Precisely a year since the country’s first Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS) was launched in Lahore, even as the number of Metro bus commuters is on the rise, the staff drivers complain of a sizable cut in their salaries and a denial of promised facilities.
The BRTS — also the Lahore Metro Bus Service (LMBS) — was Punjab government’s most ambitious projects ever and cost no less than Rs30 billion. It promised to field at least 115 buses with a capacity that would be three times that of the ordinary buses and run along a 27km corridor, from Gajju Matta to Shahdra, passing through the main traffic artery — the Ferozpur Road — that would connect it to the Grand Trunk (or GT) road.
The service commenced with 45 buses on the road and an announcement of more buses to come. Another 19 buses were added to the fleet as recently as a few months ago. We have not seen any further addition to the total number of buses since.
The haphazardly planned LMBS, which is based on a Turkish model, boasted a chaotic execution, incurring criticism that it was a ‘politically motivated’ development project made possible by diverting funds from other provincial departments and ignoring the reforms in the existing intra city transport system.
The service has been given to run to a subsidiary of the Turkish firm Albayrak, hired (through bidding) by the Punjab government to operate metro buses in Lahore. Wardens of the city traffic police and security personals still escort the bus service at different points in order to ensure a smooth flow of traffic, especially near the Ravi bridge where there is no exclusive lane for the service.
The buses stop at 27 stations excluding the starting and the end points. There is a stop per one kilometre on an average.
Muhammad Usman, 27, a waiter at a restaurant, who travels on the Metro almost everyday, going from Sanda to Qaddafi Stadium, seems satisfied with the service. “It has helped me save on my money, a lot of time and energy,” he says. “In my view, such projects should be expanded with better planning.”
The Punjab government, in budget 2013-14, allocated Rs2 billion for Metro Bus subsidy after clear refusal from Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif to increase the fare, which is fixed at Rs20 for one time. The government has outsourced all operational, maintenance, security and other expenditures to different companies for a smoother service whereas the Metro Bus Authority — with a staff of around 50 people — supervises them as a regulatory body.
“One thing which the people must know is that the Metro Bus Service is not a business enterprise for the government,” says Ozair Shah, General Manager (Operations), Punjab Metro Bus Authority (PMBA).
Shah says that under the Motor Vehicle Ordinance, it is mandatory for the government to arrange public transport for people to move in the city. “Movement of vehicles in a city is like blood running in our veins. The roads are the arteries of a city; if they were blocked, the city would have a stroke.
“By planning an exclusive lane on Ferozpur Road, the government has saved the city from a stroke. Besides, we have saved one million hours of the people per day.”
Shah also speaks of its indirect impact on oil import, environment and health of the people. “Such movement generates economic activity,” he adds.
Lahore is considered the second most populated city of Pakistan, with an estimated population of more than 10 million that commute on different local traffic routes. The transport demands of these people, as estimated by the Japanese International Co-operation Agency (JICA), a couple of years ago, was around 12 million trips, which included four million short walking trips and 8 million motorised trips on typical weekdays.
It was also estimated that Lahore had the highest annual vehicles’ growth rate of 16 percent in all the five major metropolitan cities of Punjab. The total number of vehicles is also increasing, adding to the woes of the commuters. As per reports, the number of vehicles registered in Lahore per 1000 population increased sharply from 95 in 2001 to 238 in 2008.
At the moment, Shah says, hardly 46 percent of the expenses are being generated from the commuters’ movement; the rest is contributed by the government as subsidy including the amount being paid to the service company (Rs368 per kilometre).
The GM, PMBA, also says the planning on the LTC level to integrate routes is not done. The number of buses is not being increased (from the current 64) in the near future.
He identifies certain myths and misperceptions about the Metro Bus Service, saying that in different surveys carried out over the past one year, 98 percent commuters have called the service “safe, comfortable and efficient.”
At the moment, the daily average number of Metro commuters is 160,000, Shah claims. The new phase of digging is not only to facilitate the bus service but also to improve the other traffic routes.
On the other hand, no sight of the promised facilities and cut in their salaries has forced most Metro drivers to quit.
A driver, not wanting to be named, says the company does not issue salary slips to its employees. In January 2014, the company revised the drivers’ salary packages — albeit negatively.
There is documented evidence that the first appointment letters came from Albayrak (Albaraq) company, later replaced with an unknown Professional Employers Private Limited. Those who refused to sign on the new contract offering Rs18, 000 instead of the previous Rs24,000 monthly wages, were shown the door.
The right to raise their voice or form unions is denied, in clear violation of the Supreme Court decision. “If their complaints are not being addressed, the drivers should move labour court,” says Ozair Shah. “Being a regulatory authority, we are concerned with the quality of service only.”
In an excited move, the Punjab government cabinet, last month approved similar metro bus projects for Islamabad-Rawalpindi, Faisalabad and Multan, thereby endorsing the success of the Lahore Metro Bus Service which was started on February 10, 2013.
Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif inaugurated the twin cities’ project stating that it should be complete within a record 10-month time.
Meanwhile, in Lahore, there are plans for more corridors for the Metro Bus on Multan Road and Canal Road.