From the Red Line
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From the Red Line

Express buses have failed

Unfortunately for some people, that’s an objective fact. But could this have been avoided?

With the introduction of the Bus Contracting Model, they thought it would be a good idea to introduce several express bus services in the hopes that it might help a bit with MRT congestion. Well, clearly it didn’t work, to the point that they’re now cutting their losses as much as they can, and I won’t be surprised if those services were just put out of their misery within the calendar year.

Oops

So what actually happened?

You don’t actually save anything

The idea behind express variants of bus services was that people would save time and so find it a reasonable alternative to the train system and worth paying 60 cents more for. Since we haven’t touched our bus network significantly, it sort of worked because people can still rely on the same bus routes for their daily commute. Thus the SBS Fast Forward brand.

However, the services LTA introduced mainly had pretty bad frequencies, 20 minutes on the average, and now some even moving to 30 minutes. You were expected to know the time the bus would arrive, and be at your local bus stop in time or it would leave without you. So ridership suffered, and cuts happened — to the point where you could just take a local bus and you’d have the same overall travel time as the express. Just as how express trains didn’t work out for the CRL business case, the express bus suffers as well.

It is also not possible to really meaningfully improve the travel time of an express service to make the sixty cents and additional waiting time worth it. As I have repeatedly said, the law forbids heavy vehicles like buses from going faster than 60kph, and this fares badly compared to the top speeds of 80–90kph achieved by cars and MRT trains. The only thing you can really do is send them on expressways or other roads where they won’t get stuck at traffic lights. Raising the speed limit for buses could drive arguments from the logistics industry, where the higher speed limit could help them get around faster and do work faster. End result: less safer roads? Up to you to decide.

Then again, German autobahns have the same 60kph limit for buses carrying standing passengers. But unlike our transport practices here, I don’t think Germany would have a lot of reasons to send a public bus onto the autobahn network. What are those reasons? We’ll have to find out.

The future isn’t that far away

With the government’s commitment to cease the purchases of pure diesel buses with immediate effect, we’ll need to bring electrification into the topic as well.

It remains to be seen on how battery technology can survive in our blistering heat, since batteries generally don’t like heat. This isn’t so much a problem for electric cars like that of BlueSG and Hyundai since they only have a statutory lifespan of 10 years; but we keep our buses for 17 so it’s a problem here. Furthermore, battery life cycles are likely to be burnt through faster in Singapore with higher power needs from driving air-conditioning equipment.

The need to factor in the charging necessity of electric buses will also affect service planning. Opportunity charging would result in longer layovers to charge buses and thus more buses needed to run a particular route — creative scheduling may also help reduce the increased amount of drivers needed as well. Among the electric buses we bring in, the BYD and Yutong models rely on overnight charging with each getting a range of approximately 200km. Service 913, for example, is 13km long and takes 65 minutes to run — an electric bus with 200km range would only be able to make 15 round trips in 16 hours — lesser than that of a regular service day.

It gets even worse once you do the math against a regular express service. While regenerative braking may help increase the range available in a single day for a local service, express buses don’t stop as often, so they have lesser opportunities to take advantage of regenerative braking. Service 851e also takes 65 minutes to get from Yishun to Kampung Bahru, but it covers 21km in that distance. Those buses would only survive half a day; 4 round trips and hope there’s still enough in the tank to limp back to the depot.

But if the numbers are that bad, it raises the question of how we can continue to operate express buses (or long-haul trunk services, while we’re on the topic) in a situation where we are limited by vehicle range. Unfortunately, my answer to that would be that we have to start shifting medium and long-distance passengers to the rail network; a shift that has been taking place for a while yet, albeit at a slow pace.

The alternative is probably something like this:

Truck running on overhead line in Germany (source: insideevs.com)

But then again, implementation of such road-based overhead lines is probably a similar effort as for a rail line anyway, and given the authorities’ dislike of overhead line, it’s probably going to happen only on underground sections of expressways. Unfortunately, trams will also face similar problems, but there are more options when it comes to power delivery for trams.

Will the private sector save you?

The private sector will also be subject to controls on internal combustion engine vehicles, but they can take their time, relatively speaking, while technology advances. But yet we can’t really write off the entire concept. Yes, things like City Direct, GrabShuttle, and other share-van options exist for direct travel from A to B without the expense of a private car. Or maybe one could just fall back to taking taxis.

The problem with share vans and other such things is that they rely on there being some form of critical mass, otherwise the van wouldn’t be worth it and you’d be better off taking a taxi. Critical mass might be more easily achieveable during peak hours; hence why City Direct services only operate a handful of services in the peak direction.

But in this new world, with the death of the peak hour looking more likely than it did before, that critical mass may no longer exist. On the other hand, it may be equally likely that distributed work environments result in increased demand in other directions besides the CBD, creating the demand for such point to point travel that would justify such an express bus.

Although, I will say this: A more fundamental problem needs to be solved, and it is that such express routes exist because their parent routes are thought of as a good idea for medium to long distance travel. That should no longer be the case, and the fact that such possibilities still exist today speaks of our failures both in MRT development, and in bus network design playing to the strengths of a multimodal transportation strategy — such as being attractive enough to act as a decongesting tool, or their parent routes being adequately designed for highly reliable local service.

In that aspect, express buses have failed. They’d work better in a place of sprawl and lesser demand (ahem JB), but they’re not likely to work very well here where the rail network already does a similar job in a much better way, and that their future is quite bleak considering other government policies.

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