Where are the people in the junta’s bus reform?

For three years, the ruling junta has proposed ‘national reforms’ on different issues. Though the previous reforms, like political reform, police reform and education reform, have been criticized for driving the country backwards, the recent reform of the Bangkok bus system seems to be quite constructive. 
 
This reform aims at fixing the mess that is in the Bangkok bus system. The plan was started in July 2016 when the junta revoked a 1983 Cabinet Resolution, returning the power to regulate Bangkok public buses from the Bangkok Mass Transit Authority (BMTA) to the Department of Land Transport (DLT). 
 
A recent development is the launch of eight new routes on 15 August, while the old bus system is still operating. To avoid confusion, the government has created a naming system for the new routes. While the old routes have only numbers, the new system will have a letter, G, R, Y or B, standing for red, green, yellow and blue plus numbers. 
 
The green routes will cover the north to east of Bangkok, red the east to southeast, yellow the south and blue the west to the centre. Routes that take expressway will have a letter E, standing for ‘express’, at the end.
 
 
The Route No 514 is now G59E (Photo from ThaiPBS)
 
This system, however, was not initiated by the junta. The one of the people behind this reform is Sumet Ongkittikul, a senior researcher at the Thailand Development and Research Institute, who is acting as a “nanny” for the government in this transportation reform. He explained to Prachatai the necessity for the reform and what the junta will do and should do in the future.
 

Why are Bangkok buses so horrible?

 
Sumet stated that bus reform is actually a continuous project which has been proposed to various governments. But it is the junta that solved the deadlock and pushed it forwards. 
 
To understand the ongoing reform, Sumet said that one needs to understand the problems of the bus system under the BMTA administration. The BMTA is a state enterprise established in 1983. In terms of the law, the BMTA was an only organization authorised to provide bus services in Bangkok. But due to limited resources, the BMTA does not have enough buses so it has had to contract private companies to get more buses into the system.
 
The more Bangkok expands, the more buses are needed. As a state enterprise, however, the BMTA cannot purchase new buses by itself but has to wait for government approval. Sumet said that there are some 2,500 BMTA buses in the system. Buses have been used for more than about 17 years on average. At the same time, there are over 5,000 private buses in the system, meaning that Bangkok people actually rely on private companies, rather than the BMTA.
 
Sumet argued that the bus system under BMTA control is very unorganized. Ideally, there should be only one bus provider for each route. Otherwise, providers will compete with each other to get most passengers and this leads to redundancy, inconsistency and accidents. Route No 8, for example, currently has four private providers, turning the route into a bus race track.  
 
 
Accidents caused by Route No 8 are common in Bangkok (Photo from Thairats)
 
Ticket prices are also fixed at lower than 10 baht in order to maintain accessibility for poor people. These factors contribute to a huge deficit for the BMTA and a decline in service quality. Sumet claimed that the BMTA debt is right now more than one hundred billion baht. 
 
The huge debt has made previous governments hesitate to reform the Bangkok bus system. The first attempt of reform occurred in late 1998 when a government proposed to transfer the BMTA to the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) in the belief that local buses should be regulated by a local administrative organization. 
 
However, the attempt failed since the BMA agreed to take on the bus system but refused to bear the BMTA debt, which at that time was only around 30,000 million baht.
 
So later governments thought that they had to clear the BMTA debt first before reforming the bus system. They have tried to reform the BMTA into a profitable organization but these attempts have proven ineffective as the debt only increases relentlessly. But Sumet poses the question “Do we have to wait for a good BMTA before we have good buses?” His answer, as well as the junta’s, is ‘no’. 
 

New system and old challenges

 
Sumet explained that there are two main missions in the ongoing reform. The first is administrative reform and the second is reform of the bus routes. On the first point, the BMTA has been turned from a bus regulator into merely a bus service provider. Any private company that wishes to operate any route can ask for a licence directly from the DLT. This has been the case since the 1983 Cabinet Resolution was revoked in July 2016.
 
The more important issue is bus route reform. Sumet stated that the government has tried to make this reform affect passengers as little as possible. Among the 269 new lines, over 150 are “exactly the same” as in the old system. Some lines will be shortened or shifted to less congested roads in order to secure traffic flow and consistency. If everything goes to plan, the new system will be fully implemented within three years.
 
Though the government has tried to mitigate the negative effects, the reform has already faced criticism from at least three groups of people. The first are BMTA staff who feel that they are disadvantaged by the reform. In July 2017, the BMTA labor union petitioned the junta head and PM Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha to review the bus reform, reasoning that BMTA workers, who will be directly affected, have not been allowed to participate in the reform.
 
The second opponents are the current private bus providers. On 14 February 2017, staff of private bus companies petitioned the DLT and the junta to oppose the bus reform. Patrawadee Klomcharoon, president of the Private Bus Operators' Association, stated that the reform was unfair to private operators since they have had to also bear deficit, as well as the BMTA, in order to service Bangkok people. 
 
 
Staff of private bus operators protest the bus reform (Photo from Manager)
 
The president added the new system will revoke licences that they have already made with the BMTA. But the BMTA has a privilege to pick the routes they want to operate first while other private companies have to bid. Given the that the current policy to fix ticket fare at the very low rate has created a huge deficit to private operators, it is even more difficult for them to bid for bus routes under the new system. 
 
The private companies, therefore, asked the junta to either transfer the current bus operators to the new system without an extra payment or pay them a compensation.
 
“The ongoing policy has no subsidy to old private buses while we have beared accumulated deficit from providing people a bus service. [We] therefore ask the PM to revise [the reform] according to what the operators have proposed so we could still have job in the future,” stated Patrawadee.
 
Sumet said that if the government successfully convinces this group to join the new system, the reform will be executed smoothly and quickly. The problem is that some might be disqualified under the new system.
 
Sumet said that private companies today generally provide a worse service than the BMTA mainly because they do not get subsidies like the state enterprise. So they have to cut costs in bus maintenance and wages, worsening service quality. Under these circumstances, they could be disqualified under the new system, where companies with richer resources can directly ask for a licence from the DLT. 
 
The last and the most significant group are the passengers. After the new system was implemented, the majority of passengers reacted to the change with confusion as they do not know how the new system and its routes operate. This is partly because the junta never publicized the reform until it was implemented. In fact, the junta has never talked to the people at all. 
 
Throughout the process, no public hearing was held and no civil society participation has been allowed. But Sumet argued that the junta has consistently cooperated with the relevant parties, just not in public. He still believes that people should be included in the process but it could be done later so we could get more specific and useful comments.
 
“In the first stage, we should make current bus routes better. If routes need to be changed in the future, we should just talk to people in that specific area. It’s unnecessary to hear people in Salaya comment about bus routes in Minburi. This process needs to be designed and added in the future in order to get the most useful information,” Sumet suggests.
 
 
Sumet Ongkittikul (Photo from Thailand Development and Research Institute)