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TOC Editorial: A stronger political will may solve our transport woes

TOC Editorial/

The public transport operators (PTO) have made application for fare adjustment to the Public Transport Council (PTC) ; and this too while Singapore's public transport system faces tremendous strain due to short-sighted, reactionary planning of those that are in-charge.

Towards the end of the 1980s, there was quantum increase in Singapore's transport capacity with the introduction of the MRT. 'Competition' was then introduced by the Government to ensure that the PTO would not fall into inefficient operations and to minimise overall wastage.

But in reality there was no real competition because when this happened, the Government instead of allowing the PTO to compete on a free-market basis, created artificial competition where the PTO must plan their system and market it as a single entity, as the Government was concerned that the PTO would only concentrate on profitable routes.

Which means that the PTO operate like an unregulated monopoly in their area of operation; and as all unregulated monopolies do, the PTO limits the availability of the service, in order to obtain a high price and maximum obtainable profit from the commuters.

This is the reason why the profits of the two operators have risen manifold since 2003. In 2003, SMRT's profit was $72 million, as at 31 March 2011, SMRT's net-profit was $161.1 million. Comfort DelGro's profit in 2003 was $134 million, its net-profit was $228.5 million, as at 31 December 2010.

Despite these high-income generated by the PTO, PTC has never not approved applications for fare adjustments by the PTO. PTC has been heavily criticised repeatedly because of this and also because the regulator is perceived to be more pro-PTO than pro-commuters.

For example, commuters who do not pay the correct fare on public transports, will be fined S$20, while those who abuse concession cards face a penalty of S$50. An additional penalty of S$1,000 will be imposed if the cheating commuter does not pay the fine; and repeat offenders may be fined S$2,000 or be jailed up to six months, or both.

These penalties are many times more than the value of a single trip on the public transport, and it is meant as a deterrent for the fare cheats.

The PTO however have no such effective deterrent for failing Quality of Services (QoS) standards. The penalty for each non-compliant day on each non-compliant route for both headway adherence and loading is only $100; which means that it is more profitable for the PTO to breach QoS standards instead of investing in capacity/infrastructure to meet QoS requirements.

The PTO have enjoyed the carrot, but have never enjoyed the stick of punitive sanctions.

The way in which the QoS standards are defined may also be defective. The Transport Minister, Lui Tuck Yew also alluded to this on his Facebook note when said, "our current QOS standards for buses is not sufficiently stringent. MOT and LTA are in the midst of a study on how to tighten this".

The question to ask really is, "why are QoS standards not linked to fare increases?"

The only penalty for QoS breaches have been a fine, but the regime should be modified so that operators who fail QoS standards are not entitled to fare increases.

This is only fair, since if PTO are not doing a good job, why should they be rewarded with a fare increase? This will directly incentivise PTOs to invest to meet QoS standards, and ensure that commuters at least will not face a double-whammy of sub-standard service and high fares.

Fare increases in the past have been rationalised by comparing our fares to the fares of cities like Hong Kong, London, and New York, instead of justifying it by linking it to QoS standards.

Perhaps PTC's perceived siding with the PTO is an attempt by the Government to hide its own short-comings in forward planning.

In 1991, in line with Government's overall vision of providing for a higher quality of living for Singaporeans, the Ministry of National Development expounded the Revised Concept Plan (URA, 1991) to be implemented in three stages of physical development: up to Year 2000, to Year 2010 and to Year X projecting for a population of 4 million.

Former-Minister for National Development Mah Bow Tan revised that forecast in 2000, and he predicted that Singapore's population would rise from the then population of 3.9 million to 5.5 million by 2040 or 2050.

But by the end of 2010, we had already almost reached the projected population growth targeted for 2040 or 2050. This surge must have surely caught the Government off-guard as they had probably not planned for an increase that they expected to happen in 40 or 50 years, happening instead in 10 short years.

The changes in the population profile and characteristics, as well as growth in economic conditions have exerted tremendous public transportation problems for the country as the government did not identify the transport problems early enough to take definite corrective actions.

The over-crowding on our public transport did not happen overnight but happened incrementally over many years. Singapore's lack of tolerance for perceived inefficiencies, and as a result, the quest for greater automation may have also contributed to the squeeze in our public transportation.

in the days before One-Man-Operation (OMO) buses, when there was a conductor who would punch your tickets when you boarded the bus, there was no incentive for the PTO to pack their services; because then, the conductor would not be able to issue a ticket to everyone, and this would have affected adversely affected their income significantly.

Greater efficiency also dictated that services of the public transport operators are integrated, and in 1989, the Government-inspired Transit Link Pte Ltd was set-up to do precisely that. Besides information integration, network integration and physical integration, Transit Link especially facilitated fare integration.

Fare integration required a common ticketing system in the form of a common TransitLink farecard developed for use on all public transport systems. Incentives in the form of transfer rebates were offered to commuters transferring between operators, to encourage cashless transactions. Fare integration was accepted as rebates were significant.

Of course apportionment of revenue received from the fare-box was a key concern of the PTO. Transit Link allayed this concern by assuring PTO that apportionment of revenues will be based on usage. With this, the incentive for the individual operator to compete fairly in the market (to the benefit of the commuter) is adversely affected.

Despite the unhappiness expressed by Singaporeans that they cannot accept fare adjustments when services are so sloppy, fare increase seems like an eventuality. The Prime Minister himself have indicated that fare increases are inevitable, and have asked Singaporeans to relax because the PTC is doing their job.

What the Prime Minister perhaps fails to realise is that the PTC's track-record does not inspire confidence in the daily commuters that PTC has their best interest in heart.

What the Prime Minister seem to have overlooked is that it is very difficult to relax when our public transportation system is as such, as it contributes directly to greater stresses at place of work, detrimental to our quality of life, and could also be a cause for Singapore's falling birth-rate.

Capability planning and development for public transportation, should be about the survivability of Singapore, because delayed actions can be quite costly. It seems however that there is very little political will to solve our transport problems.

The problem of public transportation has now reached such an acute level that quick decisive actions are needed from the Government.

And until these decisive actions are taken, any fair adjustments would be deemed unacceptable.

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See the Quality of Service standards for public transport operators HERE.