Metro Bus – Replacing the Diablos Rojos

Panama’s national government has made alternatives to the diablos rojos (old school buses) in Panama City a top priority. One approach is to formalize bus operations, consolidating operations into the municipally run Metro Bus system. The government offered to buy the buses of existing drivers, but buy-in has still been a problem. The government also produced the following video, which has some great footage of the existing problems.

Documental Metro Bus Panamá. from 5sentidos on Vimeo.

The short documentary opens with the story of Jose, a worker who lives in the Pacora neighborhood and has to wake up at 3:00 every morning to catch the bus. Other Panamanians then voice their concerns. The man in the blue shirt opines “I think that for these buses, which were useful in the schools in the United States, the seats on the left weren’t made for three adults.” In the middle of his soundbite, you can hear my friend Luis (more about him here) calling passengers for his “Calle Cincuenta” bus. After the tale of another commuter who gets stuck in traffic, the lady in the striped shirt complains, “[The diablo rojo drivers] go racing, they throw the buses on top of the others. To them, nothing and nobody matters. I think that the government has to see what it can do right now with transport.” The following man states, “The majority have mechanical problems – almost all of them.” A diablo rojo driver then explains, “I have been stuck 18 or 19 years driving a diablo rojo, racing, because they go, not for the benefit of the passengers, but to be able to be the first one at the stop and make more money.”

At the 2:00 mark, the documentary switches gears, and a smooth voice-over assures viewers, “Now it’s the peoples’ turn to have a transit system that is safe, comfortable, and reliable. The transformation of Panama City’s transportation system is already underway. Panamanians deserve a safe, comfortable, and reliable system – Metro Bus.” The smooth voice-over goes on to promise that by 2010, thousands of people will be benefiting from the service.

Unfortunately, the system has faced major implementation delays, primarily due to the lack of qualified drivers. This article, published in January, goes into greater detail. The editor of Panama Guide summarizes,

For the most part, those people who have experience driving the old “Red Devil” buses are buses are being rejected, probably because they have terrible driving records, many accidents, outstanding tickets, and bad habits, and bad attitudes. Before the individual bus owners had to take practically anyone who would sling their bus around the city to make a dime. Now, this company and the government of Panama have to be more stringent and demanding in their hiring practices. So, it’s not that there’s a shortage of experienced bus drivers – there’s a shortage of good bus drivers who won’t go out and pull the same crap they’ve been doing for years on the old buses. This labor shortage is going to delay the implementation of the system, no doubt.

Buses of Panama City – Los Diablos Rojos

Los diablos rojos, the red devils, as the buses of Panama City are widely known, were some of the most well-decorated I have seen on my trip.

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Buses of Costa Rica

Unlike in Nicaragua, the majority of the intercity buses I saw in my week in Costa Rica were coach buses (mainly Marcopolo bodies manufactured in Brazil). There were, however, plenty of old school buses being reused as transport for agricultural workers and students. The ones still being used as school buses were well marked with stop signs, etc.

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New Buses for Managua

I had the opportunity to view some of the bid documents and specifications for this bus acquisition in my meeting at IRTRAMMA. They were quite technical (e.g. finite element analysis of different bus components), and it seems like the government is satisfied that DINA, a Mexican manufacturer, will meet their requirements. Translated from “Buses nuevos vendrán en cinco meses,” published February 3rd on El 19 Digital, an online news source for President Ortega’s government:

By the middle of this year the first lot of buses coming from Mexico will enter the country, and by next October it is expected that all of the 350 units will be circulating in the capital to benefit some 350,000 Nicaraguans. The announcement was made by the director of Managua’s Municipal Transport Regulator (IRTRAMMA), comrade Francisco Alvarado, after signing the manufacturing contract with Mr. Martín Meléndez, representative of the Mexican company DINA Trucks Ltd.

These buses will have a capacity for 70 people (40 seated) and will be acquired by different urban transport cooperatives of the capital, whose representatives seemed satisfied with the entire bidding process, which concluded this Thursday with the signing of a contract equivalent to approximately $24 million, money financed by the Central American Bank of Economic Integration (BCIE) and managed by the government of President Daniel Ortega Saavedra.

“For DINA Trucks and for Mexico as a whole it is a pride to participate in this purchase of buses for the people of Nicaragua,” said Meléndez, the representative of the Mexican company.

He said that these new buses will be fabricated with the climactic and topographic conditions of Nicaragua in mind and “that all the citizens of Managua and Nicaragua should have the confidence that they can count on buses of the first world, of extraordinary quality, and that they will benefit.” Ten percent of all of the buses will be manufactured with a system of special lifts for people who use wheelchairs.

“By the end of this year Managua will totally transform its fleet and with that its model of municipal transit,” assured Alvarado.

Luis Jiménez, a bus owner, said that improving and transforming the system of buses in Managua could only happen under the direction of a Sandinista Government.

“The strength which the revolutionary government has used in these negotiations is excellent. We have ordered a bus that will have excellent technical features and at the right price, and that will benefit the people foremost,” said Jiménez.

The political overtones of this article make more sense when one considers that Nicaragua’s next presidential elections are scheduled for November. With an election looming, I am confident that most or all of the buses will actually be operating by October. This means the demand for US school buses in Nicaragua will have declined significantly by then. It also means that IRTRAMMA should consider changing its logo, which currently features a yellow school bus complete with a stop sign:

IRTRAMMA logo

IRTRAMMA logo

Albanisa – The Blessing of an Octopus

After my excellent meeting with the General Director of Managua’s Transport Regulatory Agency, he graciously arranged for me to visit the facilities of Alba Transport (shared with Alba Equipment), where the city’s old buses amarillos (yellow buses) were being decommissioned. Here’s what opposition newspaper El Nuevo Diario had to say about the Alba companies and a reporter’s attempt to investigate Alba Transport:

The private firm doing business as Alba of Nicaragua, Ltd., Albanisa, tied to the presidential family, constitutes only the name and face of an emporium of businesses that offer all type of services, making itself into a new economic power in the country…The mother company or head of the octopus was formed in 2007 with the oversight of President Daniel Ortega and his Venezuelan partner and provider, Hugo Chávez…But from it also extend Alba Caruna, Alba Equipment, Alba Security, Alba Generation, Alba Ports, Alba Deposits, Alba Wind Power, Alba Food, Alba Transport, Alba Tenosa, and “at least two more which are being formed,” indicated informants.

El Nuevo Diario arrived at the facilities of Alba Equipment…and as we approached, the guards of Alba Security came out to meet us, and after making phone calls and making us uncomfortable, indicated that we could not wander around the site. Right there, in the gates of the two “Little Albas [Transport and Equipment],” we asked if [Alba Transport’s Director Freddy] Acevedo could be found, but the guards, now warned by the gray-haired man, did not respond to more questions and asked us to leave “to avoid problems.”…To these facilities were brought the 130 buses donated by the Russian Federation to Alba-Caruna, to open the windows, put in radiators, and change the brake system, i.e. adjust them to the climate and needs of the country.

When I arrived at the front gate, I was also greeted with a bit of suspicion by the Alba Security guards. They took a bit to confirm my identity (a Japanese reporter writing for a US school bus magazine – I highlighted my Japanese heritage rather than my “Yankee imperialist” heritage for the Sandinistas) and that I had an appointment with Director Acevedo. In the meantime, I saw a couple of buses skidding around in the compound, presumably testing their newly acclimatized brakes.

Director Acevedo gave me a great tour of the Alba Transport facility. Sitting in a lot were 104 dilapidated former US school buses, between 20 and 30 years old, waiting to be disassembled. Oil and other contaminants were drained in a process authorized by the national environmental oversight agency, then the buses were scrapped. I saw a couple of 18-wheelers with FSLN (governing Sandinista party) flags on the dashboard hauling away the scrap metal during my visit. There were also a few buses painted bright pink, which Director Acevedo said were used for entertaining children.

I also enjoyed seeing the other side of the equation, brand new Kurgansky Avtobusny Zavod buses that had just arrived from Russia. Alba Transport had handed the first batch of these buses over to operators but quickly realized that modifications were necessary:

The buses were delivered to seven of the thirty-six routes of urban collective transit, the majority of which are affiliated with the governing party, at a cost of $25,000 per bus. Transport sector sources affirmed that the cooperatives are unhappy with the buses, because each one needs to be held back a certain time for for problems related to acclimatization, “but the bill has to be paid on time.”

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After seeing some of the maintenance facilities for the new Kavz buses, Director Acevedo and I returned to his office. At his desk (complete with a small FSLN flag), we discussed the importation of used buses. School buses generally enter the country by boat through Puerto Corinto, but it is now illegal to import buses manufactured before 1996. The Director expressed his hope that within two years, all of the old school buses would be off of Managua’s streets.

Such an ambitious replacement plan could only happen with continued aid, like that which Venezuela gives to Nicaragua through Albanisa. While Albanisa is largely under the control of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, ALBA is a larger economic effort in Latin America to combat US-style neoliberal economic policies. Much of ALBA is driven by Venezuelan oil, as described in the same article from El Nuevo Diario:

Alba Caruna, which until a few years ago was a small credit cooperative, today is essentially the state bank and receives 25 of the 50% of the Alba Fund, which originates from the payment of the oil invoice that Nicaragua pays for the importation of Venezuelan crude.

Nicaragua imports Venezuelan petroleum through Petronic, which pays the the bill to the account of Albanisa, which, in its turn, pays 50% of the bill to the Venezuelan PDVSA. They transfer the other 50% to the Alba Fund (25% for social projects in all of the Alba countries) and the other 25% is transferred to Alba Caruna. During the past year, Venezuela’s help aid to Nicaragua reached $457 milion, according to source at the Central Bank of Nicaragua. Of this total, $146 million (30%) was for Alba Curuna.

This aid has benefited Sandinista farmers through rural agriculture products and city-dwellers through the new buses and fare subsidies. As the Sandinista Vision magazine describes,

The Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our America (ALBA) has, for the last three years, been a blessing for Nicaragua to get out of the social, economic, and structural problems left by the neoliberals who governed the country for more than sixteen years, leaving a high percentage of extreme poverty, illiteracy, and misery, among so many other ills. In what conditions would we Nicaraguans be if the Government of Reconciliation and National Unity, headed by President Daniel Ortega, could not count on the resources to face the world economic crisis and the twelve-hour blackouts which we were suffering in the recent past?

An exceptional credit to Albanisa is that which is known as the Modernization of Collective Transport in Managua, which arose due to the strikes which occurred in May of 2008…A new contract signed with the Russian Federation will permit 225 more buses to enter the country, conditioned for the tropical climate and a little bigger, all with the end of modernizing the transport of the capital. The social fare project which Commander Ortega maintains to benefit more than 800,000 capital residents who utilize public buses, will continue to the end of this year. “Many citizens are now accustomed to paying 2.50 Cordobas for the fare which at best would cost 5.00 Cordobas if it were not subsidized,” said Jorge Martínez, President of Alba Caruna.

So my trip to visit a bunch of rusty old school buses from the United States ended up including brand new Russian buses bought with Venezuelan oil and a debate about whether this evolving economic arrangement was a blessing or an octopus.

Statistics for Vehicles Ridden – Nicaragua

I rode just over one hundred different vehicles during my time in Nicaragua. I spent a total of 33 hours in 42 different former school buses, traveling 587 miles. I also rode 273 miles over 15 hours in 22 different microbuses. Compared to Belize, the average age of buses in Nicaragua was more difficult to determine, since fewer still had the manufacturer’s registration plate affixed to the headboard. The buses in Nicaragua, however, were much more diverse than the almost exclusively school bus based fleet in Belize. On the streets of Managua, I saw buses from the United States, Russia, Mexico, Brazil, and Japan.

Buses and Road Construction on Ometepe

The former school buses on Ometepe were quite durable. I talked with one of the island’s first bus owners, and she told me about how, despite the island’s rough roads and lack of any garages (meaning the buses have to take the ferry to the departmental seat of Rivas for maintenance), the buses hold up pretty well. After completing a paving project between the port towns of Moyogalpa and Altagracia, the government is now slowly proceeding to pave the road out to the town where I stayed, Mérida. I unexpectedly got the chance to help out with this construction work.

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León

One of my first weekend trips outside of the Department of Managua was to Las Peñitas, a surfing beach near León. The surf was marginal, but the bumpy ride on the Old Highway on the way there was redeemed by sharing the smooth ride back on the New Highway with a rooster.

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