URBANSCAPE: A FAREWELL TO WAGONS

July 28, 2019

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The famous Peshawar wagons will cease to operate at the start of the Bus Rapid Transport scheme | Photos by the writer
The famous Peshawar wagons will cease to operate at the start of the Bus Rapid Transport scheme | Photos by the writer

"I have told you time and again to get your public service vehicle (PSV) licenses but you never took my words seriously,” Noor Mohammad, a 69-year-old transporter and president of the Local Wagons Owners and Drivers Union, tells the drivers who flock around his charpoy, anxiety visible on their faces. “They are all expert drivers but most of them are driving their wagons on motor car/jeep licenses.”

The drivers and conductors of Peshawar’s iconic Ford wagons are worried about their future. After ruling the city’s roads for more than 40 years, these wagons are on their way out to be scrapped, taking a bow before the diesel hybrid buses of the Peshawar BRT.

“A majority of these drivers and conductors have spent their lives driving these wagons in the city. They have to get their PSV licenses from the transport department before they can be hired as BRT [Bus Rapid Transport] bus drivers,” he explains to Eos. According to Noor, the union has over 600 drivers but only a dozen have PSV licenses.

As Peshawar’s Bus Rapid Transport scheme takes shape, one of its casualities are the fleet of nearly 50-year-old Ford wagons

Noman Manzoor, the spokesperson of TransPeshawar — the Urban Mobility Company of the provincial government tasked to operate the BRT — explains that wagon drivers and conductors can either approach TransPeshawar directly with valid licenses, or apply through the owners of the vehicles. “We will validate the applicants through the transporters’ unions and evaluate them for the job,” he says. “The owners can give names of three employees associated with their vehicles,” he says, adding that after the collection of the drivers’ and other staff data, TransPeshawar would pass it on to the vehicle operating companies to whom the operation of the BRT buses and depots has been outsourced. These operating companies will provide them jobs.

The vehicles to be scrapped under the BRT project, along with these Ford wagons, include the mini-buses (locally known simply as Mazda) and the decades-old Bedford buses, also known as Rocket and Bara Bus since they travel from Peshawar up to the Bara tehsil of the tribal district Khyber.

According to TransPeshawar, the Ford wagon, the mini-buses or the Mazda and the Bedford buses handle the major chunk of passengers on the route along the BRT corridor and off-corridor (the feeding routes of the BRT to bring passengers to the BRT stations on the main corridor). “We would not disturb vehicles that don’t operate on the BRT corridor and off-corridor,” Noman explains, adding that, as per their initial estimate, 600 to 700 vehicles and their staff will come to them.

After completion of the registration process, a committee would be constituted to evaluate the actual price of the vehicles depending on the criteria set for evaluation. “We have kept one million to 1.5 million rupees price range for the vehicles depending on their condition, but the actual prices would be finalised by the committee after the registration,” he says.

Along with the price of the vehicles, TransPeshawar will also provide 30,000 rupees per month as compensation to the owners for a year. The project has allocated one billion rupees for purchasing the vehicles. Once the purchasing is complete, the government will issue tenders for the scrapping of the vehicles.

When Ford wagons first hit the roads in 1976, they transformed the city’s snail-paced transport system. They were in for a long haul and all those years these wagons have remained an essential part of the city’s bourgeoning yet broken transport system.

Wagon drivers and conductors discuss their problems with Noor Mohammad
Wagon drivers and conductors discuss their problems with Noor Mohammad

These wagons operated between the city’s main transport hub, the Haji Camp bus stand, and the infamous Karkhano Market situated on the western edge of the provincial capital next to Jamrud tehsil of Khyber tribal district. They also witnessed the spasms of violence that haunted the city for more than a decade. Till the end of 2000, the wagons used to ply on Khyber Road, which connects GT Road and University Road. However, after a string of bomb blasts targeted the city, Khyber Road was made off-limit to wagons. Since then, the wagons jostle along Bara buses and Mazdas on Sher Shah Suri Road in Peshawar Cantonment, to reach University Road at Gora Qabristan.

In 1976, wagons became popular among commuters and owners for their durability and comfort. “Their durability and easy maintenance was the sole reason for their presence on the roads, even after more than four decades,” says Noor. 

Noor owned a fleet of 10 wagons but now he does not have a single vehicle. Every morning he reaches his small cabin located at the Haji Camp Adda from where the vehicles depart for Karkhano Market. His job is to make sure that each vehicle departs on time. He is also responsible for resolving any disputes that emerge among drivers, or drivers and passengers, owners and drivers or the drivers with the police and government authorities. Each driver pays 100 rupees every day to the union from which Noor gets paid.

Before the construction work on the BRT corridor began, there were over 640 wagons plying the route but when the roads began to shrink because of the work on the corridor the number of wagons declined. Now only 200 are left. Some were converted into mini-trucks and some were sold in Punjab.

In 2003, after the Supreme Court directive aimed at reducing carbon emissions, the owners switched the stock diesel engines of vehicles with 1600 CC gasoline engines. The new engines were installed with CNG kits that were not only economical fuel- wise, but also overcame engine problems that were frequent with diesel engines, says Noor. These transporters believe that a vehicle never gets old as worn-out parts are replaced. “A vehicle never gets old if the owner is not old or weak,” Noor jokes.

In 2013, when the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf came to power in the province, the owners reconditioned the wagon’s bodies on the directives of the then chief minister Pervez Khattak. “The government didn’t fulfil its promise of allowing us to continue with the vehicles. We reconditioned 330 vehicles spending over 300,000 rupees on each, and now they are to be scrapped,” he says. The government modified the laws and now a vehicle older than 25 years cannot be granted a route permit. Thus the wagons cannot be operated anywhere in the province.

Shahid Hussain, 45, has been driving a wagon since he was a teenager. Like his fellow drivers, he likes to be in the city driving a vehicle so that he can return home in the evening to his family for dinner. “We have to pay 1,000 rupees to 1,200 rupees to the owner every day and the rest is ours. If I want, I can go home any time after earning the owner’s share or continue driving all day,” he explains.

“[Working for] the trans-city or trans-province vehicles that operate between Peshawar and Karachi or Peshawar and Lahore you can’t get back to your family every day,” Shahid says. Eight families are associated with a single vehicle — from the owners to the drivers, conductors and the mechanics.

Tamash Khan, 50, remembers the early days of his driving in the 1980s, when he would pay only three rupees for a litre of diesel. He has driven and been a conductor, even before he had any facial hair, and after 35 years he is afraid of losing his job if the government does not recruit him for the BRT. “I have 10 children. I have not informed my family about the government’s plans because I don’t want them to be worried,” he says, adding that he can be given other duties if he is too old to drive the BRT buses.

Inzar Gul is currently not driving a wagon. His last vehicle owner quit the business and, since then, he has not found another vehicle. “I visit the wagon stand everyday, but owners have stopped hiring drivers after the government’s plans to scrap old vehicles. Now owners are giving their vehicles to family members so they may get jobs in the BRT,” he says. He wonders what will happen to the drivers who presently do not have any vehicles but have worked with wagons throughout their lives.

The writer can be reached at sohail.jmc@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 28th, 2019