Public transport not all doom and gloom

The concessions given to the disabled and polytechnic students by the Public Transport Council (PTC) for travel on public transport are welcome. These two groups, in particular, had been calling for help with transport costs for many years. It is thus good that the PTC has finally heard their calls and has acceded to their requests.

The recent fare hike in public transport fares, despite the concessions announced, was met with quite a strong reaction from some quarters of the public objecting to the increase. At the heart of the unhappiness are two issues:

1. That the standard of service has either dropped or is not up to expectations, given the frequent disruptions and breakdown of our train system, for example.
2. That the public transport operators (PTOs) are already making good profits each year (SMRT has just announced, however, a 44 per cent drop in Q3 earnings, with its rail operations in the red. Nonetheless, the PTOs have been reaping handsome profits annually).

The constant and regular hikes in fares have prompted calls for the authorities to do more. But what exactly are they supposed to be doing?

To be sure, the government has committed some S$60 billion over the next 10 years to expanding and improving the transport infrastructure. It has also given the PTOs S$1.1 billion to help them purchase 550 new buses and to fund their operations for the next 10 years.

There have also been a slew of initiatives, including raising drivers’ salaries and the recent carrot-and-stick incentives scheme, to improve service standards.

All these, however, have not convinced some quarters of the public that the PTOs are deserving of a hike in fares, or that such an increase is “justifiable”, as Senior Minister of State for Transport Josephine Teo said in 2011.

Some have called for the nationalisation of our public transport system, that it be removed from the hands of the two quasi private companies, SMRT and Comfortdelgro, and be run by the government instead, on a not-for-profit or cost-recovery basis.

In particular, the Workers’ Party (WP) put forth its recommendations for this. In 2011, its Non-constituency Member of Parliament, Gerald Giam, wrote in the Straits Times:

“The current model of provision of public transport has produced many undesirable outcomes, as evidenced by the “crush loads” experienced by commuters every day and the public outcry each time fares are increased.

“It would do Singaporeans no good if the government sticks dogmatically to its narrow philosophy of the virtues of privatisation and the profit motive, without considering the true economic reality of the public transport industry in Singapore.”

Some say that nationalising the system would result in inefficiencies, higher costs and a lower standard of service.

To these, Mr Giam suggested that a National Transportation Cooperation (NTC) be set up to oversee the system, and implementing KPIs for the executives who run it.

“A well-managed NTC can provide superior outcomes compared to the present profit-oriented monopolies. We would expect no less from NTC, in terms of efficiency and cost-effectiveness, compared to the way any other statutory board is managed by the government.”

While Mr Giam does provide a strong argument for nationalising the system, the response from Ms Teo is equally worth pondering on before we decide on the matter.

She pointed out that the structure of the “public transport model is not the key issue”, and that “the basic tenets of our current model are sound.”

Ms Teo highlighted, correctly, that Mr Giam’s worries were basically on two factors – the public outcry over fare increases and the ‘crush loads’ experienced by commuters, especially at peak hour.

While no one likes fare hikes, the way to deal with the unhappiness is to get a handle on the real problem which the commuting public is unhappy about – the operational service standards.

In this regards, one would have to ask: what exactly is the problem or problems causing the disruptions, delays and breakdowns?

There are many factors – a physically old creaking system in heed of some overhaul at some level, an outdated signalling system, and the capability of those at the helm of the PTOs.

Truly, these are basically the main issues.

The train system started operations in 1986. It is 28 years old. While not exactly as ancient as the London Underground, it nonetheless needs some serious maintenance and updating. Following the Committee of Inquiry report into the massive disruptions in December 2011, a slew of improvements were recommended.

New trains and buses are being added from time to time. In May last year, SMRT announced that “35 new trains have been ordered, and they are scheduled to be injected into the system from 2014 to 2016.”

“These trains can be injected to improve peak hour train frequency, and clear crowded platforms faster,” the company said. “In the coming years, commuters can expect newer trains, better frequencies, and a shorter wait for trains.”

As for buses, as earlier mentioned, the government has provided the two PTOs with a total of S$1.1 billion to purchase 550 new buses over the next few years, with the PTOs themselves forking out for an additional 250 new ones as well. This will see a total of 800 new buses on our roads.

But what perhaps will help in increasing the frequency of the trains, so that the load at peak hour especially can be spread out, is to upgrade the signalling system. And indeed, the SMRT seemed to recognise this and awarded the contract to upgrade the signalling system for the North-South and East-West lines to French company, Thales, in 2012. [See here.]

Unfortunately, such an improvement, which is no small undertaking, will take time. The upgrade by Thales is expected to be completed only in 2018.

So, commuters will have to be patient.

As for the people at the helm of the two PTOs, in particular the CEOs, given the plans in place, a little more time perhaps should be given to them to buck up. But they should also work with the government and ask serious questions of it – such as: what exactly is the government’s population plan? This will impact the transport system, as indeed it has the last 10 years when the population increased at speed.

Truth be told, the agencies which should be keeping an eye on things – the PTC and the Land Transport Authority (LTA) – should also buck up.

Quite clearly, the LTA, especially, had been found wanting, and not anticipating the infrastructural needs of an increased population.

Whatever it is, and despite the public outcry, perhaps we could take some comfort – in the meantime – that there are plans already flowing through the pipeline.

Whether nationalising the system is desirable will require much further debate. In the meantime, let’s hope that the Government’s plans already afoot to improve the service standards will bear fruit before too long – for everyone’s sake.

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