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ASUNCIÓN, Paraguay – Daniela Giménez said she is scared every time she gets on a bus in the nation’s capital and its surrounding area.
“I feel my life is in danger when I board one of the public transportation units,” she said. “But often there are circumstances that force you to continue using this service.”
Giménez said “public transportation is deficient from every point of view.”
“The quality of the service is terrible, and the drivers receive no training at all,” she said, adding her greatest fear is she doesn’t know whether the vehicles have been inspected.
The country’s public transportation system, which is run by private companies, is concentrated in the Paraguayan capital and its surrounding areas. Through the National Transportation Direction (Dinatran), a public entity, the government establishes the bus fares, taking into account studies ordered by an advisory board of Asunción’s Transportation Secretariat and the Metropolitan Area (Setama).
A one-way fare is 2,100 guaraníes (US$0.45).
“Traveling on public transportation is inhuman, the drivers speed past established limits and, on top of that, the passengers do not respect you, either,” said Héctor Candia, 29, who rides the bus every day to work. “They step on you, push and grab you and do not even offer apologies.”
In Paraguay, the private transportation companies are responsible for the maintenance of their units.
“It is unacceptable that the government is not in charge of the administration of public transportation,” said Miguel Zayas, a bus driver of more than 25 years with the company Mariscal López. “It is the government that should keep running buses in good condition.”
Zayas, who also is the secretary general of the Transportation Workers’ Federation (Fetrat), said many of the passengers’ complaints are a result of drivers’ having to work in terrible conditions.
“One of the main [causes] is that the drivers spend anywhere between 16 and 18 hours a day working, which means they cannot offer a satisfactory service,” Zayas said.
In Asunción and in the Central Department, where 35% of the country’s 6.3 million people live, there are about 4,000 public transportation drivers.
He added: “Almost none among them have life insurance, and if we talk about time off for vacations, that’s more like a utopia for our sector. We don’t have vacations.”
Zayas said drivers get paid according to the number of daily runs, as the constant grind wears on their health.
“Each run takes nearly three hours to complete and for each one they get some 25,000 guaraníes (US$5.30),” said Zayas. “To make more money they make three to four runs every day and they end up exhausted.”
Zayas said the union’s main goal is to limit drivers to eight hours on the road a day.
“The negative effects endured by drivers as the result of excessive hours behind the wheel make their health deteriorate considerably,” he said. “Some days ago, a colleague on Route 12 (run by the Curupayty company) died of a heart attack while he was driving.”
Zayas also said their bosses undermine traffic regulations so they can transport more passengers – and the bad driving causes passengers to form a negative perception of the drivers.
“If this happens it is because the owners of the companies demand that their drivers take in as many passengers as possible, that is why sometimes brusque maneuvers happen,” he said.
César Ruiz Díaz, general manager of the Metropolitan Area’s Center of Passenger Transportation Owners (Cetrapam), considers public transportation in Paraguay is “outdated” and requires radical change to improve its condition.
“This revolution that public transportation in Paraguay needs is not complicated, because it has already been implemented in other countries,” said Ruiz Díaz. “Fortunately, there are owners who think this way and who are thinking of modernizing their units to have feeder buses and special stops to allow passenger transfers, and thus increase the average speed at which buses are running, which is very slow – only 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) per hour.”
Ruiz Díaz said the country’s precarious public transportation system is the result of the “irrational growth of the number of vehicles and the fact that we don’t have the system to support that growth.”
Ruiz Díaz said there are about 2,380 buses in Asunción and its surrounding area, according to the latest data, but “when truth is told, the number is around 3,500.”
“With these 2,300 units we will be able to operate in a normal way,” he said.
The laws that cover public transportation in Paraguay establish that vehicles in operation be no more than 20 years old, but Ruiz Díaz said that’s not the case.
“Through the intervention of the Central Department’s governor, Carlos Amarilla, in the area of transportation, it was learned that units as much as 30 years old are allowed to circulate,” he said. “[It’s stopped] the development of a safe and modern transportation system.”