From the Red Line
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From the Red Line

Expressway buses are unrealistic

Unless, of course, if you’re willing to pay the sixty cents more for an actual express bus service. With a higher chance of getting a seat, perhaps?

I haven’t given out Stupid of the Month for a while now, so it’s time to dig out the old trophy. August’s collective winners are the Facebook busfans crying about wastage of storage buses, saying that at least they could be pressed into service on expressway bus routes. LTA has a hundred or so spare buses sitting in storage. Fire away! — or so goes the thinking.

But to paraphrase Vladimir Putin, if you ask me, whoever does not miss the days of bus services crisscrossing the island has no heart. Whoever wants to bring it back as it were, has no brain.

No, you’re not a train. (source: reddit /r/bitchimabus)

We’re going to LA, baby

I was doing some research on the Los Angeles transport system for what would have been a trip there, if not for the current worldwide situation.

While LA has some of the longest lists of in-progress transit projects amongst American cities (Purple extension, Crenshaw/LAX line, Gold extension, Regional Connector) and with more to come, they’re still quite slow with planned projects of their current masterplan taking them all the way to the late 2040s — even if, like Tokyo and Montreal, the 2028 Olympics have acted as a excuse to throw more money at said projects and bring them to reality sooner.

It kind of struck me that LA’s problems are quite similar to ours. Like them, we do need a lot more rail coverage to cover up gaps in the networrk, but we’re not building it fast enough. Projects with firm details announced by the LTA between now and 2031 would put our rail system to only grow at an average of 11km a year. This is pretty much a similar cadence as the pace of rail development in 2009, where it felt like basically nothing apart from a few LRT lines happened since the grand opening of NEL in 2003. Though of course, the coverage outcomes in recent years are far higher than what we had pre-2009, obviously because we’re not building any more LRT lines.

Thus, with services such as 168 and 974 that run along the expressways, we take advantage of the flexibility in bus service to make up for gaps in the rail network that we’re too slow to actually build rail service for. This is cheap in that you don’t need to implement any more infrastructure apart from what is already there. And if you do, just build small diversions off the existing expressway, like what’s done along AYE for the bus stops between Portsdown and Jln Ahmad Ibrahim. Better still, that lets you obtain catchment from areas along the expressway.

Of course, the AYE is the exception and not the norm in terms of having readily accessible catchment. The same regrettably cannot be said for many other stretches of expressway, so there isn’t much of a point in doing that. Furthermore, unlike in other Asian countries, labour is not cheap and not easy to find either (no, importing them by the boatload from you-know-where is not sustainable), so we should be looking at transport modes that can transport more people per (required) worker — such as light or even heavy rail.

Put aside that concrete

Some schools of thought go that, if we route the bus along an expressway, the bus keeps moving. It shouldn’t be caught in a jam, right, especially if you have dedicated lanes like what LA has? Now, of course, you could talk about “transit priority corridors” with dedicated infrastructure for intertown transportation, but doing that on existing expressways and semi-expressways would be dangerous and result in complaints of likely road congestion, if lanes are taken away with no replacement. The same goes for trunk roads, which also face the issue of getting stopped by traffic lights. And since there’s no difference between a segregated bus lane and a tram lane, if you asked me to pick, a tram lane would provide better outcomes for the same cost and public inconvenience. Better yet, why not fence off that lane and run a rail line on it?

Or you could simply send a bigger bus down your transit priority corridor. But like Boris Johnson, the authorities here don’t particularly like bendy buses for their increased size, reduced maneuverability, and potential traffic impacts to both drivers and cyclists—in fact, it wasn’t until the MAN A24 was brought in that we could send high capacity buses down into Changi Airport’s basements, and that still required special arrangements. Newer bus interchanges are also now built smaller, which presents similar constraints — hence why 184, which uses bendy buses, was never returned to Bukit Panjang ITH. Double deckers might otherwise work too, but the time spent getting up and down from the upper deck adds to dwell time at bus stops, and if the route has a high level of passenger exchange, you may find yourself in a situation where no one goes upstairs anyway, which means there’s little difference whether the bus has one or two decks.

On the other hand, Volvo, amongst other bus manufacturers, sell super-long bi-articulated buses that can carry as many as a light rail vehicle. You could buy some anyway and trap them on the BRT busway if you don’t want them on roads, but then you’ve pretty much built yourself a light rail on rubber tyres. This is exactly the deal with LA’s Orange G Line — a BRT in every sense of the word, complete with gates at crossings and “platooning” (bus bunching, on purpose)— but the existing articulated bus fleet is already packed, and apart from even longer buses there are proposals on the table to convert the segregated busway to light rail anyway. Same goes for Seattle and the Downtown Transit Tunnel, where the buses were actually thrown out to allow for high-frequency rail service. It’s important to remember that these are American cities with nasty urban sprawl problems, and since urban density here is far higher given the presence of a hard border restricting urban sprawl, I think “MRT or bust” is a fair takeaway from those experiences.

Of course, an advantage of buses over light rail is that you can practice something like what’s done at the TPE/Punggol bus stops and some others, where multiple buses can load from different points at the same time, which thus allows for the proposed high-frequency service and reduces the weakness of double deckers having long dwell times. But can you still do that with a platoon of bi-articulated buses?

The road to hell is paved with good intentions

After reading the above, you might ask, “But yuuka, what are they doing on the North South Corridor, then?” My answer to that will be that this will simply be upgrades to the existing road networks around the expressway that are affected by construction work anyway, perhaps with some political smoke and mirrors. At best, running express buses down the North South Corridor is a Plan C for the day the NSL and TEL are both saturated with traffic from the north, and it will still be equally badly done for the same reasons why buses suck today.

Firstly, I take the stance that due to our weather situation, active mobility like bicycling is not feasible apart from the last mile between transit stations and one’s destination. Hence all the “Cycling Town” projects with no intertown connectivity. The cycling aspects here are likely to be lip service at worst and good intentioned, but poorly patronized at best.

Secondly, don’t forget that the previous name of that project was the North-South Expressway and it is thus unlikely that the project could have been re-engineered so quickly into something with actual public transport benefit like segregated bus lanes. Even though it has the catchment, doing something like the AYE bus stops within the NSE tunnel would also have the same requirements as an underground train station, and not for a lot of benefit either.

Thirdly, I hope I’m proven wrong on this, but based on what I can see, buses will still have to stick to the outermost lanes on the NSE like they do on existing expressways. Even if that’s marked out as a bus lane, a bus lane is only as good as it is enforced. It also has to be said that while tightening enforcement would help somewhat, it may not solve the problem of buses having to weave in and out of traffic entering/leaving the expressway.

Given how the BRT Standard literally has a “Not BRT” grading which it has not been afraid to give out, I fail to see how we can reasonably implement a busway system along Singapore expressways. And even if we can do it properly and not half-assed like in the case of the NSE, can it make a difference compared to rail service? I don’t think so.

Getting their pound of flesh

Prof Walter Theseira said that “We are not having a discussion about the right questions in public transport contracting and financing." Well, I’ll give him the discussion he wants.

My previous explanation wasn’t perfect, but here goes. Under the financing model for DTL operations, SBS Transit retains fare revenue. It, in turn, pays a license charge into a “sinking fund for asset replacement” — which, presumably when the time comes for systems replacement like the “Big Six” project, is where the money for that is taken from. This is in comparison to the GCM for buses and the TEL, where LTA pays for the required service level, and if the vehicles end up carrying air particles instead of passengers, it is the LTA that looks bad.

I thus feel it fair to say that the $60 million of DTL subsidies quoted by Minister Ong is a sum of money that would have been paid by SBST, but is being paid into said sinking fund by the LTA instead because SBST do not have the profitability margin required to pay their rightful share, through a mechanism known as fare revenue shortfall sharing (as described in page 61 of the report).

Now, the right and wrong of such subsidies is debatable. Prof Theseira asserts that the need for subsidies is because of poor bid management and financial acumen on the part of SBST, and that the government should be not be privatizing profits and socializing losses. I don’t think that’s the entire story, since SBST aren’t in control of route planning, and at the same time the LTA is being disingenuous in saying that bus and MRT subsidies aren’t related. I feel that the situation is partly caused by the LTA in their competing roles as central bus planner and railway developer. By keeping the bus services around, they directly compete with the rail service, thus kneecapping the rail operator’s revenue and forcing themselves to have to subsidize the rail operator beyond acceptable limits in addition to the buses.

Forget 2003 when SBST also did a very similar rationalization exercise to prevent its buses competing with the NEL, the various bus operators had also done so back in the late 1980s with the opening of the MRT Initial System in order to prevent this situation from happening. That way, they wouldn’t waste things like $14 million a year over and above the subsidies paid out for rail operations.

That said, there’s also manpower. While we have plenty of buses, we have no one to drive them, so they have to stay in storage. Bus drivers are a sparse commodity, no thanks to locals thinking of such work as beneath them and so salaries go up in an effort to attract locals. Though we still end up with Malaysians and other nationalities anyway, which is an unsustainable situation. Crap like this does not help with recruitment either. As such, every bus driver, local or not, wasting their time on a lightly-used service is thus a driver that cannot be driving their bus on another route that could really use that frequency.

Subsequently, the only operation you can reasonably attempt to use Prof Theseira’s explanation on is Go-Ahead, whose extensive use of interlining to keep drivers and buses busy (and thus achieve high resource utilization) resulted in unhappiness amongst newly-transferred bus drivers who promptly quit. GAS was then forced to loan bus drivers from the other operators while they made their scheduling more driver-friendly and built up their workforce again. Though, arguably, the sentiment I get is that they’ve cleaned up their operations since.

But from this perspective, I can gather why it makes sense that the public bus operators shouldn’t be wasting drivers on half-empty expressway bus services — especially when rail or basic services can be equally time-competitive and cheaper to boot. That’s not before factoring in the Traffic Police and speed limit regulations. If you want that to change, go petition Shanmugam and MHA.

Some places it might work

I said “actual express bus services” charging sixty cents more. Well, I might even go further than that, given that there are only a grand total of nine express bus services that operate outside of weekday peak hours, of which a significant portion will see their existences questioned as the rail network expands.

To start off, let’s remember that we have integrated transport planning here. Quite unlike Hong Kong, where after all, the bus companies operate in competition with the MTR, not in collaboration. It thus is fair that unlike us, HK (scheduled/mini) bus operators have express bus services with the promise of a seat and better ride comfort compared to packing on board the MTR, even if their planners have also moved to a policy of favouring rail development over buses.

That said, in Singapore, private buses such as Premium operations outside the purview of the GCM, where the buses already have to operate to send school kids to school and it’s just extra pocket money, might work out slightly better. With integrated transport planning, such private services would be complimentary to the existing public transport system and thus serve needs that are impractical for public transportation to meet.

I previously also mentioned ShareTransport. If they want to compete with the public bus operators for a limited manpower pool, that is their prerogative, but since they already exist we might as well also find a place for them in the public transportation network, like the Premium bus operations.

Still, it would really be the definition of privatizing profits and socializing losses if public funds were to be spent on such luxuries for the private sector. They’ve been getting along with regular roads, after all.

As an aside, I’ve also created a Telegram channel for blog updates. The blog itself may remain on Medium, at least until I lose my tolerance for the Medium platform.

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yuuka

yuuka

Sometimes I am who I am, but sometimes I am not who I am not.