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'King of the road' rules again as Philippines eases lockdown


By Adrian Portugal

MANILA (Reuters) - Thousands of jeepneys, flamboyantly decorated jeeps that serve as cheap public transport across the Philippines, were back on the streets of Manila on Friday, bringing relief to companies and commuters who have struggled with coronavirus curbs.

Dubbed "the king of the road", an estimated 55,000 of these large, multi-coloured trucks, used to crawl through Manila's gridlocked roads on a typical day before being forced to a halt 15 weeks ago when the government imposed a coronavirus lockdown.

Just 6,000 were back in business on Friday, operating at half capacity under strict social distancing rules. In pre-pandemic times, jeepneys routinely carried up to 15 passengers who sat knee-to-knee on twin benches in the windowless vehicles, choked by exhaust fumes.

"I'm very happy we are now back on the road. This is our only source of income," said driver Celo Cabangon, whose truck is decorated with Japanese and Philippine flags, Bible verses and the logo of U.S. sci-fi film "Transformers".

Under the new rules, passengers must also undergo temperature checks before boarding and shield themselves from one another with face masks and plastic sheets. The Philippines has recorded 40,000 coronavirus cases, and 1,280 deaths.

Commuter Alejandra Carable welcomed the jeepney's return. "Our expenses are too much without jeepneys. We can save much more now that the jeepneys are back."

A jeepney fare is typically about 9 pesos ($0.18), cheaper than trains, taxis or motorised tricycles, which were allowed back on the road a month ago when authorities started easing one of the world's longest and strictest lockdowns.

A phased return to work has been chaotic without jeepneys, with commuters stranded and some companies unable to provide sufficient private transport.

The first jeepneys were surplus army jeeps left behind by the U.S. military after World War Two. Most are festooned with religious slogans or horoscope signs and are in poor shape.

(Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

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