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Bus drivers, owners face fury of fed up Tapatios

The death of an 18-year-old University of Guadalajara (UdG) student in an accident involving a city bus last week persuaded Jalisco Governor Aristoteles Sandoval to revoke the one-peso fare hike approved last year, with the exception of the Tren Ligero (subway) and Macrobus (BLT) routes.

Saying that his “patience had run out,” Sandoval censured bus operators for “failing to comply with the minimum measures required to provide security” almost one year after he had been given assurances that the quality of service would improve.

UdG Rector Tonatiuh Bravo called for “a radical change” to the city’s transportation model, while Federation of University Students (FEU) President Jose Alberto Galarza said the state government should consider rescinding all private bus concessions in Guadalajara and assume control of the service.

The governor’s decision came three days after a city bus slammed into a stop outside the University of Guadalajara Prepa 10 on the Periferico (city beltway), killing one female student and injuring 19.

Witnesses told police that the Route 368 bus was going over the speed limit (the limit is 25 kilometers an hour outside all schools) when it plowed into the group of high school students. They said the driver then ran over several people who were lying injured on the ground, including Maria Fernanda Vazquez, 18, as he reversed and tried to flee the scene. The driver, later identified as Leopoldo Martin Soberano Castro, 53, was prevented from escaping when a pick-up blocked his path. He was restrained by pedestrians until police and ambulances arrived.   Authorities say they are debating whether to charge him with intentional homicide, a crime that carries a prison sentence of 25 to 30 years.

Soberano declared that he careened into the bus stop to avoid hitting two students who had strayed into his vehicle’s path.

Vazquez, 18, a popular student who was known to her friends as “Botas,” was taken to the Cruz Verde Norte and later to the Hospital San Francisco de Asis, where she succumbed after several hours in intensive care.

Since the beginning of the year, Guadalajara bus drivers have been involved in 21 accidents involving pedestrians, in which five have died.

Sandoval stressed that bus company operators will have to improve the quality of service and the habits of drivers before he agrees to another fare hike. A priority, he says, is putting drivers on a fixed salary, rather than the current method of paying them a percentage based on the number of passengers they transport, which encourages them to “race” among themselves to get to bus stops first.  They will also have to wear uniforms and pass a much more stringent driving examination than at present. 

Operators will have to install three video cameras inside each bus – providing images of the front entrance, rear exit and the interior of the vehicle. Introducing a pre-paid card system is also a priority but the state government recognizes that this is unlikely to be ready until later in the year.

Immediately after Friday’s accident, the Jalisco Department of Transport (Secretaria de Movilidad y Transporte or SEMOV) cancelled the concession of route 368, which the state government will now operate.  Investigations following the accident showed that 25 buses were working the route, while permission was granted to just 15. 

It was also announced on Monday that Javier Jaramillo Gonzalez would be stepping down as SEMOV’s director of public transport.  Some newspaper reports suggested that his close ties to Jorge Higareda, the director of the Alianza de Camioneros de Jalisco (a photo of them playing golf together has been circulated widely on social media), was a key factor for his removal from the post, although the official line was that he stepped down for “health reasons.” (The Alianza is the largest bus transportation company in the city, with 1,320 buses covering 73 routes.)

Classes were suspended at the UdG Monday as more than 20,000 students and faculty members marched to the Guadalajara city center to demand a safer and more modern bus service in the city. Many held up placards in memory of Vazquez, who was buried later in the day.

Bravo urged the state government to prioritize citizens’ needs over the economic concerns of owners and drivers and, if necessary, assume control of the bus service should the private sector be unable or unwilling to implement a modernized service model.

While Sandoval, for the time being at least, can count on the support of the UdG – his alma mater – he knows the transportation issue in Guadalajara could become his achilles heel.  Although he fulfilled a campaign promise to subsidize the travel costs of thousands of public school students after taking office in 2013, he faced flak for agreeing to the one-peso fare hike in December, and a failure to bring the bus owners and drivers into line could severely damage his popularity and that of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). 

Taking control of the bus service, however, could bring him into conflict with the private sector, another grouping he is keen to keep on his side.  It may also let loose a string of legal injunctions that the state government could not be certain of winning.

Several local NGOs, including Ciudad de Todos, criticized the governor for revoking the fare increase, saying the move was a smokescreen to cover up the real problem – the government’s inability to address the huge inadequacies built-in to the city’s bus network.  

Since the fatal accident, SEMOV inspectors have been dispatched to carry out safety checks on all city buses. They are also on the lookout for drivers who fail to respect the revised six-peso tariff, 

In the wake of this week’s outpouring of anger, several bus drivers spoke to the media to complain at being victimized. They said they were under huge pressure from owners who care little for their wellbeing. The drivers said they were obliged to work 12-hour shifts and pay for any damage to buses, as well as all traffic fines.  Owners are generally unsympathetic if drivers are assaulted and robbed, they said.

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