While bus companies are running out of cash, small local governments don’t have much more either.
The city of Shangqiu in Henan Province. Photo from CFP
By TANG Jun
Residents in Shangqiu woke up on Thursday morning to find the local bus company plans to suspend its service in March.
Shangqiu in central China’s Henan Province with rich history was established around three thousand years ago. It is said to have been the first capital of the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600 BC– c. 1045 BC). Nowadays, Shangqiu is a regional transportation hub where major railways meet.
On its WeChat account at 8:40am, Shangqiu Bus Company (SBC) claimed that due to inadequate subsidies and a sharp decrease in passenger numbers, the company had run out of cash to pay staff or maintain buses, so had decided to close its service.
The note went viral on Chinese social media and was deleted shortly after. Hours later, another posting apologized for the first. The company apologized for making such a fuss and promised to keep bus services running.
“We will overcome all difficulties to keep the buses running so that people’s commute won’t be disrupted,” SBC said in the second post. On Tuesday, the bus company had been ordered by a court to pay 47 million yuan (US$6.8 million) for “failure to perform its duty.”
Jiemian News had already rung up the bus company before the second post. The person who answered that phone said the bus company had lost tens of millions of yuan, if not hundreds. She refused to give her full name but claimed she had not been paid for six months, and that there are many like her. SBC is involved in several labor arbitration cases, as employees agitate for long-overdue wages.
But SBC staff still believe the system won’t shut down and the buses will keep on rolling around town. “If our company can’t do it, someone else will have to take over,” said the helpful member of staff.
Later that same day, it was the turn of the Shangqiu government to issue a statement. The bus company, according to the city government, is a privately-owned enterprise founded in 2006. The city pays the company subsidy, but the pandemic had hit the business hard that few took buses in the past three years.
An official inquiry has begun into the activities of SBC, to see how it got itself so far into trouble and to make sure that the city public transport system remains fully-functional.
Shangqiu is not the only city with a struggling public transportation system. Over the past month, bus systems in Mohe, Jianchang and Dingbian gave ceased operations. All three were in less developed regions. More cities in Hunan, Guangdong, Hebei, Fujian and Guangxi have had their bus systems halted for various reasons in recent years.
Many reckon the SBC was just crying out for attention and help. But after all, the bus service is part of a city’s infrastructure. Local governments can’t sit back and watch their city grind to a halt.
All the cities mentioned above have restored their bus services, but overall buses are on the decline all over China. As public services, they can't charge people expensive rates and have to rely on government handouts.
The boom in bike sharing slashed the passenger volume on buses. More people buy cars in small towns. And there is the pandemic. Many small towns simply cannot hold on. While bus companies are running out of cash, small local governments don’t have much more either.