Bus hold-up keeps taxi meters ticking

Transport authority spokesman says the delay is intended to provide more business for three new private hire companies.

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Ras al Khaimah // The public bus service in Ras al Khaimah is being deliberately held back for another year to provide business for RAK's taxi firms, the transport authority has said. This is despite fare increases last spring that is claimed have made taxis too expensive for many labourers.

The buses were originally scheduled to start running in Sept 2008, but later postponed until Jan 2009. Transport officials now admit the system will not be ready for at least a year. Jason Farhat, the authority's director of commercial and investment affairs, said the delay was to provide more business for RAK's three new taxi companies and their combined fleet of 1,600 new cabs. "Internally we are holding back because the new taxis haven't brought all of the fleet yet and we need to introduce the rest of the fleet very soon."

In Feb 2008, taxi fares rose to 75 fils per kilometre from 50 fils, and the starting fare to Dh2.50 from Dh2. One independent taxi driver said he and his friends gave illegal discounts to low-wage workers. "In Dubai, if your salary is good, you use a taxi," he said. "If your salary is low, you use the bus. But here, where's the bus? How can passengers afford to use the meter? These men make a salary of Dh800 [US$220 a month] or Dh1,000. What will he save? Nothing."

"It costs around Dh25 to go to the industrial area. The labourers come to Nakheel and wait hours for three or four of their colleagues to come so they can share a taxi." Mr Farhat said the authority was studying alternatives that included using school buses on public routes until the planned service was running. "We are studying an alternative now," he said. "The public works department have 13 buses that take children to school in the morning from Jazirat al Hamra. We would like to use them within the cities and surrounding areas."

These buses could be operational by the end of the month, he said. The transport authority is also seeking to expand transport services to areas outside the city. "We were talking about 30 buses for the rural area," said Mr Farhat. "We will designate five per cent of the total taxi fleet to rural areas. That's about 80 taxis. We have already sent 10 to al Ghail, 10 to Adhan and five to Masafi." Yousef Esmaeel, the vice chairman and managing director of the transport authority, blamed infrastructure problems for the delay to the city bus service.

"We don't have a proper structure for bus stops," he said. "We are considering many things but we have real requirements." Taxi drivers said they were concerned there would not be enough business, claiming that the recession, higher meter rates and the new ban on sharing taxis had already hurt business. Some taxi drivers at the new companies, who earn a base salary of Dh500 plus commission, fear for their future. One, who switched from the independent yellow and white taxis to a new taxi company for better security, said customers were disappearing.

"When the buses come here the work for taxis will stop," he said. "But the bus system is better for customers. "The economic recession is a big problem. Before it was OK. In other years there were so many tourists. Last year I went to Dubai almost every day. Today is only the third time this month. Before I would go 15 or 20 times a month." Shemeer Majeed, 31, an Indian who has lived in RAK for 10 years and works at UAE Exchange in Jazirat al Hamra, 20 minutes from the centre of RAK, said: "The cost of taxis for people like me is affordable, but for bachelors, it's very difficult.

"If the price [of taxis] is more, they have to give another option for low-salary people." azacharias@thenational.ae