After Strong Start, City Bus’ Future Unclear

Two months ago, the outlook appeared to be good for Phnom Penh’s public bus service.

After a monthlong test run saw 10 buses often filled with passengers, a Chinese-owned company promised in early March to inject millions into the project and add hundreds of new buses.

But Global Trade Development left the project last month after the municipality refused to grant tax breaks for the company’s metered taxi business, officials said. And now City Hall is shouldering the responsibility for running the fledgling bus service as it looks for a suitable company to take it over.

City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said Tuesday that the municipal department of public works and transport has assumed control of the city’s buses and vowed there will be no interruption to the 36-stop service along Monivong Boulevard as it searches for prospective companies.

“The bus operation in Phnom Penh will not stop, it will continue to run forever,” he said, refusing to say how many companies were in contention for the contract, or identify them.

Plans to launch a public transport system spent years in the pipeline before finally seeing the light of day in February with the Japanese International Cooperation Agency’s successful trial—the first stage of its farsighted urban transport master plan.

But the fanfare that greeted the arrival of the bus was dampened soon after JICA handed the bus project over to Global Trade, which controversially secured the deal without bidding and on the basis of a verbal agreement.

It had promised to spend $12 million to add more than 300 new buses to a total of 10 citywide routes, but quickly pulled out because of what company CEO Lim Andre described as “technical problems.”

“The project is finished, and it’s permanent stop,” he said, declining to comment further.

Mr. Dimanche said City Hall stopped working with Global Trade after it became clear that the company was seeking a tax exemption that would allow it to import not just buses, but also duty-free cars for its metered taxi company.

“He connected his taxi car company with City Bus, but private taxi cars cannot be linked with the public bus,” Mr. Dimanche said.

Ou Kimsan, deputy chief of the transport office at the municipal department of public works and transport, which currently runs the bus service, said that it also became clear that Global Trade would not live up to its commitments.

“They probably weren’t going to be able to do the job in the right way,” he said. “So we are now operating the service and have been doing it for one month already, while City Hall looks for people that will add more lines and buses.”

Mr. Kimsan said that several companies have expressed interest in the bus service, but he would only confirm that South Korean company City Trans Cambodia had resubmitted its interest after having its initial bid of $5 million rejected by City Hall in favor of Global Trade.

“The South Korean company is under negotiation but we have not yet set a date for discussions with this company,” he said.

In March, Trans Choice director Choi Dae Yong, who also runs a private taxi company, said he was confused by the winning bid and he accurately predicted the brevity of his rival’s tenure. In the notoriously loss-making sector of public transport, he said, such a huge proposed outlay didn’t make sense.

“We are back in negotiations and hopefully we will reach an agreement with City Hall after the holidays,” he said on Monday. “They have our proposal and it is up to City Hall to decide if they can do it or not.”

Despite the government’s guarantees, bus drivers and passengers this week said they were worried by the public bus service’s predicament.

“I hope it continues because I want to have a stable job, but I am afraid that City Hall will shut the bus down, making it difficult for me,” said 41-year-old driver Pak Sophal.

Duong Sokan, 63, said she would be very sorry if the bus stopped as it helped her and other women traveling to the market spend less.

“I used to spend 8,000 riel per day, but now I only spend 3,000 riel, so I hope the bus lasts forever because the bus is much more convenient and safer than moto-taxis,” she said.

Buses appeared significantly emptier than during JICA’s successful trial, when 42,000 tickets were sold in one month and buses were running at up to 70 percent occupancy.

At the bus departure point beside Chroy Changva “Old Stadium” roundabout, bus controller for the public work and transport department, Cheam Tong, admitted passenger numbers had fallen to about 1,000 people per day from highs in March of up to 1,700 daily.

But he said holidays were to blame.

“There were many festivals in the past month and students have been on lots of holidays, but when students return to school again this month the numbers will increase again,” he said.

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