Shift to contracting model for buses 'vital'

Under the new contracts model, all bus services have to arrive within 15 minutes during morning and evening peak periods, with at least half arriving within 10 minutes. Feeder services will run at intervals of between six and eight minutes.
THE shift to a contracting model for buses is a necessary move that should plug gaps in the public transport system, experts believe.

However, they caution that expected improvements in service standards may not come cheap.

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) said the current model is not sustainable for a high standard of bus services, as fare increases have not kept up with costs, while bus passengers are likely to switch to taking the MRT after the rail network expands.

Under the new model, the Government will put up 12 packages of routes for competitive bidding, and pay operators a fee to run services for up to seven years. It will retain fare revenue, thus freeing operators from the risk of losing money on unpopular routes.

Dr Park Byung Joon, an urban transport management expert at SIM University, said this means the quality of bus services will no longer be constrained by profitability concerns of private operators. Instead, it will be determined by how much the Government is willing to spend on improving service standards.

The LTA said commuters can expect shorter waits for 45 per cent of bus services during peak periods from 2016.

It will require at least half of all buses to arrive within 10 minutes, up from 30 per cent of buses today.

In addition, all buses will have intervals of no more than 15 minutes, down from 30 minutes.

Dr Park said: "If it is achieved, the difference will be significant enough for commuters to feel."

Mr Cedric Foo, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Transport, said the new model will help determine the best price for bus services through competition - a process which he currently describes as "shooting in the dark". He noted there is no way to know what the best price is now as SBS Transit and SMRT operate monopolies in different parts of Singapore. It is also the Government's duty to keep fares affordable, he added.

The Government first mooted competitive tendering in its 2008 Land Transport Master Plan. It rolled out a $1.1 billion Bus Service Enhancement Programme (BSEP) in 2012 to boost bus capacity. The programme has since been expanded to put 1,000 state-funded buses on the road.

Mr Lim Biow Chuan, a member of the Transport GPC, flagged irregular bus services as one gap that has to be addressed.

And while the BSEP has helped address this concern, it has not been enough, he said. "The situation has improved, but commuters wish more buses could arrive more regularly." He believes the "bold move" to introduce competition should lead to better and more efficient bus services. Professor Lee Der Horng, a transport academic from the National University of Singapore, agreed with the Government's move to assume ownership of all buses and bus infrastructure.

"After we remove this barrier, new and potential operators are more likely to come," he said.

Still, he noted that the amount of government subsidy will be substantial.

In London, the bus network subsidy amounts to several hundred million pounds a year, though the amount has fallen from £563 million (S$1.19 billion) in its 2009 financial year to £377 million last year.

In the long term, the LTA plans to introduce a common livery for all buses, similar to London where all buses are painted red.

While all basic trunk and feeder routes will be bundled into packages, the LTA said premium bus services run by private operators will not be affected.

City Direct services will likely remain as well, though peak-period short feeder routes could be added to the packages of routes.

Retiree and Chai Chee resident Gan Ah Soy, 68, hopes the increased competition can help keep fares low. He said: "For people like us who don't work, it's hard to cope. Of course, if buses come faster, it's better too."

Additional reporting by Lee Jian Xuan

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