'Everything can't be perfect from Day One'

Senior Minister of State for Transport Josephine Teo

SINGAPORE- The $4.3 billion Marina Coastal Expressway (MCE), which Senior Minister of State for Transport Josephine Teo, 45, opened, made the news for getting motorists stuck in jams on Day One.

She tells Goh Chin Lian about this and other 'learning' experiences.

Could implementation of the MCE have been better?

Even if the localised congestion did not happen at Central Boulevard, with the opening of anything new, you will always learn something. In that regard, things could always have been better. We tried our best to anticipate the situation and unfortunately it did happen. The next thing you need to do is to address the problem.

The congestion was messy but it did not last beyond the initial period. In the evening (of Dec 30), there was no such congestion. That situation has not been repeated. Nonetheless, the right thing is for us to look into what happened and understand what contributed to this localised congestion.

Central Boulevard had to be widened (from two to four lanes) to relieve the congestion...

We cannot have the attitude that everything will be perfect from Day One. If we go in with that attitude, it can only mean that we have to build in a lot of redundancy.

After the jam, more signs and advertisements on the routes came up. Why not earlier?

I once got a speeding ticket (in Singapore) and was adamant there was no signage (for speed limit). I had driven on this road umpteen times. I thought: "Never mind. Tomorrow I'll pay attention." True enough, I saw the sign. Sometimes we don't notice (the signs) because we don't need them. You can always have more (signs and advertisements). But you have to be interested.

This week, penalties and rewards were announced to improve the punctuality of buses. Why the $6,000 carrot (for six seconds' improvement) but $4,000 stick (six seconds late)?

Feedback from commuters was that en route reliability was not satisfactory. We came to know of Transport for London, in the UK, where this system has been in place for a number of years. It works very well. It focuses the mind of the operator and encourages them to bring resources to bear.

Why are the amounts for carrot and stick unequal?

That's how London has set it up. To outperform, you'd take more resources than if your performance were to slip, which does not need additional effort.

Will the fines will be passed on to the commuter?

If you look at the amounts involved, I don't think so.

What other things are you all mulling over to improve (bus services)?

A number of things are set in motion. We decided to engage private bus operators in case there was surplus capacity. The private bus operators are equally busy with the tourism business, but in certain parts of the day, they may have some spare capacity.

What's the update on free non-peak morning travel on the MRT?

The number of people exiting in the pre-peak period has gone up 20 per cent. Ridership has not gone up 20 per cent. It means that a significant number of people who are exiting in the pre-peak time belt used to be in the peak.

Another indicator is to take the number of people in the trains during the peak period, divide it by the number of people in the pre-peak period.

When we first started, in the peak of peak, one hour, the loading was 2.7 times more than the hour before. That ratio has come down to around two.

People weren't necessarily shifting because they wanted to save $1.25. (It) allowed them a lifestyle change.

One lady I spoke to comes into the office earlier (and) goes home earlier: "Now I have more time to cook dinner and spend with my family. I'm enjoying it a lot."

A group has taken advantage of the time they now have in the morning to exercise in the city. We've a programme with the Health Promotion Board, Sunrise in the City, where we use open spaces in the malls (for example, Central at Clarke Quay) to organise exercise activities.

A poll by the Land Transport Authority found many employees unaware of flexible work options (to avoid the morning rush). What can be done?

We've learnt that employers are responsive to what their employees want. If enough employees say they would like to come in to work earlier, (employers) will respond. We've some plans to promote greater awareness among employees. There's scope perhaps to reach out through the unions. We'd probably be able to get together something in this quarter.

How can the taxi fare structure be simplified?

It's evolved from when the structure was very flat. The complaint then was that fares were not able to match demand and supply. Surcharges got more complex when you've got more operators.

Commuters want the fare structure to be as flat as possible. But they also want to be able to hop in a cab (and) have a tendency to use the cab at a certain time belt, at certain locations. How simple can you get without blunting the signal to the taxi driver?

Taxi drivers will tell you rentals differ according to the operator, the make and when the driver got (the cab). From their standpoint, if you standardise the fare at a low level, the one paying high rental will feel aggrieved because he used to be able to recover it through a differentiated higher fare. But if you set the standard fare too high, the (driver) will say: "You're affecting demand." Or he gets a windfall. You have different pockets of drivers who feel this is not fair.

Could the surcharges be removed?

Those are within consideration. But what is clear is that we are simplifying the structures but actual fares we still have to leave it to the operators. They are the ones who have to deal with the twin considerations of cost and how it affects takings, and then in turn affects the rentals.

The National Taxi Association (NTA) recommended a discount for cabbies on Electronic Road Pricing charges (in the Central Business District). What do you think?

A cab driver wants the certainty that there is a fare to be picked up. If there is no fare, the ERP can be very low and discounted, it still doesn't mean he will want to go there. The more productive conversation is around how you can give taxi drivers better information on where the fares are.

ComfortDelGro offers to refund (taxi drivers) the ERP charge if after going into the CBD within a certain timeframe, they are still not able to pick up a fare. It hasn't had to do many refunds. The NTA can engage other taxi operators to introduce something that would give taxi drivers certainty.

If I were a taxi driver, I'd like to pay less ERP because I'd get to take home more. But ultimately the ERP is paid by the passenger. The passenger says: "Why should the taxi driver pay less for ERP and not pass on the savings to me?" If we were to implement the scheme as proposed, wouldn't the commuters have an issue, too?

Is Changi Airport's $1.47 billion Project Jewel complex with nearly 70 per cent of retail space, a vanity showpiece?

The airport in (South) Korea has a prominent cultural centre and they have Louis Vuitton. Which one do you think is busier? We need the cultural showcases. But people do enjoy shopping. Changi Airport has to be responsive to what passengers want.

What can people look forward to in the Budget? (Mrs Teo's other portfolio is finance).

Over the last couple of years, the themes are quite consistent - how we can help everybody progress together. There're different emphases. We've done pre-school (and) a major piece on health care. But the health-care piece is not done. Reasonable to expect more in that regard.

It's a continuation of the work that has already started, whether it is on the economic front or the social front. In that sense, the Budget will not be surprising. When you eventually hear the Budget, I think there will be a high degree of familiarity because it will be a continuation of themes from the last few years.

On leadership succession in the labour movement, one name thrown up for the next secretary-general is yours. What do you think? (Mrs Teo was previously assistant secretary-general).

I had a very good five years in the labour movement. I hope I made some contributions. I will go wherever it is that I can be the best contributor.

Any time for hobbies? (The MP for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC's husband, Mr Teo Eng Cheong, is chief executive officer of IE Singapore, and they have three teenage children.)

Every year, I make it a point to travel with my family. It's my protected time with my kids. Twice a year, I need to remind them that they do have a mother. I enjoy being a mum. I think I would have had four kids if not for politics.


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