A MAJOR derelict bus-stealing racket has been uncovered in which Public Transport Service Corporation (PTSC) employees, licensing officers and private bus operators may be involved.
The buses in question are scrapped PTSC buses which should have been discarded, but in fact are finding themselves back out on the roads, posing danger to commuters.
The PTSC fleet stands at 425 buses to date, according to officials. Of that number, 350 are on the road, several are under repairs, while roughly 52 of them are carded for disposal, and would have been sent to the Vehicle Maintenance Company of Trinidad and Tobago (VMCOTT) to be scrapped.
However, sometime last year, one of the discarded PTSC buses—TR 4 HAX 9221—vanished from the VMCOTT compound in Barataria.
Senior PTSC sources have said the disappearance of the bus is linked to a covert operation orchestrated from within the walls of the PTSC.
A senior source close to the investigation of the disappearance of TR 4 has confirmed that the bus was sent to VMCOTT’s compound in 2011 to be dismantled and discarded but that never happened.
PTSC investigators say based on information they obtained, the last time TR 4 was seen on the compound was February 2012.
No one seemed to know where the bus had gone, but following several leads, CCN (TV6 and the Express) found the bus parked in a garage in Rio Claro on Friday, September 27, 2013.
The garage is tucked away on a lonely farm road on Ministry of Agriculture lands.
The bus was found more than a year and a half after it had been plucked mysteriously from the VMCOTT compound.
At the garage, PTSC investigators and Rio Claro police found tangible evidence of the bus being prepared for transformation. Spray guns and other paraphernalia were found together with strips of white paper rolls used to cover vehicles before painting.
In photographs the Express obtained when the bus was first stolen showed it with its wheels, windows and seats intact but at the garage the bus looked nothing like the previous images.
PTSC security investigators said based on the information they had received, TR 4 was set to be converted to a private tour bus.
They checked TR 4 for identification marks and found the PTSC logo was partially removed at the top of the bus, and at the front of the bus where the identification markings TR 4 had existed, attempts were made to remove those identifying marks with silver paint.
The blue and white paint on the bus appeared faded and the seats that were once part of the bus were uprooted and thrown on the side of the bus. The vehicle was now reduced to a shell.
Inside TR 4 just above the driver’s seat was a small metallic plate that gave the particulars of the bus engine number as well as chassis number and other relevant identification information.
“It would seem the chassis number matches up to the one that we have on record,” said PTSC investigator Fitzgerald Pierre.
The investigators later discovered the chassis number on the underbelly of the bus had been tampered with.
Police who later arrived on the scene at the garage detained one man for questioning, who claimed they were merely painting the bus for its owner, but could not say exactly how long the bus had been lodged at the garage.
PTSC investigations revealed the bus was driven off the VMCOTT compound last year right under the security watch.
What sources say points to the disappearance being an inside job, is this: PTSC records of its bus run out indicate that TR 4 was still on the VMCOTT compound, even though it had disappeared since 2012.
What’s more, PTSC never reported the missing bus to the police. Or perhaps never knew until now.
How then does this scheme work?
The informant who tipped us off about TR 4’s whereabouts let us in on the racket on the condition that he remain anonymous.
He claims derelict PTSC buses are stolen from various compounds and later sold to private bus operators, an operation he believes has been going on for many years.
One bus operator says he had heard about certain private buses “operating illegally on the road”.
The informant added that at least 16 of these converted buses are illegally on the country’s roadways.
CCN was taken to at least two locations in Tableland and shown excursion buses that were once derelict PTSC buses.
He claims that PTSC bus shells can fetch between $350,000-$380,000 on the black market. Though some of these shells might be sold to private bus operators through PTSC, the informant contended there was still illegal activities.
Waving a PTSC approval letter, the informant, who claims to be a legitimate private bus operator, said: “Any bus operating on the roads must have a PTSC approval before they are eligible for a Public Service Licence.”
Once this conditional approval is granted by PTSC, only then can the transfer of the bus from PTSC to the licensing department be deemed legitimate, according to the informant.
The informant claims that some private bus operators with the help of licensing officers are given certified copies for these buses with a false PTSC stamp and forged signatures affixed to it, which effectually declares the bus legally fit to move on the roadways.
“That’s why Fraud Squad needs to verify the signature is key, the man that writing it they doing their thing, but none of them have any copies of a PTSC approval,” claims the informant.
Passengers are, however, in danger because these buses are no longer deemed roadworthy and are sent to be scrapped. PTSC officials say the buses are “a death trap waiting to happen”.
Unsuspecting fun-seekers are left none the wiser, since parts of the buses are altered to hide flaws.
“They change the windows and put on other windows, things like that ... stamp over the chassis number from another bus, the same model bus, take the engine from the back, put it in the front.
“But how will they identify the bus because it longer. Two bus like that the same model, one can’t be longer and the other shorter,” stated the informant who has been in the bus business for over 20 years.
Contacted for comment, president of the Private Bus Association, Nazim Mohammed, said: “We are victims of this scheme and PTSC going beyond their reach now because they want to seize the buses of some of our members. What I can tell you is that the shells that they claim are stolen are mostly the commuter shells in the series HAX. But a lot of us buy our shells from PTSC, paying $400,000 or $500,000.”
Mohammed explained that PTSC shells are purchased so the private operators can upgrade their private buses.
He admitted, however, in some cases bus shells are bought from other people, not knowing that these shells might have been initially been stolen from PTSC.
“PTSC looking for things that happened there ten-15 years ago, some of those people don’t even work there anymore,” he said.
But why hasn’t the PTSC uncovered this covert operation unfolding right beneath their noses?
Tomorrow: In Part 2, PTSC’s management responds; and another racket is discovered.