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.
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.