PESHAWAR -- When the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) government ordered $394 million (Rs. 65 billion) worth of mass-transit buses from China in 2017, it expected a fleet of high-performance vehicles to improve Peshawar's transportation system.
Instead, it received a bunch of dangerous duds.
On September 16, KP authorities had to suspend the newly launched Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) service in Peshawar after a Chinese-made bus caught fire, leaving riders high and dry until older vehicles can return to service.
The incident was the fourth of its kind since the launch of the new bus transit service on August 13. No injuries were reported.
The bus caught fire near the Sunday Bazaar in the Hayatabad area of the city, said Rescue 1122 in a statement.
The bus fire on September 16 started in the air-conditioning compartment and Rescue 1122 personnel extinguished it, said Kamran Khan Bangash, spokesperson for the KP chief minister.
Authorities suspended that service so that they could inspect the fleet, he said, adding that technicians sent by the bus manufacturers in China will thoroughly examine all buses before service on those vehicles resumes.
Videos circulating on social media showed footage of the fire inside the bus with thick smoke coming out of the vehicle.
Local residents say the incidents make them very wary of riding the bus.
"China's record in technical matters is very bad. The buses are substandard, and people are losing confidence in the BRT because of the looming dangers," said Muhammad Salim, a college professor.
He has had doubts since the launch of the BRT because China is notorious for trying to profit from selling and manufacturing substandard equipment, he said.
Residents of the region are angry at China because it made big money selling the buses while ignoring public safety, he said.
"The quality of buses isn't up to the mark. These are new buses, and I fear that they will not last for one year," said Rahim Shah, a driver of one of the buses.
"The government should take up the matter with Chinese authorities."
The BRT project began in October 2017 with an order of 220 buses from China by the KP government with a $470 million (Rs. 78.2 billion) loan from the Asian Development Bank.
So far, China has supplied 128 buses of the total.
Starting from Chamkani, the buses each day pass through 31 stations covering 27.5km and end at Karkhano Market. The stations are spaced 825 metres apart.
KP procured the BRT bus fleet prematurely, reported The News International Monday (September 21), citing a special report by the Pakistani auditor general.
As a result, the buses were kept stationary for more than two years, which contributed to the development of faults, The News International reported.
The report found critical flaws in the BRT buses that KP purchased for $8.4 million (Rs. 1.4 billion) from MS Xiamen Golden Dragon Bus Co. in China.
The Chinese delivered the buses in the middle of 2018 when civil engineering work on the KP transportation project was still proceeding, said the report.
"Serious flaws were identified in the buses ... many of the buses developed mechanical problems or mysteriously caught fire," reported The News International.
The buses delivered so far to KP have come in batches.
"51 fleet buses were supplied by MS Xiamen Golden Dragon Bus Co. ... the condition of nine fleet buses is not satisfactory," said the auditor general in his report, according to The News International. "For example, bumper [sic] damaged, dents & scratches and non-operational issues."
The Chinese-made buses are creating a burden for those who depend on such transportation, said KP bus riders.
"If the buses continue to develop faults, not only will [passengers] suffer, but the government will have to pay back the loan with interest because of China, which is responsible for these low-quality buses," said Mushtaq Khan, a commuter who uses the bus system.
In addition, the Chinese manufacturer has been unable to supply all the buses that it ordered, causing those in service to become overloaded.
Finding a seat on a bus has been a herculean task due to the shortage of vehicles, said Khan the commuter.
About 400,000 passengers use mass transit in Peshawar daily and many now say they will revert to travelling in older buses instead of putting their lives in danger by taking those made in China.
"There are buses in Islamabad, Lahore and Multan, but we never heard of any incident there because they were not made in China. But here the situation is dangerous," said Adnan Khan, a medical technician in Peshawar.
'A complete disappointment'
Even minor faults with the fleet are causing interruptions for commuters, locals say.
On August 21, a bus failed because of a technical problem on a route near the Gul Bahar bus station. Authorities halted traffic and towed the bus.
"There also are minor faults that are repaired quickly," said Haroon Khan, a local shopkeeper. "This massive project has benefitted only China. The huge investment made by KP has yet to benefit the local population."
"We have been anxiously waiting for three years to enjoy safe and rapid bus services, but it has been a complete disappointment", he said.
"More than 500 buses and wagons [vans] that travelled from the main adda [bus station] to Karkhano Market were taken out of service, and their owners are trying to sell them," said Almas Khan, secretary of the Peshawar Transport Association.
"Our old vehicles are far better than the new buses purchased from China. The government should return the vehicles to China and import from countries that have good manufacturers," he said.
The purchase of the substandard Chinese buses follows the delivery of shoddy personal protective equipment [PPE], testing machines and ventilators purchased from China by Pakistan aimed at helping medical workers fight against COVID-19.
The equipment has caused more harm than benefit to patients, say hospital staff.
"China has been deceiving the whole world by supplying substandard items to hospitals during the COVID-19 crisis, which have created problems for patients," said Nabeel Khan, a civil servant in Peshawar.
The Beijing regime has a poor record of exporting quality equipment and the KP government should scrap its contract for BRT buses, said Khan.