In many ways Zupco has done well in the little over two years since its resurrection, with progress accelerated tremendously from March last year when Covid-19 struck and a decent basic public transport system became an essential element in the lockdown and in other public health measures.
The Government has played a major role in the rebuilding of a properly organised public transport system, buying new buses that are assigned to Zupco.
This year alone 450 new buses have arrived and been put into service, some with the Public Service Commission dedicated to civil servants transport, but the overwhelming bulk forming an integral part of the Zupco fleet.
Another shipment, the largest of another 100 buses, has now been offloaded at Durban and will shortly be delivered and those are likely to be commissioned and be part of the fleet before Christmas, adding about 500 plus buses a year is about the right rate of commissioning.
Too many buses in one go and a few years down the line we suddenly have the problem that half the fleet needs replacement in one go, making the eventual proper capitalisation of Zupco difficult and problematic.
Zupco is quite proud that it has expanded its payroll to 7 000 from just under 400.
From the figures given over the weekend it appears that there must be extra employed by the franchise holders, since otherwise there are not enough drivers and mechanics and the organisation is a bit top heavy with supervisors and cashiers.
That in itself is the best argument against the suggestion that private kombis and mushikashika need to be allowed so as to provide employment. As these diminish in number with a better Zupco, real salaried jobs are created, and there are a lot of very good safety reasons why bus crews should be on salary rather than commission.
For a start they drive far more carefully and within the rules of the road, rather than trying to overtake on the verges to get in one extra trip each day, and conductors can, usually politely, close the door when the bus is full instead of jamming in a few extra people and imperilling everyone’s safety.
We have yet to be told what an ideal fleet is likely to be, but something in the order of 3 000 buses will probably be required for a first class operation.
Shortly before the private companies were nationalised in the early 1980s and Zupco formed, the two serving Harare and Chitungwiza needed around 1 000 buses with almost as many required for the other cities and the intercity travel.
Since then cities have grown; new towns, such as Ruwa, have been formed, and many older self-contained towns that could once rely on just about everyone walking are now large enough to need public transport.
Zupco, with Government backing, has also over the last few months reintroduced commuter rail services at peak early morning and early evening periods in Harare, Gweru and Bulawayo.
These are still modest, their main advantage adding the equivalent of around 70 buses at each period and allowing people to get home a lot quicker since the rail-tracks do not suffer congestion at peak periods.
The problem that the rolling stock, the carriages, were bought by Rhodesia Railways in the 1940s and 1950s and last modernised in the early 1980s is being addressed with repairs that now include new lights.
But at some stage as rail services expand we will need more and newer carriages. Once commuter trains run to Norton and then perhaps to Marondera and Mazowe, and such services will be needed to time, we will need the right locomotives hauling proper commuter carriages.
On the bus front Zupco appears to have marking time. Despite some serious pressure from Government and with Cabinet resolutions accepting the concept, Zupco has yet to reintroduce scheduled services. The plan was sensible, introducing these a bit a time as the fleet grew.
Scheduled services are most important between the early morning and late afternoon peak periods, when the whole fleet can be used in shuttle services.
Outside the peaks bus crews tend to want to fill all seats, at least at the city centre terminuses, before moving off. There are some efficiency gains, but it does mean that, at least on some routes, the gap between buses is rather long and no one knows when the next is due. This is when the muhsikashika make their business.
Zupco and its franchise holders might feel that there is not yet enough traffic to justify a scheduled off peak service, but until there are such services the mushikashika will continue to lick up the cream that could justify the services, and that is the business Zupco is losing.
The other concern is the terminuses and bus stops. Theoretically these are supposed to be provided by urban authorities. Well we know what they are unable to do in many other areas, so someone else has to step in. There have been some improvements, like street sweepers and even route signs now appearing although these are not always accurate.
But the terminus shelters are usually deficient and at bus stops passengers have to stand in the rain.
There is a revenue source, advertising. More advertisement billboards are appearing at terminuses and Avondale Shopping Centre has seen the recent erection by private business of a rather good bus stop shelter, although some of those using the seats appear not be waiting for a bus.
The authorities could consider private sector sponsorship paid for out of advertising rights to get the shelters at bus stops and terminuses into the sort of shape that would allow people to keep dry while they wait in the rain. The Avondale shelter seems to be the result of some careful thought over materials, basically concrete, that will resist vandals.
Again new systems that harness the innovative skills of creative Zimbabweans rather than the destructive skills of vandals seem possible and must be pursued.
We still have some distance to go to get even a fully functional public transport system in place, let alone the sort of first class service that will encourage car owners to take the bus or train to avoid congestion and hassles, as many large cities now have.
So Zupco cannot mark time. Every new batch of buses received from Government should see some improvement in services and there should be zero complacency.
Rather there should be a vision of what Zupco should be, and every week, every month should be another step in progress to realise that vision.