25th July, 2004  Volume 11, Issue 2

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Life in the slow lane

By Shehan Moses 

The public transport system in Sri Lanka is hazardous, especially during office hours when thousands of people use bus and train services to facilitate their journey. According to sources there are 16,500 buses operating in the country at present while 11,500 buses are operating within the Western Province of which 9,000 operate in Colombo and suburbs. Private buses account for 72% of all buses plying Colombo's streets. Meanwhile around 300,000 passengers daily travel in and out from Colombo using the rail system while 125,000 of these passengers are workers.

Most buses operating from Colombo and its suburbs commence early in the morning. Buses that operate at dawn are rarely crowded allowing passengers to travel comfortably. As the day progresses the rush begins. At around 7.00 am, many passengers stand at bus stands staring nervously for a bus to arrive to take them to their respective destinations. However, during this time of the day,  passengers are in for a rough ride, very often on footboards of buses. One major difference travelling in a bus full of school children is that there's way more flirting and kidding around on board, as opposed to the more stiff rides with office staff on buses and trains.

A lighter ride

The kids make the ride more light-hearted, although their chatter combined with the 'bajaw' music and the traffic congestion may not result in the most relaxing of rides for working people.

Despite the already massive crowds,  bus drivers and conductors take their own cool time at halts, until the bus is packed completely. Conductors screaming 'passata yanna' (go further back) to passengers already facing the threat of being thrown head first out of the bus, certainly do nothing to help the situation, irritating already frazzled passengers further.

It is heartening however to see that even during rush hour, a seated passenger willingly gives up travelling in relative comfort to accomodate a pregnant lady or disabled person. However, the Buddhist monks are the most respected by the passengers, thus under any circumstances the monks would be offered a seat. In contrast, religious leaders  of other religions would be at the mercy of seated passengers or the conductor to secure a seat.

Common practices

In a crowded bus, it is common for passengers to avoid paying for their journey, as it is equally common for conductors to avoid issuing tickets for the fare paid. "Our daily earnings are reduced since passengers purchase a three rupee ticket and travel a nine rupee journey while some others don't bother to pay us at all," complained Sajit, a conductor of a private bus. However, when private bus ticket checkers dressed in grey uniform are seen beside their motorbikes, the worried conductors rush and issue tickets to passengers irrespective of the fare, in order to avoid paying a penalty.

Among the problems faced by passengers are the gropers and pickpockets  travelling mostly in crowded buses. Though the National Transport Commission (NTC) made recommendations to the Transport Ministry to ban passengers travelling on footboards and penalising offenders,  it seems this law has not yet been enforced. "We have no other option than to travel on footboards since the buses are crowded and I don't want to miss the bus," said Intikab who lives in Piliyandala and has to travel daily to Pettah and back using the 120 bus route. Another common problem commuters face is not receiving change after paying for tickets. Conductors often promise to give passengers their change 'later', but this never happens unless the conductor is approached and the change demanded. It should be understood that bus operators too have their grievances while on duty. "We have to pay around Rs.150 to legal and illegal stand keepers daily in order to use the bus stand, therefore how can we earn sufficient profits," complains President, Private Bus Operators Association, Gemunu Wijeratne.

Train travel

Travelling by train during the rush hour is not as much fun as many would expect it to be. During school hours, the trains are somewhat crowded with school children. However, when the office rush begins around 8.00 a.m. rail travel though a faster and cheaper mode of travel is a nightmare. During evening hours Fort Railway Station is one busy place because people rush towards the station from all sides to catch their respective trains. All through this rush hour, people would stand in long queues waiting for their turn to purchase a ticket.

There are some who attempt to persuade passengers in the front of the queue to purchase a ticket for them by providing the cash, thereby avoiding the queue. "We have no other option, since the train will leave within five minutes and if I stand in the queue I would miss the train," said a passenger that purchased a ticket to Ragama from Fort Railway Station in such a manner. Once an announcement is made that a train would leave within a couple of minutes; the passengers tend to lose patience and rush towards people in the front row to purchase tickets in order make sure they get on the train.

 "I purchased the ticket for the 5.25 pm Avissawella train. However, when I arrived on the platform the train left, therefore I am waiting for the 6.20 pm train," lamented Piyaratne, a passenger travelling from Fort to Pannipitiya. The patiently seated passengers suddenly rise from their benches one by one as the announcement is made that a particular train would arrive at the respective platform within a short while. As the train approaches the platform and gradually slows down, passengers make a dash towards the moving train pushing each other irrespective whether male or female to get inside and secure a seat.

Clinging on

As the train begins its journey, many standing passengers desperately cling onto on to some small part of the carriage  despite the high risk involved. People also tend to travel on footboards which is extremely dangerous. Though some travel on footboards for the fun of it,  even when the train is not crowded.  Railway Safety Rules and Regulations state that travelling on footboards is illegal. Even in trains people tend to travel without tickets or purchase third class tickets and travel in second class, thereby contributing to the massive losses faced by the Sri Lanka Railways Department. This is  due to the poor inspection procedure within the railway system in Sri Lanka despite the massive number employed in the department.

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