Johannesburg is a thriving, bustling urban centre of humanity. As such, the city that plays host to the Johannesburg Stock Exchange is one of South Africa’s critical economic centres. It is easy to forget the importance of a good, reliable transport service, one that ensures commuters and tourists can get to destinations safely and on time.
That is the remit of Metrobus, the Johannesburg Metropolitan Bus Service, one of the city’s main sources of public transport. In 2010 the organisation laid-on extra services to help cope with the clamour of the Fifa World Cup (TM) and it was at that very moment that Acting Managing Director Lawrence Maqekoane joined as Chief Finance Officer.
“Metrobus is a state-owned entity and is owned by the Municipality of Johannesburg,” Maqekoane affirms, “we run scheduled bus services for commuters around the city and operate a fleet of 450 buses which are stationed at three main depots.”
Set up as a company in 2000, Metrobus is the second largest municipal bus operator in South Africa, with its buses covering 80 scheduled routes and 130 school routes. Maqekoane says that the buses cater for around 90,000 passengers every day.
Operating such a vast fleet with so many customers, it is inevitable that from time to time things do not run smoothly and Maqekoane has made improved customer service a priority for the organisation:
“We have over 1,000 employees of which roughly 500 are drivers. We have invested carefully in training and recruitment and we operate our own induction programme which includes how to treat customers and also tests each candidate for fitness.
“Our biggest challenge is reliability: if you have a 10am appointment you need to be able to guarantee that you will arrive there on time and we are always trying to improve reliability of our buses and routes.
“But we are also addressing the attitude of the drivers – we have just started an incentive scheme and will be monitoring the results in the next three months. The drivers are ambassadors for us and they are very much the face of Metrobus; it is important that the public have a good perception of our services. We want to increase use of public transport so we want to improve the customer experience.”
Maqekoane says that currently around 80 per cent of customers are repeat clients using coupons which offer multi-trips over a time period. It is a system that works well and one that Metrobus is keen to extend:
“We encourage customers to use coupons,” Maqekoane states, “that is a big part of our business and customers that pay for tickets in cash account for a much smaller percentage. We are currently using one company to sell coupons through but we are in the process of broadening this approach to provide greater access and convenience for the customer. We have already issued a tender for companies to issue coupons and ideally we are looking to bring onboard another three companies.”
He says that the coupon system works well and has largely reduced the role of e-ticketing although Metrobus is at present working with students to create better internet links that will better details routes and times for would-be passengers.
“Because we are Government-owned we have to look at affordability and availability and the fleet has gradually grown old and in need of an upgrade,” he describes. “The challenge will be to maintain an aged fleet and right now we are testing several buses.”
“In Johannesburg there is now a concerted effort to upgrade infrastructure, although we are campaigning for this to go further and for the creation of dedicated lanes for public transport,” comments Maqekoane. “Dedicated lanes would speed up the change from private vehicles to public transport, as congestion during peak hours slows down traffic.
“In the meantime we are looking at how we can maintain our current fleet in a more efficient manner; one thing we have introduced recently has been a diagnostic machine which has greatly improved operations by providing preventative maintenance that has stopped the buses from breaking down on the roads” he continues.
Significantly, he adds, the new technology has also improved fuel consumption – a critical consideration for a Government-funded service: “The cost of fuel can be very significant when the price of crude oil goes above $100 a barrel – we know then that we are in trouble,” Maqekoane explains. “The price is fortunately currently going down due to less demand from places like China but the Rand is weakening right now which means we are not feeling the full benefits of the price fall.
“People forget that when the price of oil goes up we do not increase fares because we are Government-owned and do not operate to make profit. This means we run at a loss in such times.”
Looking to the future Maqekoane says that improving both customer service standards and the fleet of vehicles is the immediate focus. Changes to the existing ticketing system are a possibility, with Metrobus linking up with other public transport operators in the city including BRT, Gautrain and Metro Rail to deliver a one ticket system in the next couple of years.
“Part of the concept would deliver better links between modes of transport and passengers could use different services without the inconvenience of walking great distances between terminals – we are lucky enough to be flexible and we can change routes if this happens in the next year or two.”
All of which would help deliver on the Metrobus aim to deliver world class customer service.