Singapore’s Minister of Transport Lui Tuck Yew wrote on Facebook on Wednesday evening about the upcoming policies that will be discussed and carried out for bus transport.

Bus Matters

Once again, let me thank you all for your feedback and comments. Some of you have taken the time and trouble to suggest various ways to improve our public transport system. I appreciate and take them seriously.

In recent days, there were a number of announcements regarding our rail network. More trains and improvements to the Bukit Panjang LRT, the opening of the remaining 12 stations on the Circle line, additional trains to be purchased for the NSEW lines, SBST adding more than 490 weekly trips to the LRTs in Sengkang and Punggol. Later this week, SMRT will share their plans to add more train trips to improve frequencies during off-peak hours.

We have other plans to purchase more trains (which we will announce soon) and to improve and extend our rail network over the medium to long term. However, these will take time. My primary and immediate concern is the commuters’ daily experience. The sensible thing to do, which is also a consistent feedback I get, is that we need to improve our bus services; this can be implemented more quickly and will provide some relief in the next few years until the ongoing works to significantly increase rail capacity is completed.

I have therefore asked LTA to do a comprehensive review of our current bus service levels. The review will focus on what commuters need – improve bus capacity and congestion levels, frequency and reliability. The goal is clear – reduce waiting time, increase the predictability of bus journey times, improve our chances of getting onboard and provide better information to commuters.

As part of this review, LTA and the PTC will work with the operators to raise the current Quality of Service (QoS) standards further. Once the review is completed, the PTOs will need to follow through to provide better service delivery to meet the higher standards that commuters are looking for. PTC will also need to audit and regulate more tightly to ensure these standards are met. I envisage the PTOs having significantly more buses (and bus captains) added to the existing fleet of about 4000 buses. We will also need to study carefully how Government can help the operators grow their bus fleet and captains in a sustainable manner.

This comprehensive review will take some time and I have set LTA a target to have this completed by the 4th quarter of this year, together with a robust plan of action. It will also take some 12-18 months to get the new buses and, in the meantime, recruit and train more bus captains.

But this is not good enough. My preference is to bring about some quick improvements on the ground. Therefore, I have asked LTA to work with the operators to allow some of the older buses which are nearing the end of their planned lifespan to be extended on a temporary basis, provided the operators and LTA ensure that the buses are road-worthy and safety is not compromised. I estimate that this measure will add about 5-6% of the fleet capacity until the arrival of the new buses. It is a more immediate measure which I’m confident will allow us to improve the current service levels in areas where they are most needed.

How can you help? I encourage you to continue with the feedback you have been providing to the Grassroot Organisations and the LTA’s community relations officers on issues you encounter in your local area. This will be helpful to the LTA so they can carry out verifications and prioritise areas for improvements in the review.

One measure that the Minister brought out was similar to the one the Site Admin have suggested in a post two months ago, that is to delay the scrapping of serviceable old buses until the next rail project is completed. The Minister may have meant otherwise, pointing to the 2-year extension that operators can opt to extend their buses’ lifespan (from 17 to 19 years). The Site Admin’s policy will be to extend serviceable buses till 2018, when the Downtown Line is slated for completion. Why?

The reason is utilization. Injecting new buses into the system at too rapid a rate not only causes increased road congestion, as buses utilize the roads just like all other vehicles do. Emissions, one for the environmentalist, and one that the Site Admin will not touch on. ERP, Electronic Road Pricing, operators have increased expenses, and yet another reason to ask commuters for higher fares. Come 2018, when the Downtown Line is completed, there will be a new problem, where will the surplus buses go to?

There may be complimentary route for the buses to run on. There may be little/no route withdrawals (as learnt from the North-East Line bus restructuring which cost North-East residents many bus options). But, there will be lesser usage of buses along the Downtown Line sector. To negate this, a new operator, one that is not existing in Singapore, have to run the Downtown Line, so that there is a competition between the bus and rail market.  One competition not to keep operators on their toes, but introduce positive competition and negate the direct need for a bus-rail operator to ‘get rid of’ their buses when they have the operator’s license for Downtown Line.

Argument: Will there be enough routes, enough demand (for both bus and rail), enough or surplus vehicles, when the Downtown Line completes?

The Site Admin would like to invite readers to look from this viewpoint. Today that bus services are almost meeting/not meeting demand, the injection of new buses to meet the demand for the next 7 years could be carried out. The amount of new buses can be over 1000 units per operator, both a direct replacement and addition for old buses which are retiring this year. The other option would be to extend these retiring buses by 7 years, maintain them in good running condition, and at the same time inject new buses that will become a direct replacement of the extended buses in 2018. Old buses will then be retired, new buses take over, there will be little surplus.

Coupled with these is improvement in the information system for bus arrivals, one that operators can use the funds on which are planned for new buses. Better communications system to replace those used since the first ez-link card system. More manpower on the ground to maintain buses in good condition, maintain the running schedules and guide commuters in peak and disruption periods.

You may argue that the buses will be still useful when the Downtown Line completes. There will be population rise, why omit the possibilities that these buses can be used for this? The Site Admin’s answer would be, why would the Downtown Line be built, with billions poured into the construction? In this transition from bus to rail as our main mode of transport which lasted the past 24 years, we are barely able to keep up with the transition, however utilization on rail has no doubt gone up though the years. More people take the rail than the bus, compared to 24 years ago. Moreover, rail will be the choice transport to commute to work, to head out for fun in the weekends  in any large cities, and Singapore should work hard towards achieving this goal. No more time costly, long distance bus rides to work, but a fast and efficient rail service should be the way.

The policymakers worked hard for the rail system to be the backbone of transport in Singapore. It has been proven in metropolises that rail services are more efficient, more speedy and user-friendly than bus transport. In this transition, we have seen degraded bus transport; operators should keep the operating standards high, while the commuters slowly realize and then move over the rail transport. Not to let the commuters curse at the bus services, then head over to the rail services to find it not ready for them.

A system with little but sufficient surplus, together with an efficient system of commuter information, will beat a well-surplus system with continuing but insufficient development for the commuter.