An empty waiting room with few people quickly purchasing their tickets at the ticket officer and hastily heading out towards the platforms.

This is the picture that can be seen at the Skopje Bus Station these days. The usual crowd is gone and the platforms are empty. The people simply cannot miss the occassional bus to their destinations.

The guards have very little to do at the entrance. Only randomly a passenger would appear and hand over the ticket for check… The buses are half-empty, at least, whenever they leave the Skopje Bus Station for their final destinations.

“The drop in the number of passengers compared to the same period last year between 01.01-31.08.2019 and 01.01-31.08.2020 expressed in percentages, denotes a decrease by 70% in the transportation nationwide and a decrease by 85% in the international transport of passengers,” explains the Rule Tours company about the sad situation that the bus transportation in Macedonia is currently in.

Almost identical data has arrived from the State Statistical Office about the first 6 months of this year, when the lowest number of 1.605.000 transferred passengers was registered, out of whom only 390.000 persons have used the bus in the period between April-June 2020. By comparison, during the first 6 months of 2019, 3.247.000 passengers used this transportation while during the same period in 2018 there were 4.242.000 passengers.

Empty platforms at the Skopje bus station; Photo credit: Bojan Blaževski

The enormous decrease in the number of passengers that happened with the coronavirus has hit the bus transportation companies very badly. The decision to introduce long lockdowns has left its consequences especially with the measure to limit the number of passengers of up to 50 % of the vehicles’ maximum capacity (buses and vans). On the 11th of August, the Government introduced less strict measures, with a possibility for the buses to head to their destinations with up to 75% capacity.

“The COVID-19 crisis has indeed left the bus transportation companies without revenues and the bus transportation is one of the most severely hit branches together with tourism, the hotel business and the catering industry”, said the Rule Tours company, that is managing the Intercity bus station in Skopje.

The company fears that the COVID-19 epidemic worsens again, and, with it, the authorities could introduce even stricter measures in an effort to prevent the virus’ spread. It is questionable if our economy would be able to survive another lockdown, said Rule Tours. Meta.mk sent several questions about the same issue to the Association of Transport companies “Istok” and the Transport company Galeb, Ohrid, but they weren’t in willing to comment about the state that the bus transporters are in during the corona crisis.

The coronavirus and the drastic decline in the number of passengers are the last of the several problems that the bus transporters have been facing in the past several years. The unprincipled competition by illegal taxi drivers, the aging bus fleet, the rise in the number of people that are using their cars for travel, are some of the challenges that lie in front of them. Last year, a critical point was reached with the tragic bus accident near Laskarci, when 16 passengers lost their lives.

The numbers of unlicensed taxi drivers are growing, the buses are traveling empty

Even during the COVID crisis, the unlicensed taxi drivers remain the most bitter problem that the bus transporters face every day. It is simply impossible to enter the Skopje bus station and not be get a ride offer for taxi transportation to any location in the city and destinations to cities such as Ohrid, Tetovo, Veles… Even the citizens and the bus transporters know the locations in the capital where the unlicensed taxi drivers have stops. At the bus station near the Soborna Crkva in the center of Skopje, one can catch a van or a car to take you to Tetovo, and at Bit Pazar, there are parked cars there offering transportation to Kumanovo or Veles.

At the moment, around 60% of the passengers are using unlicensed taxi drivers who are paid in cash and issue no receipts. They are driving their vehicles without any licenses, the drivers are unlicensed, no employment record, and are only making profits that aren’t registered anywhere, they are driving vehicles that are older than the buses and technically faulty” briefly described Rule Tours the current situation with the unlicensed taxi drivers in the state.

Passengers at the Skopje bus station; Photo Credit> Bojan Blaževski

Despite that, municipality inspectors are authorized to issue fines for the unlicensed taxi drivers in the cities, for the inter-municipality transport the ones who are authorized to issue fines is the State Transport Inspectorate. The Inspectorate stated that they have taken measures within their authority, but the problem cannot be solved with only 12 inspectors that are covering the territory nationwide. The State Transport Inspectorate stated for Meta.mk that the municipalities are issuing the licenses for performing the taxi transportation, so if the municipality inspectors are included in the process of fining the unlicensed taxi drivers, then the problem will be solved easier.

According to the annual report of the work of the Inspection Council for 2019, out of 105 warrants for conducting inspections that were issued last year, only one warrant was issued by the State Transport Inspectorate. Last year, the Inspection Council received only one application out of 237 filed about the State Transport Inspectorate, where the application was filed about the inspector’s work.

Meta.mk entered the Inspector’s registry at the RNM’s Inspection Council’s webpage. Unlike the answers from the State Transport Inspectorate, we managed to find only two safety inspectors for inner traffic in the registry including 16 state inspectors in the passenger traffic. The capital has only two authorized inspectors for passenger traffic. Gostivar has only one passenger traffic inspector, but he is only authorized to perform controls in the territory of Debar as well. The only inspector on the territory of Gevgelija is also authorized to control the territories of Strumica, Valandovo, and Demir Kapija.

All of these inspectors are authorized to conduct controls in the passenger traffic, including the unlicensed taxi drivers, whose vehicles should be confiscated and they could be fined. A question arises whether the number of inspectors is enough to cover the whole country which according to the data provided by the State Statistical Office, last year 3.144 buses were registered that the public transportation throughout the cities was organized with, which includes the inter-municipal, the international, and the organized passenger transport. Additionally, there is no official information about the number of unlicensed taxi drivers that are operating between the cities.

The Laskarci accident instilled the fear of bus traveling among the citizens

The last year’s bus accident near the village of Laskarci with the large number of passengers killed and injured, set the question about the safety of the bus fleet that is used for passenger transportation. The number of 16 passengers killed shocked the Macedonian general public and the additional accusations that followed about the manipulation during the vehicle inspections and the technical irregularity of the Durmo Tours’ bus, only contributed to instilling fear among the people about bus travel.

That the Durmo Tours’ bus that ran out of the highway near the village of Laskarci is not an isolated case shows the data provided by the State Statistical Bureau about the number of bus passengers killed or injured in the period starting from 1995 until last year. Meta.mk has already published that in the past 5 years, the number of passengers injured in bus accidents in Macedonia has grown. From 2014 until last year, the number of heavily injured passengers and drivers ranged from 15 to 34 people, while annually, during these 5 years there were between 121 to 166 easily injured passengers and bus drivers. Despite this, in the period between 1995 until 2000, the number of seriously injured passengers in bus accidents was between 2 to 14 people annually while the number of passengers and bus drivers with minor injuries was between 13 and 53.

The statistical data shows that even the average age of the buses that were used last year in passenger transportation was 18.1 years. The reason for using a mature vehicle fleet is the import of used buses and vans from abroad. Last year, the Customs Services has registered an import of 217 used buses from abroad which is 12 times more compared to the number of newly produced bus flee that was imported in the country in 2019.

The Ministry of Economy stated for Meta.mk that within its authorizations it can make changes of the sub-law to define the necessary minimum of the EURO regulations for gas emissions, which is currently at EURO 4 level. This represents a criterion for importing buses and can act positively on the bus fleet’s average age. Still, the Ministry also stated that at the moment there isn’t any discussion about the introduction of more strict criteria regarding the import of vehicles in the country. On the other hand, the Ministry of Transport and Communications claims that it has no jurisdiction over this area, stressing that it only allocates bus lines for the intercity and international traffic.

Parked buses at the Skopje bus station; Photo> Bojan Blaževski

The bus companies stated for Meta.mk that the enormously high price for the newly built buses is the basic reason behind their decision to import used buses from abroad. Apart from the anti-competitions from the unlicensed taxi drivers, they include the bus tickets fee that leads to the fact that the import of new buses is economically unfeasible.

“A solution is possible if the state finds a way to subsidize the purchase of new buses,” says Rule Tours company.

The Ministry of Economy replied that at the moment it hasn’t initiated a program for subsidizing commercial vehicles, and with it, subsidizing the purchase of buses by the transport companies.

The experts claim that the spare parts and the technician’s expertise are of key importance

Professor Milan Kyosevski at the Faculty of Mechanics stressed that the average age of the vehicles is only one parameter that can to provide a sustainable evaluation about the condition of the vehicle fleet that is used for organized transport in Macedonia. He states that it is equally important how these vehicles are maintained, what sort of spare parts are being used, and the ways the use of the vehicles is being organized and controlled.

“When I mention the maintenance, I refer to whether the preventive maintenance is applied, in what conditions (workshops) and whether experts are organizing and performing the maintenance, whether the maintenance is evidenced, whether someone is controlling that, etc” stressed Professor Milan Kyosevski.

According to him, a strong influence on the safety of the transportation means has the selection and the ways of installing the spare parts. They have to be of the approved type and to be installed in conditions and accordance with the procedures determined by the manufacturers.

These parameters are extremely important for vehicles which average age is 18 years or more.

“The vehicle’s age and the length traversed during that period usually lead to serious degradation of the vehicle’s systems which if not maintained properly can seriously disrupt the vehicle’s safety. It has to be stated that if the vehicles were appropriately maintained and controlled, their use and safety should be the same as when the vehicle was brand new,” explains professor Kosevski.

He explained that the state has at its disposal complete instrumentation of measures which can help to guide and control the import of used buses from abroad (Law on vehicles, Law on the security of the traffic, Law on transportation in the passenger traffic and their subordinate legislations. The same can be applied for the technical examination of the buses and the determination of their technical validity. The described measures in the legal and subordinate legislations are generally in accordance with what all of the European countries have accepted in order to lower the risk of certain technical invalidity that can worsen the buses’ safety.

Passengers at the Skopje bus station; Photo Credit> Bojan Blaževski

“It has to be stressed that only by a strict, professional, and accountable applying of the previously mentioned regulations on part of all participants can there be an improvement of the safety of the road traffic,” said Kosevski.

The Ministry of Interior seems that is doing its duty most diligently about controlling the technical validity of the vehicles that are used for public transportation of passengers. In the last action control on the 31st of August, in a period of 5 hours, nationwide, the authorities were able to find 52 different violations at vehicles who were used for public transportation of passengers.

There were sanctions about violations such as invalid braking system, steering systems, for invalid light systems and other apparatus in the vehicle, no vehicle registration, no vehicle registration extension.

With such illegal behavior by certain individuals and transportation companies, by a rule, the trust of the citizens for all bus transportation companies suffers. Rule Tours stresses that there should be preventive actions on part of the institutions and strict legal regulations. Despite this, they consider that passenger transportation needs subsidies from the state or the municipalities as seen in the Western countries, in order to attract more passengers to use public transportation.

If the state abandons the bus transporters to manage themselves when it comes to transportation organization, it seems there will not be a positive outcome for the accrued problems. The bus transportation companies are also held responsible for overloading the passengers in the buses or irregular maintenance of the bus lines, but at the end of the day, the responsibility to control these deviations lies with the institutions.

Author: Bojan Blazhevski