow up programmes taken to make sure that the buses stick to the schedules that they are given and whether they prove to be as efficient in reality as they did on paper. This aside there is the ever present desire to make the venture profitable or at least make it break even so that more losses are not added onto public coffers.
Transport is an important part of economic development but authorities must pay greater heed to maximising the resources that they already have rather than focusing all attention on highways. At the end of the day public transport is a cost to all, and citizens must contribute to keeping it as efficient as possible. This means that public transport should not be abused for elections or other purposes, a point that should be better remembered in the upcoming months.
If commuters are provided with better service then they would be more open to the annual fare increases. This is something that can happen today. Waiting for better roads alone will not improve transport and the broader picture will have to be kept in view for this latest plan to be a success.