ZUPCO made a comeback in 2019 and it came in with a bang. A new fleet of buses and some of the lowest fares on the market. Also with the help of the SI 83 of 2020 to have all commuter operators either get registered with ZUPCO or get off the streets, it almost immediately became the biggest transport company overnight.
Interesting tech was also introduced for payments with the ZUPCO tap card even though topping it up was a bit inconvenient requiring one to visit a ZUPCO kiosk to recharge. But its death was less to do with that and more with the fact that ZUPCO operators were not receptive to that payment system and ended up reverting back to cash if ever they implemented the tap card payment system in their vehicles in the first place.
ZUPCO minibusses and buses disappear from the streets
It was a slow process but little by little ZUPCO registered commuter omnibuses and buses disappeared from the streets. A number of them cited that the system was unsustainable for the operator with the fees being stipulated by ZUPCO.
Then we get to 2022 and these same private operators who once had been registered under ZUPCO start to form their own transport unions to compete with ZUPCO. In Harare, there are quite a number of these unions on the streets now with ZUPCO-branded vehicles almost gone extinct.
Now the latest casualty comes in the guise of the ZUPCO-NRZ partnership which NRZ terminated announcing that it is owed a substantial amount of money by ZUPCO and will only resume operation once they pay their dues. The statement reads:
PRESS STATEMENTNRZ Press Statement
TEMPORARY SUSPENSION OF COMMUTER TRAIN SERVICE
The National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ) would like to advise the commuting public of a temporary suspension of the Urban Commuter Train Service with effect from Monday 28th November 2022.
The service was launched in partnership with ZUPCO last year to ease congestion in Bulawayo and Harare.
The suspension was occasioned by an unsustainable operating environment arising from huge debts owed to NRZ by ZUPCO. NRZ was therefore left with no option but to suspend commuter trains from 28 November due to capacity challenges.
Normal services will resume once ZUPCO fulfill its obligations as set in the agreement. Any inconvenience caused to our valued customers is sincerely regretted.
If ZUPCO is more affordable why is no one using it?
The pricing structure of ZUPCO made it really affordable. They were massively undercutting the competition and from experience even offering better quality transportation for the public. In this respect they seemed to have most of the ingredients to gain an advantage of the law of large numbers. So how did they become undesirable?
Time is money
The commuting public has a general preference for smaller vehicles like sedans and hatchbacks. The reason behind this is that they accommodate a small number of passengers which means they take less time to reach capacity and go. They are the least comfortable and the most expensive but the commuting public values time and are willing to endure more expensive fares and a less comfortable ride.
ZUPCO buses were absolutely terrible in this regard. The bus would not leave till it’s reached capacity which often took up to an hour. An hour of just sitting stationary in a but is an hour the commuting public just does not have. What was going to give ZUPCO rapor was them sticking religiously to a timetable and assuring the commuting public that it will always keep time.
ZUPCO states that is has 2000 buses and omnibuses registered under it and their own fleet consists of 273 buses and omnibuses. This pales into comparison with the 60 000 onmibuses and 20 000 buses that are operating under ZUDAC (Zimbabwe Union of Drivers And Conductors). And even with this, the combined effort of registered buses, omnibuses, unregistered operators (Mshikashika) and private vehicles all struggled to move commuters during peak hours. ZUPCO’s fleet alone is inconsequential to meeting the sheer volume of commuters during these peak times.
This meant they were not dependable. There was no guarantee that you can get one unless you wait in mile long queues for hours on end. This lack of reliability again made them undesirable. They were just an endangered species.
If you have ever used public transport you will know that operators move leaps and bounds to find customers. Often at times they can willingly deviate from the normal route even for just one commuting person. It’s a sport for them. Same goes for dropping off commuters. If you ask nicely they can drop you off exactly where you need to be dropped off. Yes I know and you are right. For other motorists these drop off spots can cause unnecessary traffic jams and in some cases pose a danger for that same commuter getting dropped off in an undesignated spot.
Regarldess, the commuter sees it as a convenience. And it may be more of a case of poor public transport infrastructure but that’s a story for another day. ZUPCO just could not offer the same level of pick up and drop off convenience as other registered and unregistered operators. Beyond pick ups and drop offs, payment methods were and are still more flexible on non-ZUPCO operators. Whilst ZUPCO accepts payment in Zimbabwean dollars and US dollars but at the prevailing official rate, non-ZUPCO operators go further in accepting EcoCash or even the South African Rand.
Back to the drawing board
ZUPCO is a really nice idea but right now it cannot exist in isolation. For there to be a turn around in the public transport sector there needs to be a lot of work done in the supporting infrastructure. Maybe bus stops are not the solution but rather dedicated bus lanes. Maybe in the CBD Metro rail makes more sense than omnibuses for bus rank to bus rank transit. And for suburbs already serviced by rail maybe the solution is refurbishing that infrastructure. But the lowest hanging fruit is sticking to a strict time table otherwise the mshikashika will remain desirable.