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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Jekyl and Hyde Transport Policies

Yesterday for the first time in my life staying in Pasir Ris, I ran into DPM Teo. At the Pasir Ris Bus interchange and he was giving out flyers! This not being election year, it comes as a big surprise. More so, considering that I had stayed in Pasir Ris for more than 15 years in total and had never bumped into him and his entourage all these times - not even during election times.

Turned out he was there to promote the launch of a new shuttle bus that will complement the existing shuttle bus being run by SBS. This is part of a new initiatives launched by the government to augment the current services being provided by SMRT and SBS.

And today I managed to get on one of this shiny new buses. 

Actually it is more a luxury coach than the typical bus. See the interior is just like one of those tour buses that we take to Malaysia.

While I am appreciative of the effort to improve the bus situation, I cannot help but wonder whether the government is getting its public transport policy right.

A long long time ago when policeman worn shorts, the bus companies were private companies. Then the government decided to take over the running of the bus transport system and set up Singapore Bus Services to take over all the routes. And rightly so. The private bus companies were only interested in running profitable routes. The buses were rickety affairs and irregular. When SBS took over, there was a big jump in bus standard. Those days, every time SBS introduces something new, it was always with the commuters in mind. From my home in Margaret Drive, I had direct bus to Orchard Rd, Serangoon Road, Chinatown, Jurong and almost every part of Singapore and all within a 5 minutes walk. Such was the convenience. Then the government decided SBS was a monopoly and hived off the Northern part of Singapore to a new company, TIBS. That was the start of the many weird policies that LTA comes up with since then. How does setting up a new company operating mainly in the north creates competition? I think to this day nobody has any idea.

Then the MRT came along. And this time ostensibly to reduce overlapping routes with the MRT, major bus routes were withdrawn. My bus accessibility to almost all part of Singapore dwindle to almost zilch. And to get anywhere further than the immediate neighbourhood, I had to take a 15 minutes walk to the nearest station. Oh well, the comfort and speed of the train was a fair trade off I suppose, though I still think it weird that the government would deem bus routes to be in competition with train routes.

And as the trains begin to get more crowded as more people are forced to take the trains due to the inefficiency of the buses, the grumbles and complaints started to come in louder and louder. The problem was the buses were not making money as rider-ship went down. And because it was not making money, the bus companies were only willing to ply profitable routes leaving many part of Singapore without any public transport. I had a personal experience once when I was going to Senoko. I took the train to Woodlands to transfer to a bus. After checking the bus guide panel at the bus stop, I set down and wait. And wait. And wait. After over 30 minutes of waiting I checked the board again only to realise that the bus to where I was going only ply during the morning peak hours. So how was people going to go to the area during off peak hours? I took a taxi in but that was not the end of the problem. How do I get out of the area after that? I had to walk! No taxi will come into the area and so I had no choice but to start walking and hope to get a cab along the way. Luckily for me, a lorry stopped and the kind driver gave me a lift out to the nearest train station. And I understand that is the situation for people going to Tuas, Sungei Kadut, Neo Tiew and many other far flung areas and even Marina South. The bus operator simply put priority over profits rather than being a responsible corporate citizen. And I don't blame them. After all, they are private companies and their priority is profits for the company to pay directors' fees and shareholder's dividends.

So after the complains become louder and louder, what did the government do? They allowed the bus companies to run "premium" bus services that ran almost parallel to the train. Errr... wasn't that the reverse of the reasons they cited when they withdrawn the bus routes earlier? To make sure no overlapping! Now the premium buses are charging an arm and a leg to get commuters to town and of course probably making big fat margins in the process judging from the number of such services popping out.

And because the 2 main bus operators refuse to operate the non-profitable routes and refuse to increase the number of buses plying a route, to satisfy the commuters, the government now has to step in and allow private operators to run parallel services like the aforesaid new shuttle bus services. So it looks like we have gone one full circle and is now back to the era of policeman worn shorts again!

So I don't understand the government's policy on our public transport. It is pandering to the whims and fancy of the 2 bus operators. If the bus operations are unprofitable, they should jolly well use their profits from the other divisions that is earning megabucks from advertisements, rentals and private hiring to cross subsidies the non-profitable bus operations. After all, that is what most private companies will do. And if the bleeding continues until they cannot tahan, they should get out and let other companies take over. Asking the government to bail them out with a new financing scheme is tantamount to asking the public to bail out the bus companies. While I agree generally with the new scheme that the government is going to put in place, I hope SBS and SMRT will not automatically be allowed to be part of the scheme and will have to bid for the new routes like all the other companies. Than at least we will see some real competition and hopefully then we will get a good enough public transport system that will really make us think twice about owning the most expensive car in the world!

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