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A year after launch, bus service faces bumpy road

Chok Ngoun is unhappy that there are few paying passengers.
Chok Ngoun is unhappy that there are few paying passengers. Charlotte Pert

A year after launch, bus service faces bumpy road

The service, which authorities say draws 7,000 a day, has been hit with driver strikes, while employees say there are few paying passengers

Phnom Penh’s public bus service had its first anniversary on Thursday, but any celebrations were marred by poor revenues and a drivers’ strike earlier in the week.

The government-run bus network started its trial runs in February 2014 and has since expanded to three routes comprised of 45 buses and more than 160 stops throughout the city.

One of the buses.
One of the buses. Charlotte Pert

But City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche admitted the service was “not perfect”, with 7,000 passengers a day, while bus employees complained of few paying passengers.

Although the service ostensibly costs 1,500 riel per ride, the fare is waived for students, the elderly, disabled people and monks.

Im Srey Ny, a 24-year-old fare collector who works on a northbound city bus on Monivong Boulevard, said that there is often a discrepancy between tickets sold and fares collected.

Passengers pay by putting money through a slit on top of a large box next to the driver. Although the system makes for quick boarding, Srey Ny can’t easily detect underpayments.

“Sometimes [passengers] put 1,200 riel and not 1,500 riel into the box,” she said. When this happens, she has to pay the difference out of her own wages.

Driver Chok Ngoun, 31, said that more than half of his customers didn’t pay fares because they were exempt. As a crowd of about 20 schoolchildren boarded the bus, he blamed the free fares for the services’ financial woes and, therefore, his low salary of $180 per month.

The service benefits the elderly, who ride free.
The service benefits the elderly, who ride free. Charlotte Pert

“They want us to work without any extra salary on holidays ... and we work every day, with three days off per month,” he said. “If I have a choice, I will change my job.”

A 40-strong strike last October, which Ngoun joined, alleged that the city had promised salaries of between $300 and $350, though city officials said the drivers had misunderstood the terms. Last week, seven drivers resigned after the city declined to raise their salaries to between $280 and $300 a month.

“[City Hall spokesman] Long Dimanche said they could not increase the salary because the buses were not getting more income,” said Ngoun.

Dimanche said in an interview last week that the bus drivers, who are not on a long-term contract, are free to quit if they don’t like their salaries.

“If they don’t like it, we have other people who need this job,” he said.

Despite the labour and revenue problems, Srey Ny said she admires the public service provided by the buses. “I really like having this public city bus because it helps many people who don’t have motorbikes, bicycle or any vehicles,” she said.

Customers onboard Line #1 along Monivong last Wednesday said they were grateful for the service, which runs every 15 minutes from 5:30am to 8:30pm.

Ngoun Thon, a 62-year-old diabetes patient who must commute across town every week to visit his doctor, said the bus is much more comfortable for infirm passengers than taking a motorbike.

“When I am on the bus with air-conditioning and free space, I feel so good,” he said, adding that motodops charged him more than 10,000 riel for the trip.

Hean Chanty, a 19-year-old student at Asia Europe University taking the bus for a second time, agreed that the bus is a much better alternative to riding on the back of a motorbike, though there still isn’t a service to her neighbourhood.

“When I was on the motorbike, it was so hot and unsafe on the road. My house was far from school, so if I have this bus arriving at my place, I would change to use the city bus instead,” she said.

The buses, claimed Dimanche, have successfully reduced traffic congestion, air pollution and road fatalities.

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