In my long years as a motoring journalist, I have driven several types of vehicles. In the 90s, I drove a vintage 1940s Jeep in Camiguin Island.
The Army-type vehicle only had two gears left in its transmission so you can just imagine how slow my drive was. But it managed to bring me and my wife to Camiguin’s Ardent Hot Springs from the port. I also drove a Russian-made Lada Niva 4×4 compact SUV from Davao City to Cagayan de Oro and a China-assembled Beijing 2020 SUV in Davao City.
In 1995, I drove the Popemobile which was based on an Anfra AUV with 1.6L Mazda gasoline engine in Las Pinas City before it was delivered to the Archbishop’s Palace by Francisco Motor Corporation.
The vehicle used by Pope John Paul II in his visit was heavy with all the reinforced metal walls and bullet-proofed heavy glass windshields and windows and non-flat solid rubber tires. In the latter years, I drove hybrid and electric cars, a bus, a delivery, a truck head and various cars, SUVs and pickups.
Jeepneys? Yes, I drove one before and on two occasions, I was a passenger on the roofs holding only on the metal bar reinforcement in Banawe, Ifugao and in Batanes.
I have also seen how overloaded jeepneys have become dangerous for commuters. One time, I was driving on Osmena Highway in Pasay City and I saw a snatcher taking the bag of a lady passenger in a jeepney. The passenger did not let go of her bag easily and she and the snatcher fell from the rear of the jeepney.
There were also instances when passengers sitting on the floor of the jeepney’s rear dropped on the ground as the jeepney passed over potholes. Speeding jeepneys have also been involved in road crashes resulting scores of passengers being injured or even killed. Current jeepneys have no seatbelts for rear passengers and thousands have defective brakes and fume-emitting engines.
Pilipinas Taj, Inc, distributors of Tata vehicles in the country, is one of the vehicle manufacturers that joined the government’s Jeepney Modernization Program, an ambitious project that aims to replace over 250,000 jeepneys nationwide in five years. I have seen most of the modernized jeepneys displayed in a show last year by the proponents that include Isuzu, Hino, Fuso, Hyundai, Mahindra and Foton. But nothing can beat the experience of driving one.
So one afternoon, I went to the Tata headquarters in Marikina City to test drive the Tata Jeepney. Tata already has two proto types of its jeepney built on the specifications by the the Philippine National Standard committee on the government’s PUJ (public utility jeep) modernization program.
The Jeepney is based on the SFC 407 (Tata 407) light truck. It is a minibus which offers seating for 22 passengers in two full-size rows across the sides. It also has hanging handles that can keep some 6- 8 standing passengers in place during rush hours.The windows are significantly larger, and the single ingress-egress location is at the cabin’s right section.
Both the Class 3 and Class 2 jeepneys are powered by a 3.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder turbo diesel engine that develops 75 PS at 2,800 rpm and 225 Nm of torque from 1,500-1,800 rpm. It is paired with a 5-speed manual transmission that sends power to the rear wheels. Fuel tank capacity is 60 litres.
Starting the engine of the Class 2 jeepney and getting out of the covered warehouse was easy. Going into the main road was a bit challenging as a number of other vehicles would not give way for us to cross to the other side of the road. We then got to shift to second and third gears and moved on the road with ease. We turned into a two-lane road going to the City Hall area and I was pleased to find out that Marikina now observes the ‘first in, first to go’ policy in intersections and this made driving an unfamiliar vehicle less of a headache. In minutes, I felt comfortable with the shifting and even doing some reverse maneuvering for momentary parking.
While on the steering wheel, I imagined myself as driver with more than 20 passengers. It would be a heavy responsibility as the safety of the occupants lie mostly in the driver’s hands. But with the new jeepney’s other features, the burden on the driver will be lessened and he can concentrate better on driving.
First, payment will be via a ‘beep’ card which works like a cash card and driver need not be bothered by receiving cash fare and giving change. The side door can be operated via remote by the driver so passengers cannot board and dismount from the vehicle as they wish. There is a lot of headroom and legroom in the cabin and with the larger windows, even if the non-air-conditioned type would be more comfortable.
The engine is Euro 4 compliant and friendlier to the environment and with the new engine, there will be less or even zero engine breakdown on the road. This will help ease traffic. With the new engine, the unit will also be fuel-efficient and will save the operator more money. With one modern jeepney carrying double the passengers of the current jeepney, there will be fewer jeepneys on the road assuming the phaseout of old jeepneys goes on strictly. The unit will also have CCTV cameras which would be a deterrent to crimes on PUVs. Passengers can also have free wifi while on board.
It takes a bit of time adjusting to a bigger vehicle with a manual transmission but for those who have been driving the current jeepneys, this will be no problem.
Of course, the new jeepneys will not be operated by private individuals. The operators and even the jeepney drivers have to form themselves into cooperatives for them to purchase the new jeepneys. Then they can have a team of mechanics that will make sure the units are always in good condition and are worthy of carrying commuters all the time.
The government, meantime, should designate boarding areas for the new jeepneys. This will also help instill discipline on both driver and passengers and will also contribute to a smoother traffic flow.
Tata Motors is confident they can be an active player in the jeepney modernization program. After all, they rank second among the top ten best selling commercial vehicles in the world.
Let’s have these new jeepneys on the road soon!