Blessings Chidhakwa Herald Correspondent
New Zupco urban services are working and more buses are being assigned, but the fleet is still inadequate so almost every bus on every route will fill to overflowing at the onset of each trip, and even then passengers have to queue at the base station, often having risen before dawn.
The odds of catching a Zupco bus at a bus stop along the route are almost zero. It can happen, but only an intermediate bus stop where several passengers disembark threby creating empty seats. When one or two get off generally all that happens is that the standing passengers are slightly less crowded although aisles are still packed. And usually it is only on the last two or three stops that empty seats appear, but by then the bus is already in town.
At its height in the 1980s the Harare United Omnibus Company, which along with the Zimbabwe Omnibus Company serving other towns andcities were merged to form the Zimbabwe United Passenger Company (Zupco) had over 800 conventional buses in its fleet, and in those days it did not serve satellite towns like Chitungwiza and Ruwa. Since then the Greater Harare population has probably tripled, implying an even bigger fleet is required to meet demand.
Zupco’s popularity is a result of price, rather than an enforced monopoly. Zupco tickets are a quarter to half the cost of tickets on competing kombis, thanks to the fuel subsidy the Government provides. Zupco has made significant strides to augment its fleet, first by franchising large buses owned by independent operators and recently by enticing kombi owners, who not only supplement major routes but also service the routes where large buses would not be viable. Zupco-franchised kombis tend to charge a bit more than large Zupco buses but still far less than independent kombis, and so also travel full on almost all trips.
Zupco did attempt to put in a basic schedule on the inaugural routes when the services started in January this year, but these have never really been implemented. Instead the Zupco buses, thanks to both high popularity and low fleet size, in effect fill at each end of the journey, and fill from the queues of people waiting to board.
“But passengers look forward to the day schedules can be implemented, and middle-aged and older passengers talk wistfully of the days you could set your watch by the time the Zupco bus stopped at your local stop.
Now those who live along the route have to walk to the nearest bus stop to enhance their chances of catching a bus to get to work on time.
Chitungwiza resident Mr Alfred Mangena said waking up early to catch a Zupco bus has almost become a ritual.
“Since the introduction of the Zupco buses I have had to adjust my sleeping timetable. I now have to wake up at 3:30am to catch a Zupco bus. Here in Zvido (between Unit P and N suburbs) we have five buses that come at different intervals and they all start picking up passengers at the last bus stop in N. From my house the last bus stop is about 4 kilometres and I have to wake up at 4am to get to the pick-up point early to enhance my chances of catching the early buses which will enable me to get to work on time.
“In a few instances I have had the fortune of catching the bus as it is dropping off passengers en route and have had to pay double the fare, to cover the distance to its final stop and then to town. But that is still cheaper than a kombi and guarantees me a seat.
Another commuter, Mrs Clare Shungu, who lives in Mabvuku and works in the Msasa industrial area, says catching a Zupco bus has its own challenges.
“In my case I always get to the pick-up point early but in some cases the bus crews only want passengers that are going straight into town because they want to enhance their turnaround time so we have to wait a bit longer to get a bus and this becomes difficult if there are a lot of people going to the CBD,” she said.
“There is also the challenge of tap-card holders. At times it does not matter that you are number one in the queue when the bus arrives especially when you do not have a tap card because those who have are getting preferential treatment even when they are at the back of the queue. The unfortunate part is that the rollout of the cards has not yet been properly decentralised and advertised to allow for as many people to access the cards.”
In addition she said pushing and shoving exposes them to abuse at the hands of perverts.
Zupco chief executive Mr Evaristo Madangwa said the allocation of buses depended on population density.
“In terms of allocation of buses we first do route surveys that look at the number of people in need of buses and then allocate accordingly,” he said Mr Madangwa was, however, reluctant to provide the actual figures of the current fleet servicing the Greater Harare routes and those required to meet the demand.
Mr Admire Nyarugo from Dzivaresekwa looks forward to the day when Zupco has enough buses and can revert to its old system.
“We are happy that the Government has introduced this service and it is helping us a lot. I, however, feel Zupco should revert to its operational system of the 1980s which was convenient and predictable. We used to know that there was a bus that would be coming along every hour and we could plan our journeys accordingly. Now there is no timetable” he said.
“I appreciate that Zupco might be having challenges with capacity but I believe that it can do better with proper planning using the available resources,” said Mrs Jullian Gwakwa.