Eighteen people killed in a minibus—several million wondering if they will be next. Anyone who has been on one of these rattling deathtraps has been expecting this. There are tens of thousands of them on Poland’s roads, most of them operated by tiny companies and almost all of them alarmingly substandard.
The thousands of minibus operators fill a yawning gap in the nation’s public transport network. For millions of people living in rural areas they are often the only way of getting anywhere. The formerly state-run national bus company, Przedsiębiorstwo Komunikacji Samochodowej (PKS), was in a woeful state when it was broken up and partly privatised in 1992. More recently its monopoly was broken when new laws allowed competition. The minibus companies that sprang up like autumn mushrooms to fill the market are a fine example of the benefits and pitfalls of the free market.
I’m sure there is a stack of perfectly adequate regulation governing this industry, but I’m equally sure that they are completely unenforceable—there are just too many operators. Companies appear and disappear overnight, but the buses and drivers remain the same. Go to any of the multitude of muddy abandoned lots in Polish towns and cities that serve as ersatz bus stations for these crowds of minibuses and you’ll see layer upon layer of ambitious timetables issued by Franek’s Bus Company, Janek’s Bus Company and Auntie Halina’s Bus Company pasted on top of each other.
I have no idea if yesterday’s tragedy was anybody’s fault, but it is clear that the bus was ridiculously overcrowded—and this is certainly the most common problem. If a private operator can cram 47 paying passengers onto a minibus with 20 seats, he will. If you’ve been standing by the side of the road in the freezing rain for half-an-hour, you’ll put the risk at the back of your mind and try and be the 48th. I avoid minibuses during peak travel hours as assiduously as I avoid volunteering as a Chilean miner, but sometimes they are the only option if you don’t have a car—an alternative that I do not regard as significantly safer on Poland’s roads. It’s hair-raising stuff. It is, for example, common practice for the driver to collect money and hand out tickets as he is pulling away from the stop. Four of five people stand clinging onto seats, a couple of feet from the windscreen, as the driver steers with one hand and fiddles with change and the ticket machine with the other. I’ve even seen a driver changing the paper roll in the ticket machine as he is pelting down the highway at 60. Certain catastrophe balancing on a coin edge.
What astonishes me is that these potential tragedies are obvious long before they happen. Two local examples: in Krakow last year there was a series of accidents in the crowded Old Town involving horse-drawn carriages. It was sheer luck that nobody was killed or severely injured. Nobody who has spent time in the Rynek in mid-Summer was even mildly surprised.
Double melex: what could possibly go wrong?
In the past couple of years the number of those electric buggies, sometimes called golf carts (or melex), whisking tourists around the sights have exploded. These things are usually driven by students and often stuffed with ‘excitable’ tourists on pub crawls urging extra speed and louder music. Melex are not exactly fast, but, fully loaded, and careening down a narrow street they are quite capable of mashing a passerby to a pulp against a wall. It’s just a matter of time, but not until it happens will anything be done.