Steam-engine approach no longer the way forward for our buses
After my opinion regarding buses and the issues with scheduling, it was interesting to note that it received an immediate same-day response from the president of the Bermuda Industrial Union. Of more interest is that Chris Furbert did not deny the main thrust of the opinion that the bus schedule must be put to arbitration.
It was not denied that “grey” routes exist and it was not denied that overtime is a huge issue. It was also not denied that a reduced number of buses on the road could solve the continuing cancellation problems faced by users. In fact, all that the president did was a little dance around the square, avoiding most of what was said.
This is not untypical of what happens when real issues need to be solved.
I thought, therefore, I would delve a little deeper into the state of the bus services to bring clarity to the factual state of affairs.
At the outset, I take the opportunity to make it abundantly clear that I do not blame the drivers or the mechanics for their stance in rejecting the agreed bus schedule. As I said previously, it would make little sense for anyone to vote for something that brings little tangible benefit to them. The issue, which I articulated before and clarify further here, is that this stance should not dictate the implementation of a sensible bus service schedule.
In short, management has the right to manage and, after a period of consultation, should be able to implement a new schedule, especially one that was largely agreed. Frankly, it is crazy that the users of the bus services are essentially held hostage by seeking 100 per cent agreement, never mind the taxpayers.
Ultimately, the problems at the Department of Public Transportation are deep and systemic, and go far beyond a bus schedule. Mr Furbert is correct that there has been underinvestment for years. But that underinvestment has been in respect of a department that is broken, and frankly we are throwing good money after bad into a service that has not changed with the times.
This is bad planning over a significant period of time and blame cannot be placed squarely at the feet of one minister or political party. The fact of the matter is that a serious audit is required — from top to bottom in the name of efficiency and which puts the users first.
In most sophisticated bus systems, the users do come first; it is their convenience that is paramount. In many jurisdictions, there is a way to check the progress of a bus route via GPS tracking so a user can get to their bus stop at the time the bus is arriving. Payment is accepted on board using credit cards, debit cards and prepaid cards; not just by way of exact change, pre-purchased tokens and bus passes. It is ludicrous, indeed, that in the 21st century bus users must have exact change to board if they don't have tokens or a bus pass.
Many buses overseas have on board free wi-fi for their users — tourist and otherwise. Not here.
The bus service in Bermuda is essentially stuck in the 1960s. It is largely unautomated and buses are dispatched using a manual dispatching system, much like the ancient air traffic control systems.
The buses we have are simply too big for our roads, not always used to capacity and not fit for purpose. Yet, year after year, the same size of buses are ordered out of Europe and specially made for Bermuda at great cost.
In short, there is no other bus built in the world like a Bermuda bus, and large sums are spent and valuable time used to solve manufacturing issues. The cost of running our existing fleet is accordingly astronomical and totally out of logical proportion.
Here are my top ten suggestions, in no particular order, to improve the bus service:
1, Comprehensive ridership survey on every route in Bermuda over the course of a year to take into account seasonal usage
2, On the back of that survey, determine routes that must have increased or decreased service
3, On routes that are usually quiet, reduce the service
4, Purchase minibus-sized buses for infrequently used routes
5, Add services to some areas that have no service at all, using such minibuses (For example, Ferry Reach has no service since there is no place to turn around our buses)
6, Install GPS on each bus and build an app to track bus progress so users can time their journeys accordingly, along with wi-fi. Consideration should also be given to installing safety cameras for drivers
7, Allow for automated ticketless transactions
8, Purchase off the shelf buses from Japan at significantly reduced cost to the taxpayers that are not specially built for Bermuda to gradually replace the ageing fleet. (This was repeatedly rejected by the department on the basis that mechanics would need to be retrained to work on new buses and that we have no spare parts for such new buses — the theory being, presumably, that we have always ordered from the same manufacturer and we can never change. That argument is flawed and is like an airline saying it won't ever order Boeing because we always used Airbus, even if the prices are much better.)
9, End the use of public buses to transport tourists to and from Dockyard and Horseshoe Bay in the summer months. (This will give business to minibuses and taxis, and end the legitimate complaints by Bermudians who see full buses drive straight past them in the morning)
10, Fully integrate the timetable so that ferries and buses are timed to have seamless connections
These changes would be a win-win for all involved and would be highly unlikely to result in job losses. Some routes would have increased services and some areas of Bermuda would be serviced for the first time. Mechanics would be trained to service different vehicles, which likely would be far more reliable.
Drivers would have safer and more reliable vehicles to drive. Users would have increased options and an enjoyable experience with wi-fi access.
For too long the “same old, same old” attitude has governed our bus service. Lack of innovation and desire for real change have put us in the position we are in.
Well, it can change. If the users demand it.
• Michael Fahy is a previous Minister of Home Affairs, Minister of Tourism, Transport and Municipalities, and Junior Minister of Finance under the One Bermuda Alliance government