May 23, 2014

    Bus transport revamp: It's about time

    NOW that the Government is finally stepping in to lend a hand in public bus operations, many long-suffering commuters are likely to say "it's about time".

    After repeatedly refusing to run buses itself - even as it acknowledged that commercial operators plan bus routes based on commercial considerations - the Government will now own buses and other operating assets, previously the domain of public transport operators.

    It will manage these assets and determine bus routes as it invites private operators to tender for the routes, thus insulating these companies from operational losses - which have plagued the existing operators in recent years and dissuaded them from raising capacity and service levels.

    This competitive tender model is not new; London Buses subscribes successfully to it and Singapore's ComfortDelGro is one of the many private operators running some of its routes profitably (ComfortDelGro unit SBS Transit operates three quarters of Singapore's public buses, while SMRT runs the remainder).

    So why is it taking so long to get decent public land transport here? Overcrowding, bus bunching and an interminable wait remain common grouses.

    The situation is particularly egregious when contrasted against Singapore's world-class air and sea travel.

    To be fair, there have been changes over the years but the pace has been glacial.

    In 2009, the Government took over the planning of bus routes from the two operators - one year after it decided to assume the role of central bus network planner for a more commuter- centric focus.

    In 2010, the Government implemented a quarterly review of bus services.

    Two years ago, it realised it had to spend $1.1 billion on 800 new buses to meet increased demand.

    The simple reason has to be that the Government was averse to spending on buses, preferring instead to let the private sector manage them more "cost-effectively".

    Any direct involvement, like running the bus network under the Tokyo metropolitan model, is expensive.

    Even London Buses has to provide an annual subsidy of £500 million (S$1 billion) for contract work.

    Underlying this laissez-faire policy is the belief that a purely commercial entity will be more efficient in providing transport services without the wastage and excess capacity that a nationalised or non-private entity may generate.

    But the inadequacies in bus services here exposed in recent years suggest that this approach may not always be the best.

    Is excess capacity a bad thing when it can make urban travel more pleasant?

    How can increased frequency be a disincentive for taking the bus, especially when it is the cheapest alternative to a door-to-door service that could wean Singaporeans off their cars - which is also a policy objective?

    Even in the details, the gaps show.

    Fares aside, anyone who has caught a bus in London or Tokyo can always count on a timely and accurate bus schedule, if not a comfortable seat.

    Singapore may pride itself on having a leading edge in many areas, but public transport is not one of them.

    The absence of arrival-time information at all bus stops is just one symptom.

    If excess capacity is avoided and investments are sacrificed for the bottom line, it is transport operators and their shareholders who benefit, not the travelling public - which is ironic, since buses are supposed to be a public service.

    But like the commuter whose bus finally arrives after a long wait, maybe the only thing he will say now - with a sigh - is: "Better late than never." The proof of the pudding, however, is in the eating.