By Syairah Shahid
Singapore’s public transportation system has recently adopted a new approach to the local bus operations and management known as the Bus Contracting Model (BCM).
According to the Land Transport Authority (LTA), the main objectives of the BCM are to make public bus services more responsive to changes in ridership and commuter needs, inject competition into the industry and raise service levels for the benefit of the commuters.
Mr Chew Men Leong, Chief Executive of LTA who will be stepping down on 11 November, said: “With the completion of the transition, not only will the bus industry be put on a financially more sustainable footing, but commuters can expect higher bus service levels throughout Singapore.”
Through the BCM, LTA will gain ownership of all bus assets including the buses, bus depots, bus interchanges and fleet management systems. LTA will also make decisions related to the bus services provided and set service standards to be met by the respective bus operators.
All bus services will have scheduled headways of no more than 15 minutes for both directions during the morning and evening peak periods, with at least half of them having scheduled headways of no more than 10 minutes. Feeder services will run at intervals of six to eight minutes.
Bus operators will be paid a fixed fee in order to operate the bus services. This includes the operation and maintenance of buses, on-board equipment, bus interchanges and depots as well as customer service management.
Additionally, all fare revenue will be retained by the Government to ensure public transport fares remain affordable.
However, the bus operators will continue to benefit from advertising revenue.
Mr Tan Kian Heong, Managing Director of SMRT Buses welcomes the transition and said that the BCM will allow the company to “better fulfill our role as a public transport operator for the benefit of all our commuters.”
Under the BCM, all bus services in Singapore are bundled into 14 route packages to be tendered out gradually to the bus operators. The contracts for these packages will last for five years, with a two-year extension being granted for good performance.
Three route packages have been tendered out this year. The Bulim Bus Package has been awarded to Tower Transit while Go-Ahead Group was awarded the Loyang Bus Package. Bidding for the Seletar Bus Package is currently still open and will be closed on 27 October.
The remaining 11 packages will be under the responsibility of the current bus companies operating them, namely SBS Transit and SMRT Buses. After negotiations, the Bus Service Operating License (BSOL) for these operators have been extended between two and ten years since 1 September, after which the remaining 11 bus packages will be tendered out gradually.
Find out more about the 11 negotiated packages here.
LTA evaluates all tender submissions for the packages based on the price and quality proposed by the bus operators, with the latter being given greater weightage. Additionally, bus operators bidding for a package must have a proven record of operating a fleet of at least 250 buses.
However, as a result of the structure of route packages under the BCM, challenges such as manpower management are faced by certain bus operators. This is especially since each route package falls under the responsibility of a single local bus operator.
Go-Ahead Singapore saw a wave of resignations from newly-recruited bus conductors, with less than 20 of them leaving the company since the start of their Loyang Package.
Go-Ahead Singapore Spokesperson Michelle Yin said that the “learning curve for bus conductors to operate multiple routes on a single shift was steeper than expected”.
In order to counter the unexpected staff attrition, Go-Ahead Singapore made short-term sub-contracting arrangements to loan bus drivers from SBS Transit and SMRT Buses.
30 bus captains from SBS Transit were deployed at Loyang Depot since Sept 21 to drive Services 358 and 359 for an approximated two months. SMRT Buses also assisted Go-Ahead Singapore by sending them 10 bus captains.
Another concern arising from the BCM would be the maintenance of the quality of public bus services. The LTA would have to determine ways to enforce against poor performances from the respective bus operators. This is especially of concern since the bus companies no longer enjoy fare revenue and hence gives rise to a risk of these private companies cutting corners to maximise their profits.
The LTA would also have to avoid political issues from surfacing by ensuring that public bus services remain of a high standard under their ownership. They would have to take firm action such as implementing penalties against bus operators who are unable to maintain the set standards. Otherwise, operations should be handled by LTA’s own department instead of the private companies.
Without proper management and operations, the BCM could result in bus services being more poorly run, contrary to its aim of improving service levels in the industry.
Evidently, adopting the route package system comes with its risks and challenges when unexpected crises occur. Bus operators and the LTA have to work quickly and cooperate in order to ensure that the public bus services continue running smoothly and efficiently while the issues are being resolved.
Singapore’s BCM shares many similarities to one of the best public transportation systems in the world, Hong Kong, despite some differences.
The infographic below shows a side-by-side comparison between certain factors in Singapore’s and Hong Kong’s public bus systems.
Unlike Singapore, however, Hong Kong’s public bus system does not face challenges such as lack of manpower and quality enforcement. On the contrary, Hong Kong’s grapples with issues such as higher population forecasts and rapidly increasing cross-boundary traffic which increase the need for an efficient public transportation system.
In order to achieve this, the Government of Hong Kong has commissioned a Third Comprehensive Transport Study (CTS-3) to develop a balanced transport plan for Hong Kong looking forward to the next century.
The strategy is to upgrade the public transportation system by improving coordination of public transport services to better meet demands and minimise wasteful competition and duplication of effort.
In particular, franchised buses will play a prominent role in feeding passengers to railways. Unnecessary duplication caused by point-to-point services will be reduced through the use of conveniently located interchange facilities. New bus routes are also selected carefully.
Currently, Hong Kong’s bus system is known to be efficient and reliable, with a bus stop being found at most 200 meters from anywhere on the main island. Bus rides are also known to be cheap.
These fares can be paid either in the form of coins or with an octopus card which works similarly like the local EZ-Link card. Convenience is created for the commuters through this cashless payment method which can be used to pay for both bus and train rides.
Commuters pay a mere $7 (HKD), equivalent to $1.25 (SGD), for a 15 kilometer trip. This is in comparison to a bus ride in Singapore which would cost $1.54 (SGD) for a trip between 14.3 and 15.2 kilometers or $2.20 if you are paying by cash. There is no price difference between cash and card payment in Hong Kong.
Apart from the franchised buses, public light buses are also available in Hong Kong. These buses are a more flexible alternative to the franchised buses and a more economical alternative to taxis. Commuters can hail and alight from these buses virtually anywhere.
Another two methods of travel made available are taxis and the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) underground rail network. Taxis and taxi stands are available virtually anywhere country-wide. While taxi rides are inexpensive in Hong Kong, commuters will experience difficulty in finding an available taxi during the peak hours. The central MTR consists of over 150 stations, a number which will rise with the continuous expansion of the railway.
Evidently, Hong Kong provides an abundance of travel options for its commuters, suiting its needs for an integrated public transportation system in a thriving metropolitan city. Commuters are not restricted to a specific travel route in order to get to and from their destination, something which is to a certain extent lacking in Singapore’s public transportation system.
For the most part, public transportation serves well in many parts of Singapore. However, certain areas in Singapore are not conveniently accessible via public transport.
Although Hong Kong’s strategies are devised to solve the challenges faced in its own public transportation system, they are also applicable and relevant to the public transportation system in Singapore. Competition, demand and coordination are factors that have to be considered in every public transportation system.
The authorities could consider these strategies in order to solve Singapore’s issues and concerns with the local public transportation system. It should also look to resolve the conflict of interest with having a Government Linked Company, SMRT which is owned by Temasek Holdings as a key service provider of the transportation system, and to hold the company accountable for lapses in serviceability of its routes and not just fines which it can easily pay for.