Tajikistan: Taxis Booming

A ride in a Tajik taxi can be lethal if the driver has converted it to gas power.

Tajikistan: Taxis Booming

A ride in a Tajik taxi can be lethal if the driver has converted it to gas power.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

At rush hour in any of the bigger towns in Tajikistan, passengers can be seen wedging themselves into the already overcrowded minibuses that operate as taxi services. But they could be risking their lives – the taxis have developed a nasty habit of exploding.

“People all over the world are scared of explosions caused by terrorists, but in Tajikistan they are afraid of minibus blasts,” said Dushanbe resident Rahim Sharipov.

Tajikistan has seen its share of violence over the years. A five-year civil war, which ended in 1997, has left a legacy of instability, and there are still plenty of weapons around. But that is not what is causing increasing number of cars and buses to suddenly burst into flames.

“Terrorists have nothing to do with it. Minibuses and taxi cabs explode in Tajikistan just about every month,” said Sharipov.

As he explained, the problem is that many taxi drivers have gone over to using gas instead of petrol, reducing their fuel costs by 80 per cent. Botched conversion jobs and haphazard safety standards mean that passengers are taking their lives in their hands whenever they get into a minibus.

But they have little choice. The dire state of publicly-run services in Tajikistan means buses run infrequently. The niche has been filled by private firms operating “marshrutkas” – minibuses which carry a dozen or more people, stopping at fixed points along a set route. There are 700 in the northern city of Khujand alone.

Northern Tajikistan has suffered more accidents than anywhere else, according to traffic police. This is partly because the region has better access to natural gas imported from Uzbekistan.

Prosecution service official Sobit Azamov told IWPR that since the beginning of this year, three minibuses and two coaches have exploded in Khujand. Fortunately, no one has died. But people are well aware of other fatal accidents, such as one last year when a minibus went up in flames on the road from the capital Dushanbe to the town of Kurgan-Tyube. Several elderly women travelling on the bus were unable to get out in time and died in the fire.

“I’m simply horrified to think that the marshrutka that I travel in with my children could explode at any moment,” said Anna Kuptsova, who lives in Dushanbe. “What are the authorities doing about it? Why don’t they ban the use of gas cylinders?”

Vehicles began being converted from petrol to gas at the end of the Soviet era, in 1989. But at that time, the safer liquefied gas was used. When that became hard to get hold of, trucks began using natural gas instead. More recently – and especially in the last couple of years – drivers of smaller vehicles have also converted their vehicles so that cars, motorcycles and particularly taxis are now fitted with cylinders pumping in natural gas.

Traffic police inspector Hasan Karimov explained that while it is legal to use gas, drivers are supposed to have documents showing that they have are fitted with the right kind of fuel system capable of withstanding high pressure. The danger comes when people break the rules.

“Drivers here use all kinds of different containers, from scuba diving tanks to compressor cylinders out of helicopters,” said Karimov. Oxygen cylinders are a popular choice, but their walls are much thinner than the regulation type used for natural gas.

Some accidents happen when the gas tank springs a leak and someone throws away a cigarette end. But most occur at filling stations, when the thinner cylinders burst under pressure.

The resulting explosion is powerful. “I was on our office balcony when there was a deafening explosion,” recounted newspaper photographer Nozim Kalandarov. “First I felt the blast wave – an invisible force pushed me back, the glass shattered, and then about 100 metres from the building an enormous yellow flame shot about 10 or 15 metres into the air.”

Although the vehicle was a twisted wreck, the driver was carried out alive.

Abdulhak Vagapov, is deputy director of the Nur company which runs a chain of filling stations in northern Takistan, denies his firm is to blame when blasts occur during refilling. He says it is the drivers’ fault – they should tell staff if they are using the wrong kind of cylinder.

“If they would admit they are using oxygen cylinders or some other potentially dangerous type, our technicians would simply pump the gas at a lower pressure, and it would save lives,” he said.

Under pressure from local media, the authorities in Khujand have taken some steps to stop people fitting their vehicles with makeshift gas injection kits. As well as a three-year old ban on driving cars that fall below safety standards, a new regulation was issued this year outlawing the use of gas cylinders made before 1987.

But these restrictions have not been a success. Few local drivers can afford to replace their cylinders, while others just don’t want to. When the authorities forced some of Khujand’s minibus taxis off the road, local people were annoyed by the inconvenience.

Shodikul Khamroboev, a professional driver for 33 years, has no plans to change his minibus taxi back to petrol.

“I used to spend about 12 dollars a day on petrol, but now I pay only about two dollars for a cylinder of gas,” he said.

Converting back would put him and other taxi drivers out of business, he said, “If drivers went over to petrol, they would have to raise fares by 200 per cent, which the local population would not be able to afford.”

So passengers will go on taking a daily risk by travelling by minibus. Many try to avoid sitting in the rear seats, closest to the gas tank, but they know that if the vehicle goes up in flames their chances of surviving are slim anyway.

“The daily possibility that you will be cremated free of charge is making ordinary people scared and unhappy,” said Anna Kuptsova.

Muzaffar Yunusov and Zafar Abdullaev are IWPR contributors in Khujand and Dushanbe.

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