Bus overcharging, profits, ERP: A triple whammy?

By Leong Sze Hian

I refer to the report “Bus commuters overcharged S$300,000“, (Channel News Asia, Nov 22).

According to the report, commuters can visit bus interchanges, most rail stations and selected bus stops to obtain refunds. They can also check online at www.publictransport.sg for refund eligibility.

I visited the website and discovered to my horror what I and other commuters may have to go through, perhaps just to get a few cents refund.

I clicked on “Bus stop distance corrections”. I was taken to the following page:

So, can you imagine the ridiculousness of it all, to expect most of the millions of commuters who travelled on buses from 3 July to 25 November, to try to remember every bus number that they had taken, and key them in, one at a time, and then use the search button.

Well, I keyed in one of the usual bus numbers I take -73, and ‘lo and behold”, I was taken to the next screen.

I clicked on the link which took me to the next screen:

So, not only have I to remember the bus numbers I took in the last five months, but also which bus stops I passed as I travelled too!

To top it off, I will have to wait until 18 December, to find out what is the process that I have to go through to get a refund! I have to go queve at ” bus interchanges, most rail stations and selected bus stops to obtain refunds”!

Can you imagine the millions of man hours wasted by commuters trying to navigate the refund “maze”.

No wonder Singapore’s productivity has been falling in recent years

Given the above ‘pretence” of refunds, perhaps the obvious question to ask, which should have been addressed in the announcement on refunds, may be – Will there be an accounting after six months as to how much was refunded? What happens (which is almost surely to occur) if the refunds are less than the $300,000 overcharged?

As to “LTA says transport operators who don’t update bus-stop distances may face a maximum fine of S$100,000 in future”, sometimes I can’t help but laugh whenever I read about public operators being fined.

For example, one transport operator was recently fined $100 for failing to meet standards. A $100 fine for a transport operator that makes profits of up to $150 millions!

Public transport profits

While on the topic of profits, I find it rather strange, but not very amusing, that changing to a distance fares formula on 3 July, and assuring Singaporeans that two-thirds will end up paying less under the new formula, has once again resulted in record proftis for one of the transport operators.

SBS Transit’s Q3 net profit grew by 20.4 per cent from a year earlier to $12.7 million, due to higher bus and rail fares which boosted its earnings. (Channel Newsasia 11 Nov 2010)

At this rate of growth in profits, it may yet again be another record year of profits – more than the $54.6 million in 2009, having grown from $34.6 million in 2002.

For SMRT, its 1QFY11 after tax profit of $38.2 million, is a whopping 68 per cent higher than 4QFY10’s $22.7 million.

Although its profits grew at an annual rate of about 14 per cent per annum, from $56.8 million in FY2002 to $162.9 million last year, will it yet again make another record profit this year?

Malaysia vs Singapore

In contrast, against this relentless rise in public transport fares and transport operators’profits, Malaysia gives concessionary travel to disabled persons and the elderly.

In Johor Bahru, the JB Central line buses give free rides to disabled persons.

A JB Central line bus

In Kuala Lumpur, bus and train fares ranging from RM0.70 to RM2.80 are about 50 per cent cheaper than Singapore’s S$0.71 (RM1.70) to S$1.94 (RM4.65).

Moreover, one can purchase a Rapidpass Integrated Pass for RM150, that gives unlimited travel for a month on buses and trains. In contrast, there are no bus and train integrated passes in Singapore.

By the way, in addition to transport concessions for the disabled, the Malaysian Government also gives a monthly allowance of RM1,050 to disabled workers.

In Singapore, the disabled get no concessions and no allowance, and the elderly only during off-peak hours.

Speaking of peak/off-peak hours, it brings me to my last point.

ERP rates

I refer to the article “Parliament Today: Why ERP rates go up” (ST, Nov 22).

It states that “Allowing a lower speed threshold because of population growth will simply lead to poorer service levels on roads and more widespread congestion, as the physical capacity of the roads remain unchanged”.

The logic of this argument may be somewhat flawed. Allow me to use an analogy – You are the CEO of a company, and you are faced with the problem of rising congestion as you have more and more customers using your services. So, some of the solutions that most may try could be – increase capacity, provide and encourage alternatives to customers, pay your staff based on the KPI of reducing the congestion, etc.

Instead, we keep saying that the ‘physical capacity remain unchanged’, ‘charges to customers have to be continually raised because service levels had fallen below the optimal range following a regular review’, the extra increasing millions of dollars of revenue will not be used to subsidise alternative channels (public transport), etc.

If we can’t effectively increase and improve transport infrastructure, and simply earn more whenever congestion gets worse, then what is the incentive to reduce congestion?

There may be an inherent bias and conflict of interest when the LTA is tasked with reducing congestion, and yet gets more revenue when there is more congestion. I would therefore like to suggest an independent inquiry and scrutiny process by ordinary citizens who take public transport, to montitor and review the practices and decisions of the LTA.

Maybe if the LTA is “fined” when congstion gets worse, it may improve traffic flow in Singapore!