The new regulator on the block

The new regulator on the block

The bus and coach industry is slowly recovering from the slump it experienced after the 2010 FIFA World Cup. JACO DE KLERK wonders if recent legislation will help or hinder its progress.

Eric Cornelius, executive manager of the South African Bus Operators Association (SABOA), says that while no new developments are in the immediate pipeline for the bus and coach industry, this may change.

He highlights the fact that the National Public Transport Regulator (NPTR) has been established in terms of Section 20(1) of the National Land Transport Act Number 5 of 2009 (the Act), although it isn’t operational yet. This regulatory body won’t be a mere watchdog establishment adding yet more formality to those that bus operators must already contend with: it aims to look after service providers and users alike.

One might think that sounds like pure poppycock – but read Government Gazette Number 35246, wherein the NPTR’s responsibilities and directives are stipulated.

It is stated that the NPTR will:
• Monitor and oversee public transport within the country in general, as well as the activities of provincial regulatory entities and municipalities in relation to their land transport functions;
• Oversee fare changes for public transport services throughout the country;
• Advise the Minister of Transport on regulations regarding fares or fare structures in terms of Section 8 of the Act; and
• Receive and decide on applications relating to operating licences or accreditation for inter-provincial transport, such as tourist transport services, excluding daily commuter transport to and from municipal areas (which will be dealt with by the respective municipalities themselves).

The NPTR has been established as a self-governing judicial body empowered to make totally independent decisions that not even the Minister of Transport can interfere with. In terms of Regulation 5 of the Act, the NPTR will also be able to hold hearings, subpoena witnesses, undertake investigations relating to land transport at the request of the Minister, hold enquiries in relation to habitual offenders and set national standards and procedures.

The regulator won’t be just another policing mechanism that operators must listen to. Jits Patel, the Department of Transport’s acting chief director for public transportation, speaking at the SABOA 2012 Conference in February, said the NPTR aims to keep everyone’s best interests at heart

“There are other powers and functions that we think would be very useful to add on in time,” he explained, placing emphasis on the Consumer Protection Act (CPA). Patel highlighted that certain provisions within this Act affect public transport and tourism operators alike, explaining that the Department of Transport (DoT) had already received feedback from rail, bus and taxi operators regarding some of the provisions that would be difficult to comply with.

“Our view is that in time, once the NPTR has been fully set up, it would be useful to take those provisions in the CPA that are relevant to public transport, and formulate provisions that are more realistic, more pragmatic and something that you can in fact apply,” said Patel.

One of the discrepancies within the CPA that Patel pointed out was the regulation that operators must display certain information on the front and back of their tickets. Clearly, not all taxi operators will be able to do this. He also said that timetables and a range of other information has to be displayed, which may be problematic for public transport operators in general. “We think that the NPTR will be able to take over some of the functions of the CPA to provide more vigilant solutions applicable to transport operators,” explained Patel.

However, the main function of the NPTR will be monitoring in nature, but it doesn’t want to just slap wrists and refuse licences without investigating. The NPTR will consist of a core regulating committee that will regulate inter-provincial and tourism transport services on a national level, as determined by the Minister of Transport in terms of the Act. “The committee will be supported by staff within the DoT,” said Patel.

The statutory body will initially be introduced to the tourism sector, and will decide on the applications and accreditations of tourist transport operators. If it works there, it will probably be extended to the bus sector. “The view of the DoT is that we are trying to set up a new institution,” said Patel. “It will be better for us to start small and learn lessons as we go along, rather than simply creating a big institution that is similar to existing establishments. This accreditation system will be very different to the operating licence and permit systems we’ve known up to now.”

The difference is that the NPTR will asses the fitness of a person to run public transport as well as the fitness of the vehicle to transport passengers. “So the accreditation process actually goes a step further,” emphasised Patel. “However, it will also look at all business operations as a whole, determining if they have the requisite admin facilities, the requisite team that will do the maintenance of their vehicles and that they in turn have the necessary qualifications.”

He also said that the DoT, NPTR and traffic authorities will enter into a Memorandum of Understanding with regards to checking the acceptability of vehicles, the acceptability of maintenance and servicing facilities and reports, and investigating the suitability of staff training. “In time, it will also be required that technical staff undergo some sort of specified training,” said Patel.

The major problem facing the NPTR is that operators aren’t evenly distributed across the country and within the provinces, with 80 percent being located in Gauteng and the Cape. This provides some difficulties when it comes to inspections of, for example, maintenance facilities.

Referring to the latter, Patel said the NPTR would take into account the fact that small operators will be unlikely to have their own repair premises. “We would expect that these operators make arrangements with a legitimate service provider that would provide them with a service centre that isn’t a backyard-type of operation to ensure that it can be accredited for the maintenance reports,” he explained.

Patel pointed out that the accreditation of maintenance facilities wouldn’t be the only obstacle the NPTR might have to overcome when it comes to smaller operators, asking how one monitors operators with, for example, only one vehicle in an “isolated” location. “That is one thing I think we are going to have a tough time with during the implementation of the programme.”

To address this, Patel said that the DoT would ideally want to appoint a chief inspector or monitor within each province; someone who understands each province and its operators. “Those agents should be people who completely understand the industry from a business point of view rather than merely a road traffic point of view,” he emphasised.

The names of some of the eligible people being considered for appointment as officials of the NPTR was published in Government Gazette Number 35246 on April 13, 2012. This was done so that the public could choose from candidates who have the necessary skills.

It’s clear that the NPTR intends to improve public transport in South Africa, and the fact that it aims to do so with the best interests of all parties – including bus operators – at heart is a laudable start.

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