I read a letter on The Straits Time’s forum today. It was a letter written by the Public Transport Council explaining why it rejected SMRT’s application to have a premium bus service for Springleaf estate. Apparantly, the PTC requires that premium bus services be expensive, and there is a minimum fare. All fares must be higher than this minimum.
The PTC has a concern that if the fares are too cheap, people will swop to taking those premium buses. Hence, demand for other buses will drop, and bus operators will apply for a withdrawal of bus services due to low demand (and of course profitability).
All these sounds logical. But are they? This just merely gives me the impression that the PTC isn’t really working for the consumers, and I will explain why I am confused.
The idea that SMRT can actually find a profitable route, and even charge at a lower bus fare, seems to be good news to me. But firstly, let us discuss the price. For the premium bus service to actually adversely affect demand, it means that the price may be so low that commuters want to switch, or that commuters do not mind paying a slightly higher price for a more premium bus service. The idea is that SMRT has found a profitable way of doing things, and why not allow them to do so?
My logic is this: If SMRT can find a way to make a route profitable, and yet beneficial to commuters (so much that they will actually take the bus and affect existing bus services), then it means that their bus route is far superior to the existing bus routes. In my opinion, this is actually highlighting a gross problem with our transport routes now. Perhaps there is a way to change existing bus routes such that bus companies find it profitable, and commuters actually get better services (in the form of less waiting time etc).
Isn’t that what’s competition all about? Continued innovation so that commuters will benefit because bus routes that are lousier than existing alternatives will be scrapped? I understand that the PTC needs to protect certain routes, because some routes may be unprofitable but yet vital. However, for certain cases, when a new route can benefit the commuters more, shouldn’t this signal to the PTC that change is in order?
Ironically, just yesterday afternoon, a friend of mine actually waited for a SMRT bus for 30 minutes! Isn’t it just a month ago that PTC gave the public transport industry a good grade? Didn’t the PTC say that buses arrive on time and have a comfortable frequency so commuters do not need to wait long for a bus? All these just means that there is much to be done, but no one is doing it.
Perhaps something should be done.
It was for the commuters’ sake
IN LAST Friday’s article, (‘After the table tennis storm, an awakening’), Member of Parliament for Ang Mo Kio GRC Lee Bee Wah, cited the Public Transport Council’s (PTC) rejection of SMRT’s application last year to run a premium bus service (PBS) to serve Springleaf estate at a fare lower than the minimum stipulated under the PBS scheme as ‘nonsense’.
She asked whether the PTC looks after commuters’ interest.
The PTC imposes on PBS a minimum fare of 1.5 times the basic bus fares to protect the viability of basic bus services. Basic bus operators have a universal service obligation that requires them to run basic bus services for at least 18 hours a day, including unprofitable routes within their areas of responsibility where demand justifies it. PBS operators, on the other hand, are free to cherry-pick the more lucrative routes and time slots, including routes that duplicate basic bus routes.
Without the fare guideline, the PBS will cannibalise the ridership of the basic bus services. When this happens, the basic bus operator may apply to the PTC to withdraw the bus services or reduce their frequency on the basis of low demand.
Other commuters, including the less well-off who depend on such basic bus services would be disadvantaged. This is an outcome we want to avoid. For this reason, the PTC seeks to ensure that overall, basic bus services can remain financially viable.
SMRT had applied to run a PBS to serve Springleaf estate and Yio Chu Kang MRT station. It proposed a fare that did not comply with the guideline. In rejecting the application, the PTC also suggested to SMRT how it could revise its application whilst keeping the fare low. Regrettably, SMRT decided to re-submit the same application. The PTC, therefore, had to reject it a second time.
SMRT subsequently took up PTC’s suggestion of a point-to-point shuttle bus service which could charge a lower fare than PBS. This was approved and the service was implemented in December last year.
In deciding on Ms Lee’s appeal, the PTC had to consider the implications of acceding to SMRT’s non-compliant PBS application, which would undermine the intent of the guideline and have longer-term adverse effects on all commuters, including those from Ms Lee’s constituency.
Hence, the PTC’s decision to reject SMRT’s earlier applications is in the commuters’ interest and not nonsensical as Ms Lee has unfortunately made it out to be.
Looi Teik Soon
Public Transport Council