Editorial Comment: Zupco must upgrade operational strategy

Source: Editorial Comment: Zupco must upgrade operational strategy | The Herald May 30, 2019

Editorial Comment: Zupco must upgrade operational strategy
Zupco bus

Government intervention in putting Zupco back on Harare streets with subsidised fares has been very successful in one respect: The buses are exceptionally popular, always run with the maximum number of standing passengers, and most commuters are willing to stand in orderly queues to wait for and enter the buses.

The obvious major downside is the size of the Zupco fleet, despite heavy augmentation by private companies brought into the operation. We doubt if Zupco and its auxiliaries are managing more than 20 percent of the traffic on offer. So kombis still have to take up the majority of the load.

But even here the presence of a sizable Zupco fleet imposes market limits on kombi fares. On competitive routes with a reasonable Zupco presence kombi fares vary from around twice, sometimes three times, the Zupco price at off-peak times when fuel queues are short, but shoot up to four to six times the Zupco ticket price at peak hours or when kombi drivers are spending the better part of a day in a fuel queue so limiting competition.

This compares with fares up to 10 times what would be Zupco rate on routes that are not served by Zupco, so there is an indirect benefit from the Zupco fleet.

The second problem is that despite initial attempts in scheduling, and in planning services for at least the earlier part of the night, neither has been sustained. So those willing to queue for a Zupco bus have no idea how long they will have to queue for, and even if it is worth queuing after say 6pm or 7pm.

It seems to us that services could continue later although this might well require more crews and more staff to service and clean the buses on the eventual return to the depots. A bus on the road for 16 hours a day would obviously require two crews.

Even late at night it should be possible to have Zupco services although routes may well have to be combined to make these as viable as possible, that is with full buses and standing passengers.

The third problem is that not all passengers want to queue. While valiant attempts have been made to ensure orderly queuing and boarding, these are not always successful. Here Zupco needs to negotiate with both the police and with Harare City Council, who have municipal police on the payroll, to ensure a better security presence at the end points of the routes.

At the same time more intermediate stops need to be established. For example a Tafara bus must leave seats for Mabvuku passengers as it trundles down towards Mutare Road. And again these need some security. The Government has promised more buses soon for Zupco, and the decision to start rebuilding the fleet is welcome. At the same time, the Government needs to ensure that Zupco is equipped with staff to drive and maintain these buses and, even more critically, with the managerial expertise to plan and develop a decent service.

Zupco failed before because it was expected to charge sub-economic fares without a subsidy and because of managerial failure. The subsidy is necessary for viability, and is a small fraction of the price of subsidising petrol for all, but as paymaster the Government needs to insist on an exceptionally well-managed service. One starting point would be for the Transport and Local Government Ministers and their senior civil servants to use public transport at least one a week, and for Zupco managers to leave their cars at home on working days.

Building a new fleet from scratch should also encourage innovation and experiment. Electric buses have now reached the viable stage where more and more cities are using them, often on the practical grounds of reducing air pollution and noise as well on wider environmental concerns.

But in Zimbabwe there will be a major running cost advantage. A trip from Harare CBD to Chitungwiza and back will cost around $8 at present Zesa rates for a 90-seater and we doubt that any bus could do that on 1,5 litres of diesel.

Even if the Government does not wish to put all its eggs into one basket, it could earmark a portion of the fleet, and a selection of routes, for electric buses. Depending on the bus system used electric buses might have to be concentrated on specific routes. Some systems have buses with large batteries that are charged overnight; others have smaller battery packs and use rapid charging apparatus at route end points to “fill the tank” in under six minutes. Both options may need to be investigated.

When Zupco was in private hands the operators kept the number of bus types low, to ensure easy maintenance. Spares inventories were modest and the old components that were nationalised as Zupco could even keep half-a-dozen spare engines and transmissions on hand, allowing every engine to be overhauled every year, but keeping all buses on the road at peak hours.

While the fleet is being rebuilt, kombis will remain crucial. In such a disorganised industry it would be very difficult to work out some co-operative system, but the attempt should be made. We cannot see kombi subsidies working without cheating, but some sort of way of dispensing tax-free fuel in limited daily quantities checked against odometers might be possible and would, with policing and auditing, allow kombis to operate at only a modest mark-up on Zupco.

If Zupco could develop a far better infrastructure and tight management, then perhaps even bringing the kombis into a Zupco-managed service might be possible with one or two year contracts. These sort of things need to be explored quickly.

A good start has been made, partly as an emergency measure, but even emergency measures can be integrated into a final public transport plan, something long overdue in Zimbabwe’s major urban areas.