By Wa Lone
YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar launched a new public transport system in its largest city on Monday, for the first time introducing regular bus lines, timetables and salaries for drivers in a move that could transform the lives of some five million Yangon city dwellers.
The reform is the largest public-facing project with immediate impact on the city where country leader Aung San Suu Kyi won big in historic 2015 election, and a major test for her ability to meet the sky-high expectations of the public.
With parliamentary by-elections looming in April, Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) has overhauled the chaotic network of some 4,000 rickety public transport vehicles, half of them in use for more than 20 years, according to government data.
The new system would also bring down and coordinate the number of bus lines to 61 from some 300.
The changes are aimed at reducing traffic and commute time of some two million commuters who have complained the buses are overcrowded, schedules unpredictable and driving unsafe.
One of them is Toe Toe, a 20-year-old female university student who on a recent afternoon boarded a packed bus in the city center, clutching an old 200 Myanmar kyat ($0.15) note for the bus fare in one hand and a lunch box in the other.
"I'm always trapped with a crowd of other passengers for at least one hour," said Toe Toe, about only one leg of her daily commute to the university and a part-time job that can take up to three hours.
Phyo Min Thein, the NLD's Yangon Chief Minister recited the long list of failures of the previous system that lacked professional management, was riven by corruption and has become notorious for poor service and recklessness of the drivers.
"We will change the bus system first, and then continue to upgrade the electronic payment system, security and we'll carry out controls to ensure the traffic rules are respected," Phyo Min Thein told reporters at a news conference last week.
As part of the overhaul, the government will set up the Yangon Region Transport Authority (YRTA) to manage a group of bus companies who would form a new public-private partnership.
YRTA announced that a total of eight companies have been selected to operate the new Yangon Bus Service system.
"We are just starting the reform - it's a first step - we could face a lot of objections or even protests," YRTA's secretary, Maung Aung, told Reuters.
But San Myint, 48, who has been a bus driver for over 20 years, has criticized a poor public information campaign prior to the launch, lack of instructions for bus drivers, including no information about the new salary system.
Prior to the changes, Yangon bus drivers got paid per a completed route, encouraging them to drive fast, often breaking traffic rules.
"I know we have to get on board with the reform - I just hope our salaries will not decline under the new bus system," said San Myint.
(Reporting by Wa Lone; Editing Antoni Slodkowski and Simon Cameron-Moore)