Wednesday, October 12, 2005

High time to review the current setup of our public transportation system.

From ST:

It's a wish - one company running buses and trains

Watchdog chief says if it isn't feasible, let one run trains and another buses
By Christopher Tan

IF THE new Public Transport Council (PTC) chairman had his way, there would be just one public transport company running both trains and buses - to avoid duplication of resources.

Said Mr Gerard Ee: 'If that's not feasible, we should have one running the trains and one running the buses.'

SBS Transit and SMRT Corp run both rail and bus services which are clearly demarcated.

There have been suggestions for them to merge operations or operate only buses or trains.

Former senior civil servant Ngiam Tong Dow and even Mr Lim Jit Poh, chairman of ComfortDelGro, of which SBS Transit is part, made such suggestions after the controversy over Buangkok MRT station.

Completed more than two years ago, it is yet to open because SBS Transit started operating the North-East MRT Line with fewer riders than projected. The station has fewer developments around it than most other MRT stations.

Mr Ee would not be drawn into the Buangkok debate, saying the PTC cannot decide on MRT stations. However, the council, a watchdog body formed in 1987, will have more say in other areas.

The Public Transport Council Act is expected to be amended to 'give the PTC a bit more clout'. Proposed amendments include new measures such as penalty fees for fare evaders, and a five-year operating licence for buses.

More importantly for the commuters, the PTC will revise fares every year.

There will be automatic fare revision, said Mr Ee, unlike now when transport companies must apply for fare increases.

A new formula will be used to revise fares, said Mr Ee. It takes into consideration prevailing economic factors, average wages and productivity of transport operators.

'We will stick to the formula religiously, except under very exceptional circumstances like a natural disaster or an unusual economic boom,' said Mr Ee.

He added that the PTC will convene each year in April-May to decide on revisions. 'Over a period of time, you show people you have the will to apply the formula - to raise or lower fares. Then the annual adjustment will become a matter of course, like what happens in London each year,' he said.

Unlike the previous formula, the new one takes into account productivity gains by operators, which are to be shared with commuters.

Mr Ee said the PTC will also review other policies with bodies like the Land Transport Authority.

'It is time to take stock of the entire public transport system and look at policies that have been with us for the past decade,' he said. 'Nothing should be sacrosanct.'

One matter he cited is how bus routes are distributed, and the territorial rights of the two bus operators.

Most of the routes were distributed 'a long time ago', he said. Now the rail network is up and going, he wants to examine whether 'how the island is carved up for buses still makes sense'.

Except for isolated spots in the city, SBS Transit and SMRT buses do not ply common routes.

While his statements hint at a liberalisation and increased competition all round, he confesses he is 'not sure' what the answer will be.

But the bus route issue is 'one of the last holy cows we should challenge'.

Barring a merger, that is.

I oppose the creation of a private transport monopoly by merging SBS and SMRT (Nationalisation can be considered because this means our govt. have to take full responsiblity for any fare increase.) as Mr Ee had proposed. Such a private monopoly would only promote price fixing, which in turns leads to the artificial inflation of the train and bus fares.

However his second idea of one company running trains while the other running buses deserves some serious study. The reason being that this would promote competition between the bus and train companies. With more competition, the public transport companies would less likely to increase their fares.

My personal take is that the second idea is feasible and would benefit Singaporean public much more than the current arrangement.

Hence, perhaps it is high time for our Transport Minister Mr Yeo Cheow Tong and LTA to do their jobs and produce a comprehensive study on this issue. Hopefully with the study, the current arrangement can be altered in a way that is beneficial to the Singaporean public.


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