The Land Transport Authority (LTA) has announced a reward of S$1 million to the two public transport operators (PTOs) for “reliability improvements” in their bus services along 22 routes.
In a joint statement with the two PTOs – SMRT and SBS Transit – on Friday, the LTA said, “The first assessment period of June to November 2014 has yielded encouraging results with 20 out of the 22 services on trial showing improvements in their reliability, and of which 18 services earned incentives.”
The trial is part of the Bus Service Reliability Framework (BSRF) scheme, launched in February, where PTOs are either rewarded or penalised for service performance.
The LTA said the outcome of the BSRF scheme has seen “new services, less crowded buses and more frequent and regular bus arrivals, especially during peak periods.”
Of the 22 routes on trial, the LTA said 20 of them “yielded encouraging results” during the first assessment period of June to November 2014.
The PTOs reportedly managed to cut down on the difference between actual and scheduled waiting times – known as excess waiting time - by between 12 seconds and 36 seconds.
Under the BSRF scheme, which is ongoing two-year trial, an operator can earn as much as $6,000 a month for every six seconds it cuts in waiting time, but it can also be fined up to $4,000 for every six seconds exceeded.
Based on the trial results, the LTA says it is rewarding SBS Transit $710,286 for ensuring that 11 of its 12 bus services under trial ran at more punctual intervals; while SMRT will get $345,714 for improvements to seven of its 10 routes in the scheme.
However, it should be noted that the so-called “reliability improvements” being rewarded have to do with the buses arriving at regular intervals, and not for arriving at shorter intervals, or increased frequency.
This means that commuters may still have to wait some time for a bus to arrive, even if the interval between bus arrivals was regular.
In other words, commuters may still wait say, 15 to 30 minutes for a bus, but the consolation is that the buses will arrive regularly at between 15 to 30 minutes apart.
It is also worth noting that the trial results are the average outcomes of the service timings in the 22 routes.
“Incentives and penalties are determined based on the six-month average performance of each service,” the LTA said.
What this also means is that commuters may actually experience little or no difference to their commute.
Indeed, the Straits Times reported on 11 April, Saturday, that most commuters did not experience the so-called “reliability improvements” of the services.
“[Out] of 50 people interviewed, 66 per cent said they did not feel the difference, or saw no improvement in bus frequency,” the Straits Times said.
Student Nora Tiqah told the newspaper, "Sometimes the wait can be as long as 30 to 45 minutes. Sometimes three buses come at one go."
Since the announcement of the reward for the PTOs, some have balked at the S$1m incentive, especially when the scheme is still on trial, and that only 22 bus routes are being tested.
Questions have also been raised about why the Government is using taxpayers’ money to reward what should be basic service standards.
Some have asked why the Government is throwing more money at the PTOs when it has already poured out billions to help them, for example, in purchasing 1,000 buses to the tune of almost $2 billion, including funds for the PTOs to operate these buses for 10 years.
The LTA explained the rationale behind the incentives under the BSRF scheme:
“The incentives will help to offset the costs incurred by the PTOs to hire the additional service controllers to support the BSRF.”
In the meantime, commuters may have misunderstood what the BSRF scheme is supposed to do, as pointed out by transport analyst, Park Byung Joon.
She noted that “there is a gap between commuter expectations and the effectiveness of the government trial.”
Dr Park, who heads the urban transport management programme at SIM University, told the Straits Times: "People expect more buses arriving at shorter intervals, but what this scheme aims to do is to make buses come at regular intervals. People must be able to see the difference."