Operating Public Buses: Lessons from London

Operating Public Buses: Lessons from London

London resident Peter Smith may be 78, but he happily takes the bus at least twice a week. The retiree says the bus system has improved since the switch from a single, nationalised operator to a contracting model.

"The buses are much better than they used to be. There are more of them, and they travel faster because of the bus lanes." London's bus system is a success - ridership has grown, service reliability has improved and customer satisfaction is at a record high. But it did not arrive at this state without several wrong turns along the way.

The experience holds lessons for Singapore, where a gradual change to contract-based routes awarded under a tender system was announced last month, to raise the quality of service.

Currently, licensed private operators SBS Transit and SMRT run public buses according to standards set by the Public Transport Council.

But in recent years, commuter complaints about overcrowding and long waits have increased.

Continuing pressures on the bus network mean it is timely for a rethink of the relationship between the Government and operators, says Mr Richard Smith from consultancy CH2M Hill, which recently did a study on bus contracting here.

The former director of planning at Transport for London (TfL) - the equivalent of the Land Transport Authority (LTA) - notes that an expanding MRT network will mean major changes to the bus network.

"A contracting model will enable the LTA to specify more directly the routes, frequencies and capacities required," he says. Insight went along for a ride in London to see how its system works, and how that might translate here.

The road to improvement

In Singapore, customer satisfaction with buses has long been below levels seen with the MRT.

An annual survey on public transport found that 82.3 per cent of commuters were satisfied with buses in 2007 compared with 94.2 per cent for the MRT. However, satisfaction with buses increased to 88.3 per cent last year.

That was thanks to more buses, via the Bus Service Enhancement Programme (BSEP) introduced in September 2012. This puts 550 state-funded buses on the road to increase capacity.

The BSEP was an acknowledgment that private, profit-driven operators could not improve bus services at the scale or speed that the Government desired.

SBS Transit and SMRT were reluctant to increase their fleets too quickly, as they were making losses on their bus operations, and fare increases had not kept pace with rising costs. But commuters resisted fare hikes, as both operators remained profitable overall.

With the BSEP under way, the LTA focused on finding a more sustainable system, and it looked mainly to London and Perth for role models.

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