You can’t have missed the bright red buses zipping up and down the Sultan Qaboos highway, diligently making their way between Ruwi and Mabela as part of Muscat’s first fully comprehensive and instantly recognisable domestic public transport system.
Having grown up in Oman, I’m a self-confessed car addict – partly due to a lack of other viable options – but with a much more noticeable presence on the roads since the Oman National Transport Company rebranded and relaunched as Mwasalat on November 22, I felt compelled to give the bus a go.
So it was that I found myself standing at the bus station in Ruwi at 10am on a recent Sunday, waiting to embark on a journey that would take me all the way across town to Seeb and Y’s offices. Mwasalat ran a promotional offer of free transportation across the designated zones that cover Muscat until November 30 and most of the buses I’d seen were crammed full of people taking advantage of this deal.
I’m well used to the comforts of a car and didn’t find the prospect of travelling alone with strangers terribly appealing. However, with buses every 15 minutes from Ruwi from 6am to 9.15pm I didn’t have long to dwell on such reservations and soon left my preconceptions at the side of the road and climbed aboard.
I told the driver I wanted to get to Seeb and he issued me with a ticket that read “Zone 2”. The fare structure, which came into effect from December 1, seemed straightforward and reasonably priced, with the cost of a journey starting at 100 baisa and ranging up to 500 baisa depending on the distance travelled.
Apart from the Ruwi-Mabela route, there are also buses servicing Ruwi-Wadi Kabir and Ruwi-Wadi Adei. Three further lines are set to launch next year, incorporating areas like Muttrah, Amerat and Al Khoudh.
The journey was a quiet one, with the passengers – the majority of whom were men – often glued to their phones, or looking at the passing scenery from the wide windows as Muscat flashed by. I did spot a bus on my way home that was filled with chatting children and families, though.
Adil Rehman, a young Pakistani travelling on my bus, told me that he’d used the bus service a couple of times and felt it was much better than a taxi. “The bus is very convenient because our [work] sites change in a matter of a few weeks,” he says.
“Average taxis don’t have a fixed price but these buses do, which is great for us.
“The surroundings are comfortable, it’s nice and cool and you can change your seats when you like because the buses are not packed.”
Taking in the spacious and clean interior of the bus, I found myself agreeing with Adil. I can also empathise with some complaints I’d heard about the air conditioning. The vents are fixed and cannot be adjusted or lowered, which could lead to a chilly journey, especially in the winter months. Although saying that, I’m sure it will be a necessity come summer.
When we made a stop, the driver would check the vacant seats and guide customers; a nice but time consuming touch and one that I’m sure could be done by an assistant.
Over the course of our journey, we encountered some traffic at a few places, but on the whole the journey was quite smooth, taking a little under an hour and 20 minutes in total.
As we travelled further along the highway with familiar sights flashing by outside, I found that my initial trepidation was largely unfounded. The buses are fitted with cameras, which act as a way to monitor the drivers as well as the passengers, and there are signs that point out eating and smoking is prohibited, which makes for a pleasant overall atmosphere. The buses have specified seats for disabled passengers, as well as families and women; there are fire extinguishers and also a first aid kit, while future models are expected to offer customers the option of Wi-Fi.
Binod Das, who is originally from Nepal but has been working in sales and marketing in Oman for the past two years, was also impressed with the new line of buses. “It’s a very good, hassle-free service,” he says. “You don’t have to wait in long queues and at the moment, this is the best service on offer.
“I live in MBD and can travel anywhere with the buses. They’re nice and spacious and the drivers drive very well, it’s a brilliant initiative.”
Lamiyah al Abri, an Omani woman who works for an oil company, is equally happy that the capital finally has a functioning public transport service. “It’s brilliant and it reminds me of my university time in Holland. There was a great transport system and I’m so happy that it’s finally here in Oman,” she says.
Muscat has long been in need of a public transport overhaul, so I think the Mwasalat initiative is a great one. Once a few glitches have be worked on, I’m sure the buses will be able to attract a much larger audience and help ease the level of congestion on the capital’s roads.
The first steps have certainly been taken and with any luck, we’ll soon be able to stop moaning about bad traffic and will instead have the beginning of a public transport system that we can all be proud of.