Interview: Pooranen Sungeelee

Interview: Pooranen Sungeelee – Mechanical Engineer

“Leaving matters as they are will definitely lead to further ‘accidents’…

… the gravity of which will depend upon statistical variability obviously but also the attitude of those who operate the rolling stock”

* “Decentralise activities. Offer flexi-time and immediately the density of traffic will go down in over-congested areas”

Pooranen Sungeelee has been in charge of the Central Mechanical Workshop of the Ministry of Works, that of the National Transport Corporation, Manager of the Industrial Trade Training Centre of the Ministry of Education and is now, after “retirement” still busy giving tuition in Engineering and Physics and related subjects. His “social responsibility”, as he puts it, includes scientific and engineering assistance to the Association of Consumers (ACIM).

In this week’s interview, he has addressed the burning issues of road accidents, road network design, traffic decongestion, etc.

Mauritius Times: We have seen only recently at least two cases of accidents, the latest being at Soreze, with large numbers of casualties involving heavy vehicles having, it is said, experienced brake failure. Is this a case of human failure due to sheer negligence on the part of those who run vehicles of the sort? Or is it all attributable to mechanical failures and/or does it have to do with our road network design?

P. Sungeelee: When “accidents” occur, the immediate reaction is to “find the culprits and take them to justice”. The other extreme is that of my trainer at Rolls Royce who used to say “accidents don’t occur, fools make them”. In statistics we learn that it is always possible that an accident, a random misfortune, may occur (if more than 5 standard deviations, 1% chance, etc).

A bus catches fire on the Caudan flyover – that’s statistically possible. Another within a given, shall we say, short period of time — that too is possible. But statisticians and the population have their pulses racing by now. There must be something wrong. Superficially or fundamentally?

Superficially would mean sheer negligence, the use of a replacement part that appeared to be ok, but was not so or the incorrect application of a procedure or the use of a wrongly graduated instrument. Examples abound.

We could go on with whether an always-possible mechanical failure warrants a road design that would at least minimise an impending disaster – a very useful idea. Or we could question the organisation providing the service itself.

* The accident at Soreze, last Friday, involved a NTC Ashok Leyland bus. Accusing fingers have been pointed towards the Ashok Leyland 2007 bus series, which would have come with some mechanical defects, and the maintenance standards and operations at the NTC, etc. It’s no doubt too early to know which is which, but for having served as a mechanical engineer in the early days of the bus company and followed its development over the years, would you say the CNT can still be considered as a dependable provider of public transport service?

Through information gathered over years from technicians, students and others who have been to India, I am in a position to state that my pieces of information lend me to believe that since the 70s and 80s, India has definitely come a long way. Visible breakdowns there are of the order of one every school term over a route length of some 12 kilometres. Nothing like what we have here. This correlates with studies in the Subcontinent where a production engineering course lasts 4½ years as opposed to three in the seventies. Quality too has gone up with the introduction there of foreign vehicles, e.g. Ford.

If bus services are up to the standard in India, why would that not be the case here with the same vehicles? The questions that have to be answered are:

(i) Do we have the same quality of vehicles here as those in use in the country of origin?

(ii) Or are we just dished out second-grade stuff? That would be a serious allegation – necessitating a profound investigation.

(iii) But nothing must be discarded in an overview. Anyway what have commissions of enquiry on transport shown?…

At least, one I know of has simply been branded “secret” and so “is not in the interest of the public to take note of”within 30 years (it is 80 years in the United States) and we talk of democracy…

But let’s move on before I deal with dependability.

* What about the other public transport bus companies and the ‘individual’ operators? What’s your appreciation of the standards prevalent in the industry generally?

The crux of the matter must be profit or loss. The deficits at the NTC are massive from what I learn. Here I want to stress the fundamental consequences thereof that I consider imperative:

(a) What would the manager of a company tell his first assistant? “I want the best standards on earth” or “let’s make do with what we have”?

(b) What would be the message to the Transport Manager? (That message may emanate from the manager or from some other instances or self-belief we are all too familiar with.) Or the understanding of the Transport Manager himself is that he has to offer services come what may. I have known that at the time I was at the NTC: one such crazy chap ran vehicles like “mad’ I would say. He then proudly stated that “the authorities branded the NTC service as the best in the country”. This ended with buses scheduled to be in the garage for servicing or maintenance by the mechanics (who were some of the best in those days) being out on the roads.

The backlash was “higher than average road breakdowns” that led the NTC to being in the red at its very inception. Mind you, the decision had been taken at senior executives’ level that buses must be quartered for mechanical review as schedule/as per manufacturer’s specifications.

But “la forme mais pas le fond” of the corporation seemed to matter crucially for some, and that’s one of the reasons why I returned to the Ministry of Works within a year.

(c) Standards vary quite wildly I would say. We need, let’s say, a Japanese Engineer, to set standards and control the sector.

* Do you suspect there could be similar accidents, as the one at Soreze lately, involving bus companies or other heavy vehicles carrying freight waiting to happen because of a systemic failure to address issues which need to be attended to urgently?

Why not investigate the practices elsewhere and copy what’s proved useful to the country? I question the practice of buying buses every 12 years. The Japanese buses I supervised from assembly to full service lasted 19 years. Those that went into operation after my departure lasted only 13 to 16 years. Mrs Thatcher had buses running for around 23 years before having them discarded. She understood that any company/corporation must be profitable to run a proper service.

It is even possible to have buses that run for 30 years with roads that are now much better than during the early eighties. How fuel, batteries, tyres, spare parts are purchased, up to the quality of equipment to workers, must be the subject of research with a view to improvement.

Leaving matters as they are will definitely lead to further “accidents” – the gravity of which will depend upon statistical variability obviously but also the attitude of those who operate the rolling stock.

* Our population of vehicles on the roads has been increasing by the day, with both new and used vehicles plying throughout the day on all roads of the country almost throughout day and night. Are we doing all that’s required to be done to ensure that the risk of a growing fleet of all sorts of vehicles at different levels of technical efficiency is being kept in check?

As a previous president at the Government Professional Engineer’s Association my simplest answer would be “heed the unions”! Decentralise activities. Offer flexi-time and immediately the density of traffic will go down in over-congested areas. There will be less stress, i.e. fewer “crazy fellow Mauritians” around to “fight” to be on time at work after a “nightmarish” early morning seeing children off to school.

To your question pertaining to “risk of all sorts”, let me just say that bumpers of different cars for instance from one specific company are very often not of the same height from the road surface… and this does not seem to worry anybody. But then who can question these super multinationals having budgets several times that of Germany?

Next was about “keeping the growing fleet in check”. You are right. But the “norm” developed in vehicle producing countries is for their ministers, builders, workers, etc., to ensure that vehicles do increase – even if flooding of the roads by vehicles does occur. Most of the “experts” I come across preach just that: “more cars, more pollution, more congestion, more tax… this is a rat race. Outsiders keep quiet.” Are those “gurus” crazy or are they on the payroll of multinationals? Must be one or the other.

At least some of us are not on such payrolls: an abnormality in our upbringing, some would still say…

* Given the ageing process of mechanical and other devices in vehicles which can impact on their roadworthiness any time, is the old rule that vehicles should go for official fitness test once they are 7 years’ old a correct way of ensuring road safety in Mauritius?

A brand new car can be wrecked in 6 months. On that count, fitness may become compulsory after one year. But a Rolls Royce car such as the Silver Ghost in civilized (some will say aristocratic) hands will last over 100 years. So where does one draw the line? Such matters should be thoroughly discussed.

I have raised other issues above that necessitate full discussions, e.g. fuel and vehicle purchase, decentralization of activities and so on. But will there actually be discussions? Do democracies really exist or do we have make-believe ones?

I have talked in different forums of the Secrecy Act. Let me add the issue of Light Rail Transport/Metro Leger. You have published lots of articles within your columns to enlighten the public. This is a huge project (useless and certainly antidemocratic, as in most countries) estimated to cost around Rs 50 billion at ground level and nothing less than Rs 150 billion if elevated; anything up to Rs 350 billion in practice. Has there been any public debate/discussion/statistical survey/detailed project presentation? The answer is no…

It even reminds me of one high official (not even a minister) insulting one of his officers over the phone with “vous me derangez pour des pécadilles?” and slammed his phone down. I am sure the highly-placed chap was not being phoned over anything trivial but the subordinate was still brushed aside… typical everyday life as I know it.

* What could be the role of the authorities if proprietors (individual operators or transport companies) running after profits and paying scant attention to maintaining their vehicles were impervious to addressing issues like “safety first”? Surely, they couldn’t wait for the list of casualties to go on extending?

Your question has great substance for the public transport sector in general. I am definitely on your side (i.e. my side) with “safety first”. Let’s start with the NTC. We should be talking about “running after losses first”. Then we’ll talk of transport over enthusiasts running vehicles whether they have been repaired/maintained or not.

Next we’ll worry about whether the engineering department had (i) the vehicles for servicing, etc (ii) the necessary spare parts in good condition (if at all) (iii) conscientious professionals (trained at Ashok Leyland in India or Mauritius) to perform a fundamental job.

Is that the practice at the NTC? Is that the philosophy at each and every side of work? If should be. Never mind if the Chief Engineer is sometimes seen to be a bit of a bully from above or below.

* As regards our road networks, was there a turning point in the increasing amount of pressure put on our roads, with economic diversification picking up over time, when we should have re-engineered the entire transportation system for both personal transportation and freight?

Allow me not answer this question! It has vast implications. I will only provide the rudiments of answers and explain why.

(i) Economic pressure on the workforce stresses human beings who then put pressure on our roads. For instance, now that I have retired, I am not under the pressure I was when “in service”. At this stage I should not be hastily described as a careful driver – it’s just that circumstances allow me to “take it easier” than previously.

(ii) How economic pressure impacts upon us Mauritians at macroscopic and microscopic levels is the job of sociologists/psychologists.

(iii) How radars on highways added to other social “threats” on top of intra-urban congestions to create what you term a turning point in this country is not a simple matter to answer.

You will agree that there are specialities within specialities and one cannot/should not claim to be an all-round professional… I have only offered the framework for further investigation.

* Are most of our roads, especially the narrow two-way so-called “Royal Roads”, with serial blind spots and sharp bends all along, which serve to link up the different parts of the country’s vehicular traffic, designed to sustain this growing and intense inland traffic flow with vehicles of so many types and sizes, given the natural topography? Will they answer the call of tomorrow as road traffic further intensifies?

Savoy in Vacoas, Vandermeersch in Rose Hill and Place d’Armes in Port Louis are typical examples at peak hours. Then add yellow lines, parking lines, pedestrian crossings, pedestrians crossing where they are not expected to cross, bicycles handicapping cars and vice versa, railings and what not. The cocktail is explosive, especially at peak hours. Elevated pedestrian crossings, e.g. from Place Margeot to (Dar-es-Salam) Square in Rose Hill has been on paper since ages. Lack of money or initiative keeps the project dormant. Parking in town/city is a huge problem – again decentralisation is a solution. Will we get there one day or will congestion have the better of our nerves first? You are right: building highways is important and necessary, and a plus for traffic decongestion but there are plenty of headaches ahead for the travelling public. “The end is not at hand,” in most congested urban countries.

* We’ve been seeing so many by-lanes and shortcuts coming on into our road network to the point of encroaching upon in-town and in-village roads. Not only have they made our highway more perilous than ever; they have also made residential roads a much larger risk than ever despite so many speed breakers installed all over the country. What is the answer to this serious deterioration in road use and safety standards?

For in-town encroachment roads, grade separation/flyovers at a cost is the way out. For in-village roads, necessary because of property, hotel developers and industrialists; that lobby will insist that “civilisation” is spreading like wildfire and is therefore unstoppable. The humanitarians will cry out that (i) specific road(s) should never have been built, (ii) the villagers should have been properly informed/consulted, (iii) a traffic awareness programme should have been presented, and (iv) a simulation of the traffic to come effected well before the inauguration of the new road.

Unpreparedness, reluctance to change/join the bandwagon of stressed inhabitants of this planet, refusal to accept Carbon dioxide pollution, noise pollution cumulate to create a feeling of modern hardship and unfairness, to say the least, imposed upon peace-loving people.

Should delocalisation have been offered?

The lobby will remain silent and wait for the matter to heal “normally”. “Adapt or perish” will insist the die-hard capitalists – anyway time will take care of the old hags, the young ones are on the roads everyday and are already “modern citizens”.

That’s how it is in China, India and so on: will hotels offer free holidays to villagers? Corporate Social Responsibility, it’s called…

* What should have been the major features of such road/transportation system redesign for it to be viable as a means of taking on an increasingly mobile population as well a larger volume of industry/trade cargo movement across the country?

Busways, bus lanes and overhead cables are solutions that work very well. Has any of those in power (government or opposition: they have swapped seats to take corrective decisions) ever come forth with a participative plan?

Make-believe participations have certainly been rife…

* What, in your opinion, should our answer to recurring road congestion be? Is there a system which can provide a round-the-clock decent travelling facility to the public to all key/important places in the country, giving the public confidence in the amount of security afforded to it?

A summary would be my answers to your previous questions. Cameras. (hidden) inside buses, police patrols, SMF patrols wherever gangs appear to terrorize passengers, i.e. decentralisation of the SMF. Or have I already said too much with an immediate “lever de boucliers” in view?

These are only some of the solutions. But they will make a dramatic change in every Mauritian’s life. Unfortunately we not decision takers.

* What are the alternative cost-effective transport systems that other countries have developed which makes them more efficient in the optimal use of their transportation systems and which could have been adapted in our case? Is going for all – road, rail, etc – transportation the answer? Or, can we make do with one very efficiently designed system to smooth traffic flow, given the land use and cost implications that every other alternative involves?

Curitiba, Brazil, a city the size of Mauritius handles a bus way commuting some five times the flow rate of passengers of the Plaines Wilhems. This system can easily be used as it is or modified to perform even better than in Brazil. No one seems interested to improve the people’s lot.

As for “one solution solves all”, my remarks are (i) any solution solves the problem to some extent. For instance Beau-Bassin to Arsenal and back took up to three hours at peak hours before the third lane-up at Pailles and the Caudan fly-over were constructed. Thereafter this time was reduced to just over two hours by the same driver using the same car, i.e. a 33% improvement. Such a trip at night takes around 45 minutes – meaning that the problem seeks further solutions.

(ii) The rail system is slow (20 km/h), expensive (around Rs 160 the single trip from Port Louis to Curepipe) for a 90% (very congested) standing configuration. In addition the promoters want guaranteed annual subsidies by the billions of rupees with taxpayers’ money being first used to build elaborate drains and what not – we have explained these in detail to the public in your paper. As I said, there has been no public debate on this system for almost two decades now. Why?

(iii) I mentioned delocalization not being offered. This being the case, the present population spread will not change significantly.

Your remark about ‘narrow Royal Roads”, serial blind spots, sharp bends and my comment about parking, crossings, etc., will have to be solved if any new Rapid Transit System is to be remote from the population centres. Else real significant change will not be brought about.

Decision takers tend to be self-congratulating. The facts, as assessed by the population, are not quite the same. In the meantime, even as per STC’s own documents, tax on fuel amounts to 50% on selling price (but selling price is about three times buying price!).

Which Government will not (i) maintain a tax status – quo? (ii) welcome the increase in the number of road vehicles?

Would this be the main reason why changes you and I would welcome are abhorred by those in power — past, present and future?

* Will the point system and new/more radars on highways solve the accidents problems?

Every decision will have an effect. There will be a positive change of attitude by those who have been carefree so far. But what about those good law-abiding citizens who believe that politicians will change everything for the better within five years but still find speed limits of 60 km/h on motorways for years, congestions that should have decreased (e.g. at Ebène), but are actually increasing all the time? To him the cameras/radars are insults creating the additional stress that is likely to cause an accident; besides this is just income to Government by the hundreds of thousands of rupees annually.

As for the point system, there has been no significant objection against it. But can someone earn points by being a “first-aider”? This has never been discussed – leading many to rightfully qualify the system as just “brute force from above” to “pacify the crowd”.

Every cloud has a silver lining – the former is best tackled through dialogue/democracy.

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