Pioneer buses back: what has changed?

Passengers board a Pioneer Easy bus. The buses were grounded after the company failed to pay taxes to URA in 2013. It has since paid the debt and the buses are expected to be on the road in February. FILE PHOTO

What you need to know:

Kampala’s messy transport system needs buses to help decongest the city. Pioneer bus company has issues, but, it can help in this aspect.

When former Kampala Mayor Al-hajji Nasser Ntege Sebaggala hinged his campaign manifesto in 2006 among others on bringing buses to Kampala city, his message mellowed hearts of the voters.

‘Seya’. as he is popularly known ,ignited imaginations of Kampalans of cities like South Africa’s Johannesburg, Egypt’s Cairo and UK’s London, with fairly advanced public transport systems.

Between Sebaggala and Erias Lukwago election in 2011, buses were yet to reach the capital city.

When Jennifer Musisi, the executive director of Kampala Capital City Authority, cleared Pioneer Easy Buses to operate on several city routes, she mended hearts broken by Seya’s unfulfilled promise.

Out of an estimated day time city population of Kampala, only a small fraction have private cars and majority are public transport commuters.

How the buses left the road
In December 2013, however, only a few months after Pioneer buses operation, the 100 buses on the road were grounded. We were back to ground zero. The story of the buses’ exit rotates around their woes with the Uganda Revenue Authority.

Initially, 500 busses had been planned for, an arrangement the Lord Mayor Lukwago had criticised as rushed, arguing that the city was still congested and needed thorough re-alignment to create space for the buses.

In May 2013, the bus company got a notice from the Uganda Revenue Authority informing them that 99 buses were up for auction in a desperate bid to recover more than Shs8 billion in tax arrears. The debt, it is reported, accumulated as a result of importation of the 100 Chinese Yutong buses as excise duty and import duty interest.

President Museveni promptly mediated and ordered a stay of the auction, recommending that the company be allowed to pay the tax arrears in installments. But since then, the bright orange buses have been grounded at Namboole Stadium near Kireka, a city suburb.

Getting back on the road
From December 2013 to date, the company has been in back-to-back negotiations with KCCA and URA and their negotiations seem to have borne fruit.

Robert Kalumba, the KCCA deputy spokesperson, told this newspaper the company has been cleared to resume operations as sticky issues have since been resolved. He said, “We are looking at February. We have resolved the key issues we had with them.”

Similarly, Sarah Banage, the URA spokesperson, confirmed the country’s tax body had given Pioneer the green light to hit the road, arguing that it is not in the interest of URA to lock shop for companies owing them money.

Banage said: “In December 2013, we signed a Memorandum of Understanding agreeing that they resume business so they can pay us. They owed us about shs5b with interest but it is not in our interest to close a business.”

She added, “We let them resume operations so that they pay in installments as and when business operations resume. The details of the agreement are not for the public.”

Esther Kemigisha Tayebwa, the company’s legal advisor, confirmed the buses are only a few days away from the road.

In an interview with Daily Monitor at the bus company’s Bugolobi office, she said, “We expect to start business within February, the government engineer is analysing the road worthiness of the 100 buses and we await his report. “

She says the company sealed negotiations with KCCA, giving them a seven year contract effective this year, renewable for 12 years.

“We stopped because URA impounded the buses but the MOU stipulates how we shall pay in installments so we shall start paying once the buses are back on the road,” Kemigisha says.

Better and bigger?
To manage its funds more efficiently, the company intends to introduce a cash card system.

With at least 70 bus stops dotted around the city, the company plans to set up a kiosk at every stage from where passengers can purchase travel time cards with expiry dates ranging from a day to months. The same can be acquired from supermarkets and through mobile money.

Kemigisha says on the possibility of forgeries, “The travel time cards have a security element; they are made in Hong Kong so we cannot have cases of duplication.”

Five hundred buses on the way
In what appears a robust plan to decisively sort out Kampala’s public transport mess, KCCA’s contract with Pioneer requires the company to purchase 522 buses.

In October, the legal advisor reveals, the company will ship in 46 more buses, to bolster the current number of 100. More buses will then be bought incrementally.

Each bus has a passenger capacity thrice the number an ordinary matatu (taxi) whose maximum capacity is 14 people.

In the past, the company has pleaded with KCCA to establish special lanes for the buses but this, Kemigisha says, is still far from the reality. If the buses had their lanes, they would be saved the traffic jam menace on Kampala’s roads, enabling them to make eight trips instead of four.

New year, new promise
For Pioneer, the New Year offers sighs of relief for business; it is a battle they have fought from the day the buses were grounded. At their Bugolobi office, staffs are in conspicuous mood for work, a visitor feels the urge to return to business.

And yes, on paper, the plans are grandiose but to imagine that their return is the magic bullet to Kampala’s transport dilemma would be a little naïve.

There is more homework KCCA has got to do before we can say hooray, but when all is said and done, the return of the buses, is one step in the right direction.