The republican status of our transport sector
From good old Bedford trucks to luxurious cross-country vehicles and saloons, Ghana’s automobile and road transport sectors have seen it all from years preceding the country’s republican status till date.
Vehicles made their appearance in the Gold Coast at the turn of the 19th century, not so long after they took to the road in Europe in the 1890s.
From the few that arrived in those days, the number of cars has increased over the years, with the country’s roads now responsible for well over a one million cars, according to statistics from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority (DVLA).
Ghana’s public transport probably began with the untiring good old Bedford trucks. They became common in the late 1930s and were extensively used for transporting cocoa, salt and foodstuff to the railway stations even before properly tarred roads became common.
The diesel engines and steel frames had good reputations; they were as strong as tractors and reliable. The owners, often wealthy men and women traders, would contract carpenters to build the box, seats, roof (tarred to be waterproof) and canvas flaps for the sides and back in readiness for the rains.
The Bedfords were durable, easy to maintain and seldom broke down. They could withstand very much the heavy wear and tear caused by the pothole-ridden dirty roads and pathways.
The tale of Ghana’s public transport over the last 60 years is incomplete without the ever-present ‘trotro’. According to oral history, the name ‘Tro-Tro’ is the Ga word "tro," which means three pence, the pence being the penny coin used during the colonial era. In the colonial days, the mass transit vehicle charged passengers three pence per trip, and, thus, were referred to as "tro-tros," and the name has stuck ever since.
Trotro was any vehicle that could carry passengers — from buses to mini buses, including cargo vans converted into passenger buses and the Bedford, also known as ‘bone shaker (now outlawed for carrying passengers).
For all its service to humanity, ‘trotro’ can be a nightmare for even the toughest city hustler. Journeys frequently stop-start, with uncomfortable seating, constant and loud horns; and the drivers accelerate aggressively, mostly recklessly.
Fares are however, cheaper, even though they can increase drastically during higher fuel price adjustments and sometimes on the whims of the transport unions.
Some of the trotro vehicles are also death traps as they have outlived their roadworthiness.
However entertainment is not hard to find on a ‘trotro’. A trotro could be a stress reliever as it enables you to experience the sales gimmicks of vendors and the wit of comedians and sometimes ‘medical evangelists’. Most of the time, before a vehicle reaches its destination, a few passengers exchange their money for goods.
Even with the tremendous growth of the automotive industry in Ghana, the inadequate roads in our rural areas means that the only means of transportation continues to be a fleet of ancient and battered mini buses and taxis.
Taxis have also contributed tremendously to public transport, serving the needs of both the middle and working class.
From a vibrant public transport at independence, Ghana’s public transport sector was forced to bite dust with the encouragement of deregulation by the World Bank in the 1990s.
The days when the likes of Omnibus Service Authority (OSA) functioned efficiently disappeared with an exercise to divest state interest in enterprises.
The OSA used to operate a city transit system, using Leyland and Albion buses. Later, they switched to Neoplan and Tata buses during the late 1970s.
The OSA buses were said to be so reliable that one could easily predict which number would be at which bus stop at a particular time.
But it is also significant to know that the Metro Mass Transit, which started operating in 2002, has done tremendously well even though its efficiency in terms of time management cannot match that of the OSA.
The safety and comfort that comes with the OSA buses are missing on MMT buses as rush hours are used as excuses to pack passengers to the point of suffocation.
A new addition to the public transport is the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), which initial promise of having its own lanes has not been delivered.
In spite of that, they are highly efficient, reliable and neat compared to some of their trotro counterparts whose drivers and conductors have little respect for passengers.
For intercity transport, the revived Intercity STC was a major asset until years of mismanagement caused it to lose its status to private sector fleets such as VIP and OA.
Even though the deregulation exercise put more cars on the roads, the cities have had to contend with worsened road congestion, a deteriorating urban environment and big challenges with user safety and security.
The private operators work without any schedule, route licensing or service standards.
The licence gives them permission to operate anywhere, resulting in their concentration along the main high-density corridors.
Apart from Bedford trucks being outlawed as passenger vehicles, not much has changed over the years.
According to a World Bank report of 2004, “This situation has particularly worsened the travel environment for the poor who live in outlying areas and depend mostly on public transport.”
From all indications, Ghana’s road transport needs radical reforms to make it more efficient and reliable. As my father-in-law’s daughter puts it, “Any transport system that compels you to leave for your destination two hours ahead of schedule deserves to be scrapped.”