“Raise fares to improve train service”, says the title of the letter to the Straits Times forum page on Wednesday.

Mr Jonathan Toh Joo Khai, the writer, pointed at the Public Transport Council (PTC), which regulates public transport fares, as the “root cause of SMRT’s frequent train breakdowns.”

“The fare hikes are miserly compared with the rate of inflation,” Mr Toh said.

He then rattled off a litany of “financial indicators” of the SMRT which, he said, “had been falling for five straight years.”

“Unlike other companies, SMRT cannot shed its money-losing train business,” Mr Toh said. “Yet, it is yet expected to improve reliability even as the PTC moderates fare hikes to meet the demands of commuters, some of whom even want a freeze to fare hikes until reliability improves.”

“How is that possible?” he asked.

He argued that “train fares in Singapore are low relative to gross domestic product per capita.”

Mr Toh thus called for fares to be increased, and that discounts be given to those in need.

“The rest who happily use our latest flashy iPhones and Samsungs to kill time on the trains can surely afford a fare hike,” he concluded.

The public transport operators (PTOs) make yearly application, usually towards the end of the year, for “fares review”, which the PTC will consider and decide on several months later, usually around March.

Mr Toh’s call is not new and is the latest in the last two years or so from various quarters who have also also called for higher fares for public transport.

In January 2014, for example, this report appeared in the TODAY newspaper:

TODAY, Jan 2014
TODAY, Jan 2014

“Rather than complain about both poor service and fare increases, perhaps it is time for a shift in commuters’ thinking towards paying even more, so that we get the transport services we deserve in a world-class city,” the writer said.

About four months later, the former chairman of the PTC, Gerard Ee, echoed the same sentiments.

Straits Times, May 2014
Straits Times, May 2014

“At the end of the day, buses and trains are about transporting a lot of people from Point A to B as affordably as possible,” Mr Ee said. “So by that very nature, they are going to be crowded. They’re not designed for comfort.

“If you treasure your time and treasure your comfort, you pay a premium – there are premium bus services. If you value your time and comfort even more, buy a car. And then ultimately, get a chauffeur. You have to decide for yourself what it is you want.”

Straits Times, Jan 2014
Straits Times, Jan 2014

But in January 2014, the PTC itself delinked the relationship between fare hikes and better service, and breakdowns of the system.

The PTC’s remarks were in response to public sentiments that fares should not go up when trains are still breaking down.

“[The] Public Transport Council (PTC) has said that the two issues should be kept separate,” the Straits Times reported.

Nonetheless, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in September last year that progress and improvements have been made, and that “there are not so many breakdowns as before.”

But just three months later, the TODAY newspaper reported that the “number of major MRT delays had hit a “four-year high.”

Sept 2014
Sept 2014

There were 12 “major delays” in the first nine months of 2014 alone, the newspaper reported. This was more than the 11 for the entire year in 2011, the previous record number of delays.

And on Thursday, 30 July 2015, the Straits Times reported that there have already been “five major delays in Q1, nearly half last year’s total.”

Straits Times, 30 July 2015
Straits Times, 30 July 2015

“[There] were five service delays lasting more than 30 minutes between January and March this year,” the Straits Times said.

This included a disruption in February where a breakdown in the line between Yew Tee and Kranji stations lasted for four hours and 38 minutes.

And earlier in July, the entire train system was shut-down for several hours due to a train fault, affecting 250,000 commuters.

Would all these problems disappear with the simple solution of increasing fares?

One would be hard-pressed to argue for such a simplistic expectation.

Yet, the truth is that much public funds have been poured into the transport system, billions in fact, and billions more have been earmarked for the same in the next decade.

And are the PTOs making losses?

If they were, there would be no justification for them to double the salary of their chief executive officer, as SMRT did this year, raising its CEO pay from S$1.2m in 2013, to $2.25m to $2.5m in 2015. (See here: “SMRT CEO paid $2.2m to $2.5m – a multifold jump in three years?“.

And along with that, directors’ fees for SMRT directors have also been increasing annually for the las 10 to 15 years.

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