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We need an active and strong regulator, says Tan Kin Lian.

PTW: From third world to first

Tan Kin Lian / Columnist

A few years ago, the Land Transport Authority set a goal to have a world class transport system in Singapore.

During the past two years, this slogan has been quietly set aside. The transport system has been severely strained by the increase in demand needed by a larger population. The public has voiced strong complaints about the shortcomings of the system – congested roads, higher ERP charges, crowded trains and buses and long commuting time.

We do not have to wait another ten years for the completion of the new MRT lines to have a transport system that we can be proud of. We have the means to make a few changes now to improve the system significantly.

Let us look at the positive aspects. We already have an excellent infrastructure – well maintained roads, taxis, trains and buses. If we are able to use these facilities well, we will be able to meet the demand and improve the quality of service.

Let me give a few suggestions.

I have taken the MRT train during the off-peak hours, at 10 am, 4 pm and 10 pm. I waited more than 5 minutes for a train. When it finally arrived, it was crowded and packed all the way to my destination.

If more trains are operated during the off-peak hours, the operating expenses may increase marginally. But the passengers can enjoy a significant improvement in comfort and quality of service. Less crowded trains will encourage more people to take the train, especially during the off-peak hours. This increase in business will more than offset the higher operating cost. It is the classical “chicken and egg” question.

If the management is required to make more profits, it will be difficult for them to justify the deployment of more trains. The management needs the regulator to mandate that more trains should be put into service. We need a stronger regulator.

To encourage more people to take the train, we need to improve our feeder services. Many commuters, who do not live within walking distance, have to take a feeder bus to the station.

The feeder bus has to be frequent, with a waiting time of less than 5 minutes. It should bring the commuters directly and quickly to the train station or bus interchange, without making many stops along the way.

This is best achieved by the use of small buses or passenger vans. They can take 8 to 16 passengers. This is the system used in Hong Kong and a few other cities. The feeder buses should be operated by small operators, independent of the large operators of the train and express bus services.

An alternative is to operate trams to serve the central business district or our residential towns. Many cities around the world have this system. A notable example is Melbourne.

We should have large buses to provide an express service to bring many commuters on a long journey with fewer stops and a shorter journey time. These services can run on the same routes as the MRT trains, as an alternative to the train. This competition will spur the train operator to improve their customer service.

The express buses can also be a backup to the trains system in the event of a major accident or a breakdown of the train.

The express buses can also connect some towns directly and offer a shorter journey compared to the MRT trains.

There is room to improve our taxi service. The ratio of taxis to population ratio is quite high in Singapore, compared to other cities. Our taxi service is unsatisfactory, which suggests that there is waste and inefficiency in the system

We need to address the structural problems. The ERP charges are a big negative factor for taxis. I suggest that the taxi driver should pay a daily fee, in lieu of the per entry charge. This will encourage the taxi drivers to operate where there is demand.

It is better to encourage more people to take a taxi rather than drive a private car, to reduce the demand for parking spaces and congestion on the road. In New York City, there is an abundance of taxis on the road, as many people do not drive their private cars, due to high parking charges.

We should encourage people to telephone for a taxi. This will reduce the need for taxis to ply the road looking for passengers. It will reduce diesel consumption and road congestion. The call charge should be reduced to $1 or can be included in the starting fare.

Rationalization

It is timely to re-organize the transport system and have one company run the MRT trains and a few companies to run the express bus services. This will reduce duplication and wastage. If the private sector companies are not able to agree on the terms of the transfer, an independent panel has to be appointed to decide on the terms. The message must be clear – the system needs to be streamlined.

Regulation

The current approach of “leaving it to the market” does not seem to produce good results.

Many cities appear to be able to manage this situation better than Singapore. We can learn from their experience.

We need an active and strong regulator to make the appropriate decisions in the interest of the commuting public and business efficiency. In this environment, the transport operators can still earn a fair margin of profit on their capital investment.

My wish is to have a world class transport system in Singapore that we can be proud of.

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