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The Great Bus Revamp January 21, 2008

Posted by hafizbam in Miscellaneous, Something New.
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SMRT SBS Transit

The moment all bus enthusiasts (and the commuting public of course) have been waiting for has finally arrived. It’s none other than the Public Transport Review which was made public last Friday covering changes to the local bus industry over the next few years. For the detailed press release, please refer to the PAGES on the right column.

So in summary, the public transport system will be improved and made more commuter-friendly. One that takes into account the whole travel experience of the commuter and no longer just about dollars and cents. Changes will be made through the perspective of the regular commuter and not what the bus companies deem best. After all, experience has shown that the current “competition” between SMRT and SBS Transit aint just working well, if it’s really working in the first place. In fact, there’s really not much competition now to begin with especially when what matters most right now are the bottomlines and the shareholders. As such, the government has made a good first step by identifying the direction our local public transport system should be going – commuters first.

Now that the over-arching objective has been set, comes the supporting pillars to make it work. And the main three strategies identified by the government are:

(I) Making our Hub-and-spoke System Seamless

(a) LTA to undertake Centralised Bus Planning;
(b) Distance-based Through Fares to Facilitate Transfers;
(c) Bus Priority Measures to Speed Up Buses;
(d) Integrated Public Transport Hubs; and
(e) Integrated Public Transport Service Information.

(II) Introducing More Competition to Drive Efficiency and Service Improvements

(III) Involving our People in the Land Transport System

As expected, this tried-and-tested system already implemented in other cities (and surprisingly even in neighbouring Kuala Lumpur and Penang under the RapidKL and RapidPenang networks respectively) will finally make its way to Singapore. A hub for each town with short feeder routes radiating out from it connecting commuters to the hub for transfers to other long-distance buses or the train. This is not to say we dont have this currently, it’s just that the system is not that well implemented. A good example would be SBST route 181. A trunk service yes, but which only loops within the Jurong West Avenue 5 estate. Looks more like an attempt by SBST to meet the quota on the minimum number of bus services per certain number of residents in each town. In fact, some areas dont even have a feeder service connecting it to the nearest bus interchange and instead, a trunk service takes its place. Route 28 serving Tampines East (the Street 34 areas) comes to mind.

To make this system work however, the hubs must be appealing and convenient for commuters to make swift comfortable transfers. Thus the emergence of more airconditioned bus interchanges integrated with commercial and even residential units as can be seen from the likes of Toa Payoh, Sengkang and Ang Mo Kio. Personally, I still find Toa Payoh and its glass panels separating the bus park from the airconditioned concourse the best among the three. Ang Mo Kio’s grey walls do not allow queueing passengers to see incoming buses while Sengkang is a a total disaster with all the trapped carbon monoxide.

I’m hoping the upcoming Boon Lay and Clementi hubs to be better and not be another Sengkang. And as if the west doesnt deserve enough, even Jurong East will be redeveloped into another hub, the others being Marina South (sorely needed), Joo Koon, Serangoon and Bedok. Bedok gave me a mixed reaction though. While I dont mind development, can we please at least spare our nation’s first bus interchange from the bulldozer? Surely with our technological advancements we can work out ways to integrate the old with the new ya? And if you realise, the north has been neglected. Where are the hubs in the current SMRT areas?

Integrated bus service information platforms, bus priority measures and extended bus lane networks are all overdue so I’m just glad they realised the importance of such systems.

So is the distance-based through fares and season pass which will be great news for bus enthusiasts! Not to mention the amount of money that can be saved once the transfer penalties are phased out.

Greater Competition – the way to go
But what excites me the most though, is the centralised bus route planning by the LTA and the competitive tendering system set to be rolled out by 2009/2010. Will Singapore’s bus industry evolve to be like that of London’s? I hope so. Because a tendering system has a lot of merits. The most obvious would be better service levels. If the London tendering system is to be adopted, every nitty-gritty is taken into account – the frequency, the operating hours all the way to the types of buses used. Though I dont expect our tenders to be like such immediately, over time they definitely should be.

And then there’s the threat of being knocked out in the next round of tenders due to poor performance. Which is a very strong incentive for the bus companies to step up their maintenance and do everything they possibly can to meet the standards and minimum service levels. Which would only mean commuters can expect better maintained buses (which means no cockroaches!) and buses that try desperately to arrive as scheduled (better not give me the weather and congestion crap again).

Transferring the responsibility of route planning from private firm to government will also save residents in towns currently under the purview of SMRT. For years, and I mean YEARS, we have not enjoyed any single major improvements in the bus services. Not even any new services which would help improve connections here and there. Yes, having a single company operating the buses and trains in a particular town comes with a heavy price because buses will always be seen as secondary to the money-making trains and as such, we are always forced to take the trains. An outstanding example would be that of feeder service 922 which has even made its way into Parliament, with one MP complaining about its ridiculous frequency – only to be told by Transport Minister Raymond Lim that the 922 is a “special complementary service” to the LRT. I say, it’s just a desperate attempt by SMRT to appease the MP and residents of the Bukit Panjang ward while striving to salvage its LRT business which has never been in the black.

Bus enthusiats would also be thrilled at the prospect of having more new bus models coming in – and at a faster rate. This is especially so if the established foreign firms begin to stake their claim in the local bus industry. Not that we do not like the current designs, the latest of which is the rather uninspiring Scania K230UB bodywork by Gemilang, but something by Wright would be more than welcomed here.

Nevertheless, problems might still occur. For one, centralised planning by the LTA may result in more direct trunk routes being culled in favour of the hub-and-spoke system which ironically, involves more transfers than necessary. LTA might not have the extensive market research compared to years of knowledge gathered by SBST and SMRT. And more transfers do not spell good news for an aging population. This is made worse as new wheelchair-accessible buses have even less seats. Poorly-planned routes may also result in angry commuters, some of whom may even lose their current links, affecting travel patterns and all. As such, it is of grave concern that the LTA really makes full use of its people engagement plans to fully understand the concerns of the commuting public before implementing any changes.

Amidst all the excitement surrounding the planned changes, with SMRT CEO quoted as “loving the challenge and opportunity (to expand operations and earn more income)”, alarm bells may have sounded over at SBS Transit even though CEO Kua Hong Pak is optimistic about the future of his company. It is obvious that SBST will be losing its current 75% market share, made worse if the upcoming announcement on changes to the train system spells the end of its rail operations as well. That may point to a merger, or rather a takeover by ComfortDelgro for SMRT in order to grow, or at least retain its domestic sources of income.

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