Thursday, August 09, 2007

Moving transportation

I am ambivalent about the latest pronouncements from the Public Transport Council (PTC), a body that was set up to look into public transport issues, including approving increases in public transport fares, which it needs to do soon. It has upped the performance standards by requiring that transport companies - mainly bus services offered by SBSTransit and SMRT - to maintain frequency of its buses to 10 minutes for 80% of the time. As someone else pointed out, how PTC is able to monitor compliance remains a very big question.

But even supposing that they can police this standard, who will end up paying the cost of the penalty? I am highly suspicious that the commuters will end up paying because these penalties become a part of the operating cost of the company, much like insurance costs. So hopefully, buses are more regular during peak hours (that it isn't now is criminal because the bus service is a monopoly bestowed upon it by the transport authorities), but commuters should be prepared to pay more. There are no free lunches, and neither are there free buses - except those offered by huge shopping malls which aims to cart you off to their malls to help you empty your pockets there.

Whether the bus service improves or not remains to be seen. In my experience, such a step in tightening the service standard is not needed as the current service standard would have sufficed. The problem is that the operators are failing in fulfilling these standards and nobody, not least the PTC, can effectively police these standards. The PTC has all along relied on anecdotal feedback and reacts by upping costs. That's the ONLY thing it can do. Having new, more stringent standards wouldn't help. It is a sad day when a commercial firm must rely on external threat of penalties from the regulatory bodies to improve its service standards. Improvements in service standards must come from within. Only then will improvements become entrenched.

Managing expectations is important. For example, you would get uptight when the subway train doesn't arrive after waiting for 7 minutes. Waiting for a bus for 10 or even 15 minutes, on the other hand, is acceptable, so long as there is consistency, as is the case with subway train services most of the time. The main problem is some specific bus services run on inconsistent timings whilst others perform better. If every service is consistently bad, then there is a case for stipulating a more stringent performance criteria. If it is inconsistently good, then a fine may not work its magic. I hope I am wrong, but as I have mentioned before, the problem, really, is in how bus captains and supervisors watch and keep time. Unlike train operations, which makes use of sophisticated monitoring and control systems, bus service frequency quality depends very much on these people.

Now some of them who cannot consistently keep good time may result in commuters paying more. Is the PTC barking up the wrong tree?


The Void Deck said...

SMRT and SBS will never bother to improve their service as much as they can if they think they have the monopoly. That popular argument is repeated often but there is some validity to it.

Just curious. Are there any private bus lines running from a heartland central straight to CBD etc? They might give SBS and SMRT some worry. Wonder what is the licensing and cost involved.

Epilogos said...

There used to be Bus Plus that would ply the routes from the heartlands to the city area. I am not sure if it still runs. Even if it did, it just didn't present true competition. Rather, it relieved SBSTransit from deploying more half-empty buses on unprofitable routes. You are right, what is missing is true competition, where bus companies vie for the same passengers along roughly the same routes over the same time. This is the only way to ensure better service. Unfortunately, the government believes in rationalising services. It views buses competing for passengers on the road as a waste of resources.

I say, let the businessman decide.