A JUTC bus tavelling along Washington Boulevard in St Andrew

THE management of the Jamaica Urban Transit Company (JUTC) says it is pursuing new ways to combat the innovative methods which thieves have been using to pilfer fuel from its four depots, even as it struggles with gas prices that jumped by 56 per cent over the past year.

Managing director of the JUTC Paul Abrahams advised the Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC) on Wednesday that the State-owned bus company is looking at test buses with a system which will record massive drops in fuel levels, after a select period of use. This would then send an alert to the JUTC immediately.

Abrahams stressed that the bus company cannot monitor theft solely with human resources.

Abrahams said thieves have found more innovative ways to pilfer. "We discovered the other day that what they do now is open the inspection plate and tie the float valve to make it look like its full, so when the bus is leaving the depot the fuel gauge will register full and then within an hour and a half the bus is out of fuel. So what we've had to do now is go through all the buses and reseal so that they cannot get access to the fuel-sending area," he explained.

Abrahams said this is an administrative-intense activity, but that the company has made significant inroads in stemming the pilferage through this tracking mechanism. "What we're doing right now is look at certain buses that seem to replicate themselves shutting down, [and] we are targeting those buses and we have seen a significant reduction in the buses that were running out of fuel prior," he said.

The managing director noted the most recent police crackdown on a large criminal ring: "We have had a couple of successes prior to that, but it is very hard to track a bus and follow it all along its route to see that it continues and remains on its schedule. Those are the nuances that we are battling with out there; you're talking an operation that runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

Abrahams told the PAAC, also, that the JUTC will begin implementation of its long-proposed cashless fare collection system by February. The cash-strapped company has struggled for years with fare box theft.

Meanwhile, the bus company's fuel budget remains in a bind, with just half of the $1 billion it asked the finance ministry for, having been approved in the first supplementary estimates.

Abrahams advised the PAAC on Wednesday that the company could find itself short of about $200 million for fuel: "What we requested we did not receive; however, we are going to have to manage very carefully to ensure that we can stretch this allocation to the end of the month."

The finance ministry has approved $522 million according to the supplementary estimates, which were tabled in the House of Representatives last week. Permanent Secretary Alwin Hayles noted that since the request was made, there has been a slight downward trend in gas prices.

Committee Chairman Mikael Phillips lamented the state of the JUTC and the resource and monetary issues it continues to face, pointing to Monday's strike by public transport operators.

"It begs the question of how serious are we in really cauterising some of these issues seeing that we are asking taxpayers to pay nearly $8 billion of subvention to the JUTC, this financial year. It's really a frustrating issue how we treat the JUTC that when there was a strike [it] could not even fit in, because of lack of buses," he said.

BY ALPHEA SUMNER Senior staff reporter saundersa@jamaicaobserver.com

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