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Treat commuters as treasured customers, advises Andrew Loh.

PTW Week: World class service?

Service – people, passion and purpose. These are what will make our transport system world class.

Andrew Loh / Deputy Editor

The focus point for TOC’s Public Transport Week is the idea of a world class transport system. This is the aim of the Government, as declared by ministers and the prime minister himself.

Thus, it is by this standard that we should judge and scrutinize the issue.

To be fair, over the years the Government has announced plans designed to achieve this – focusing its effort on infrastructure improvements to give better access to trains and buses. These include expanding the rail network, constructing the Circle Line and the Downtown Line, integrating bus interchanges with shopping malls and introducing the bus lanes idea.

It has also allowed bus services to run parallel to MRT lines, punishing transport companies with heftier fines for non-compliance with certain service standards, having the Land Transport Authority take over as the central bus planner from 2009, and increasing bus and train frequencies, among many other measures.

Thus, it is hard to fault the Government and accuse it of being oblivious to the needs and problems faced by commuters. Indeed, the Government should be commended for its effort. So, why aren’t Singaporeans jumping with joy but instead seem to have even more complaints?

One reason could be that dissatisfaction is actually with the transport companies and not with the Government – but because the Government is so invested in the issue that Singaporeans, perhaps, feel they are one and the same. This is, of course, not without good reasons, as we shall see in Thursday's article here on TOC.

Grouses

There are many areas where Singaporeans feel service is nowhere near world class. Anyone who uses public transport will tell you about the over-crowding, the jam-packed trains which now appears to extend beyond peak hours, the long waiting periods for buses in certain areas of Singapore, the difficulties handicapped people face, especially in taking buses, dirty and stuffy buses especially when it rains and even complaints about how children above a certain height are being discriminated against when they use public transport. Indeed, there are many grouses. My personal beef is with TV Mobile which I find to be a total and utter nuisance! I wish they’d just pull the plug on that damn thing!

And the biggest complaint and source of endless frustration throughout the years has been the ever-increasing fares – which run parallel to the ever-increasing (record) profits of the service providers.

Though some of the above complaints or unhappiness may seem trivial or even petty, one must remember that it is the daily experience of each individual commuter which will determine if the system is world class. The shiniest trains or buses and the expert engineering which goes into constructing the stations and interchanges do not necessarily make the system one.

This is where the Government and transport companies should pay more attention – in the level and quality of service of public transport. It is no use to keep repeating that we aim to be the best in the world in ferrying people from Point A to Point B, or to say that transport companies need to make profits in order to stay afloat. Every Singaporean already knows that. What they’re looking for is better service.

While infrastructure is indisputably important, service is perhaps what will assuage the anger and frustration of commuters when they experience the shortcomings of public transport in their daily commute.

Blinded

For example: to take a bus at night and then have the frustration of trying to determine where you are by looking through the glass windows or panels which are plastered with advertisements obscuring your vision. TOC reader Kiss Dani wrote to us about this. “These screens limit what we can see from inside the busses. Imagine looking out for block numbers through these screens,” he said. “Often, I have missed stops because of them.”

It is experiences like this which makes commuters view the transport companies as money-sucking monsters – blindly chasing profits and blinding commuters in the process. If customers were treated as valued clients, the first thing the management would do is to see how such placement of advertisements would affect its customers.

It is in the daily experience of each individual commuter which determines if the system is world class.

Put people first - always

So, how can service be improved? Well, it must start with the recognition that each individual is a treasured customer – and not a lemming which needs to be carried from one spot to another in the shortest possible time. The importance is in the experience of the journey and not in how short the journey should be per se (which seems to be the pre-occupation of the authorities), though that is also desirable, of course.

Here are a few suggestions, made with the perspective that each commuter is a treasured customer, which perhaps can be considered in this respect. Lets start with those who face the most difficulties in using public transport – children, elderly, and the handicapped.

- Allow children who aren’t of school-going age to travel for free and not base their fares on how tall or short they are.

- Remove the concession conditions for the elderly to travel at all times of the day, instead of limiting them to certain hours in order to enjoy concession. Isn’t our government encouraging Singaporeans to work as long as they can and till as old as they are? In any case, limiting our elderly to certain hours of travel if they’re on concession smacks of disrespect, really. Especially when we are an ageing population.

- Install hydraulic ramps or platforms for handicapped persons to board buses easily. Some countries already do this, I understand. London, for example.

- Remove advertisements on the glass panels of buses. It obscures one’s vision, especially at night.

- Remove TV Mobile so that commuters can travel in peace in the morning and have some peace after a day’s work at the office.

- Have station staff provide a hand to elderly people when it rains or when a train breaks down for a long time or when something unexpected happens. Ask them if they need help and see to their needs. Lets see some real faces in our stations.

- Have train drivers greet commuters over the speakers in the morning and evening. This could be done in the station as well, over the speakers. It costs nothing.

- (This is one which I personally hope will be implemented.) The Public Transport Council will either open its deliberations or minutes of its meeting to the public OR hold free public forums for members of the public to voice their opinions before increasing fares! Why are all PTC deliberations so secretive? Where is the people’s voice in all of it? Does the PTC value Singaporeans and their opinion?

At the end of the day, treating commuters as treasured customers (which they are and should be viewed as) is what makes the system world class. Just ask Singapore Airlines. There must be a genuine interest in wanting to do so. Service through artificial gimmicks, such as giving away discount breakfast (the real aim: to alleviate the over-crowding in the early hours), makes one feel cheap – and even cheated. (“If they have so much money to give out free or discounted breakfast sets, why the need to increase fares?” a friend asked me.) Not a treasured customer at all.

People. Passion. Purpose.

Treat people as valued clients or customers.

Staff, especially the top people in the companies, must have a passion for genuine service.

Transport companies must realize that their purpose is public service – and not reaping profits from the public.

The 3 P’s : Providing genuine service to people as their main purpose and passion, our transport companies will gain much public praise.

Only then will they be truly world class.

So, my message to Mr Gerard Ee, Chairman of the PTC, is that it is not a matter of whether the fare increase is 3% or 1.8% or that “it is still affordable”. It is a question of whether the transport companies’ service standards justify any increase at all!

Mr Ee and the PTC should ask themselves if the service commuters experience daily is world class – before they approve another round of hikes with the usual dismissive “it is still affordable” routine come October 1st.

The PTC too should remember that it should serve people first.

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