New bus service draws hopes, criticism

Friday, August 5, 2011
Issue 1376, Page 2 – 3
Word count: 1600
Published in: Macau Daily Times

by Poyi (Natalie) Leung & Vítor Quintã

The revamped public bus system has drawn criticism from some lawmakers who are discontent mostly with newcomer Reolian’s incapability of providing the full services previously promised. The company also admitted that its performance was not satisfactory but four days have passed and some local residents the Macau Daily Times talked to are generally pleased with the new system.

Lawmaker José Pereira Coutinho sees no improvement from the new bus service so far since it was launched this Monday. “All I’ve received are complaints, especially over route overlapping,” he told the Macau Daily Times.

Between Monday and yesterday afternoon, the Transport Bureau (DSAT) received almost 700 complaints, mainly reporting low bus frequency, alleged over-charging and interchange concession issues.

The service launch “was not as good as we expected”, Reolian general manager Cedric Rigaud told MDTimes yesterday.

The bus frequency – which is expected to gradually rise by 40 percent – “was not maintained and there were too many people waiting at bus stops too often”, Rigaud said.

“We’re still low in terms of expectations but we can only improve,” he stressed. “Every day we have been improving, even though we had to run a schedule that was not appropriate for the number of drivers that was lower than we had forecast.”

Reolian will introduce a new work schedule on Monday. “We have some hope that it will bring about a significant improvement,” Rigaud said.

Nevertheless, Pereira Coutinho believes that the government “missed out on a big opportunity” to introduce new routes as a way to “better serve the majority of the population”.

Some areas like Taipa and Coloane are underserved, he said, with residents “taking hours” to reach Hac Sá for instance. In others – such as San Ma Lou and Rua do Campo – there are too many buses causing traffic congestion and accidents, he added.

Mrs Luk, a Taipa resident, also believes that bus service serving the island needs to be boosted, as “more and more people are living in that area now”.

She has noticed “significant improvement” in a majority of the 60 bus routes this week with “shorter waiting time”, yet she says the frequency of route H1 to the Conde de São Januário Hospital (CHCSJ) remains low.

“I’ve waited for over 15 minutes and no H1 bus has come yet. All the buses to the public hospital are like that, it’s very inconvenient particularly for the elderly.”

Since there is no direct bus service between Taipa and the hospital, Mrs Luk told the MDTimes that every time she needs to take two buses to reach the hospital.

Having tried the Reolian buses, she feels that their compartments are smaller than those of Transmac and TCM and offer fewer seats.

Another local resident, Mrs Chan, has to visit the CHCSJ at least three times a month after heart surgery. Living in Areia Preta, bus No. 28C can take her directly to the hospital, but “always takes 35 to 40 minutes to come”.

Therefore, she says she will usually use the interchange service at the Praça de Ferreira do Amaral or go to Rua do Campo then walk up to the hospital, “but I will have to stop and rest four times until I get there”.

Third injury reported

According to DSAT, from Monday to yesterday as of 6.30pm there were 34 reported accidents involving public buses, most of them were “minor”.

But on the first day two people were “slightly injured” – an elderly woman who fell on a Reolian bus and a scooter rider who had a “small collision” also with a Reolian bus. And yesterday a third person was admitted to the hospital also after a bus-related incident.

Pereira Coutinho fears accidents will continue to happen. With “the best routes” divided by the three operators the competition “will cause problems to the population,” he explained.

“It also doesn’t help that the new service was launched with so many ongoing road works. There should have been some kind of planning,” the lawmaker said.

In addition new buses should be greener, meeting the standard Euro 5 or 6, he underlined.

For instance a proposal currently at the Legislative Assembly sets tax waivers for the importation of light vehicles that meet the standard Euro 4. European emission standards that are measured on a scale from 1 (higher emissions) to 6 (lower emissions).

Salary debate

New bus operator Reolian has repeatedly claimed there are not enough qualified drivers in the territory.

Pereira Coutinho gives no credit to this claim: “The company is playing tricks to pressure the government into allowing the hiring of mainland Chinese drivers”.

He believes Reolian is lacking drivers because “their salaries are lower than the average paid by its competitors, including gaming concessionaires and tourism buses”.

A view shared by another lawmaker. Au Kam San argued that there are sufficient heavy vehicle license holders in Macau, but the three bus operators are unwilling to offer competitive remuneration packages to attract the labour force that they need.

“It is a very simple theory, when the demand is larger than supply, you have to raise the salaries and benefits,” he told the MDTimes.

Since the public bus services are funded by public money and the government is “the boss” now, Au said the government should interfere in the promotion of a “better remuneration system” offered by the three operators.

Moreover, Au disapproves of the new bus service model, pointing out that it is “worse than” the old system.

“In the past the problem was only a lack of competitiveness in the market, but right now even basic competitiveness is gone because the companies are paid according to how many buses they send out to the road, even if there are no passengers,” he said.

“In this way, the companies only want to operate the services by using the lowest cost possible, that’s why some residents complained that the new buses were made in China instead of in Japan,” he added.

On the contrary, Rigaud argued: “Everyone knows that we have the best salary in the market and the best benefits package”, stressing that Reolian even raised its signing bonus “from MOP 20,000 to MOP 35,000”.

But the existing operators, TCM and Transmac, have also raised their wages to try to retain their drivers and many are unwilling to lose seniority benefits because they are close to retirement, the executive added.

Even though Reolian insisted last March of the need to temporarily import no more than 200 bus drivers from mainland China, the company “invested in training local workers since the beginning”.

“The lack of drivers is a serious problem and it requires a more sustainable solution,” he reiterated. Even in peak periods 50 of Reolian’s buses remain parked near Macau Tower, Rigaud said.

Doubt over backup plan

Reolian has asked its drivers to work overtime “at least during the first two weeks” of the new public bus service – a measure criticised by Pereira Coutinho.

“We just can’t accept the continuous exploitation of workers, heavy workload, low wages, disregard for mandatory public holidays and non-payment of overtime,” he stressed.

Reolian’s difficulties have led the government to ask rivals TCM and Transmac for temporary support on some of the new operator’s routes.

The lawmaker is wary of this cooperation: “It could come back to bite the government in complicating future negotiations. I could imagine the operators teaming up to ask for a compensation increase”.

DSAT chief Wong Wan stressed, however, that the support to Reolian would last one month only. If Reolian is still unable to provide full services required by September 1, Wong said he believes it would be due to the company’s “own management problems”.

According to Au Kam San, although he believes it would take time for the new public bus system to run fully on track and did not expect “perfect” services in the beginning, he said he was “surprised” that one of the operators, Reolian, is unable to maintain the frequency of the bus service.

“They [Reolian] already knew before August 1 how many buses they would need to send out on the road every day […] now it shows that they aren’t well prepared,” Au said.

The lawmaker is concerned about whether Reolian will be able to cope with the problems in a month’s time and what follow-up measures the bureau has in mind.

“The government needs to know how to deal with the situation [if Reolian can’t solve the labour shortage problem within this month] after the support from Transmac and TCM ceases and also how to explain to the public,” he added.

The lawmaker deemed that Reolian has to be punished for being unable to provide the full services that have previously been promised, pointing out that the company has “breached the service contract to a certain extend”.

Asked if the operator would be ready by next month, Rigaud was non-committal. “We will see. It depends a lot on the pace of recruitment of more drivers. It’s difficult to assess right now.”

Reolian has pledged to speed up the training of its 20 trainees to come into service in mid-August. Moreover, the company expects to hire 30 to 40 more drivers by September who are currently enrolled in DSAT’s training program.

Ms Vong commutes by bus every day and she says she is generally satisfied with the performances of the three operators. Waiting time has been cut significantly from 30 minutes to less than 10 minutes for some routes such as 9 and 16, she told the MDTimes.

She says even though some buses are still very packed during rush hour, another bus comes “very soon”.

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