Is the buffet party over?

From the Red Line
Published in
11 min readFeb 4


Has the concession pass system served its purpose?

As a student, NSF, or senior citizen, the concession pass system introduces all-you-can-eat bus and/or train rides for a monthly fee.

This is a legacy of the 1970s and 1980s, when SBS offered monthly concession stamps to similar groups. As much bus rides as you can take for a single fee. When the MRT opened in 1987, the MRTC also emulated this practice, but with a caveat: only four rides could be taken a day on the concession pass. This, thankfully, ended in 2014, bringing the MRT in line with the existing practice on buses, alongside a slew of other concession pass reforms.

But why did it take so long? And was it even enough in the first place? It might have been, in the 1990s with private-sector bus companies regulated by the PTC alongside the MRTC. But in 2023, with central planning of public transport service, government contracting through the NRFF and BCM, and the LTA’s stated needs to plan in a multimodal fashion, our fare collection and concessionary travel policies need to be drastically overhauled for this new reality.

Cash replacement

We have to start with the introduction of the Transitlink farecard. This farecard was meant to simplify fare collection by avoiding the need for bus drivers and conductors to deal with cash. Put your card into the machine, press the button for the ticket you need, and the cost is deducted from the card to pay for the ticket. Before the Transitlink Farecard, each mode of transport collected its own fares. On buses, you paid at the fare box, and on trains, you stopped by a ticket machine to get a ticket which you were to feed into the faregate.

With the farecard, transfer rebates were also introduced, giving a farecard-using passenger 25 cents off the next journey that was counted as a transfer. Although there may have been exceptions. The rules appear to be similar to what we have today, just with three changes instead of five. But that did not mean fare integration — when I was in the Bay Area, transfer rebates worked the same way. They didn’t call it fare integration and neither should we. At least in 2002 SBS Transit saw fit to cap the fare for a single bus journey at $1.90 — but only within their network. Take a TIBS bus (today SMRT Buses) and the fare cap no longer applied.

Things like GIRO top up, which we take for granted these days, were also introduced during the farecard era. But let’s be fair — the Farecard and subsequently ez-link worked mainly as a stored value facility, much like the Clipper card in the Bay Area and the Suica/Pasmo/etc IC cards in Japan. Each mode of transport still set their own fares.

This meant that there were also noises made about concession passes for polytechnic and university students, then NS men, all of whom pay adult fares without a pass. At that time the use of the Transitlink Farecard was deemed an acceptable compromise compared to buying each transport company’s concession pass. Polytechnic students did eventually get a low-cost concession pass like their JC counterparts, but not until 2014. At some point in time Transitlink may have introduced the hybrid concession pass we know today, but I can’t date this.

After that came Distance Fares in 2010, to resolve this issue. Despite the rebate, the more transfers you made, the more you paid under the old system. Distance Fares took a mode-agnostic look at the total distance one travelled — one changing from a feeder bus to the MRT then another feeder bus would pay the same fare as they would for a direct bus.

Nothing much has changed from here, with the functionality of concession stamps simply reimplemented inside the ez-link/CEPAS system, as some kind of “magic key” to faregates, to get what we have today. But that’s not the end of it. In 2006, SBS Transit released the SeasonPass for the regular adult rider — pay $98 and take all the bus rides you want in a single month.

I don’t know when this arrangement ended, but subsequently in 2014 there was also the Adult Monthly Travel Card — $120 for all the bus and train rides you want. The price of the AMTC has gone up to $128 today, but it largely still remains. 2014 also introduced the hybrid pass for senior citizens, at half the price of the AMTC.

Dealing in absolutes

The problem with the current concession pass regime for unlimited monthly travel is enforced modal purity. Modal purity here means that the lower price of a concession pass for a given mode can potentially result in significant savings if one is able to perform all their travel with that single mode of transport. This gets easier if time is readily available.

This goes both ways. Someone who can walk to home and school from the nearest MRT/LRT station could benefit from a train-only concession pass. Likewise, someone else who has a route only using buses can benefit from a bus-only concession pass. I reckon this was likely the thinking behind the SBST SeasonPass; to try to pull some commuters away from the MRT network and fight declining bus ridership at that time. Hybrid passes offer the most flexibility, but currently cost nearly double that of a single-mode concession pass.

But there isn’t any more SeasonPass and the AMTC won’t really help the majority of fare-paying adults due to its high upfront cost. It also doesn’t really apply here because the AMTC and senior citizen concession are only available in a hybrid fashion for both buses and trains. So the enforced modal purity really only applies to concession travel.

It also doesn’t help that students and other beneficiaries of concession, best served by this modus vivendi, also have plenty of time on their hands to raise a ruckus when they are affected by bus service changes. Modal purity means they get accustomed to a certain lifestyle, whether it’s “just take the train” or “just take the bus”. Especially for students, with no reason to change, once they start paying cash fares they stick to what they’re accustomed to.

We have to understand this because should these groups be using bus-only concession passes, the answer of “just take the train” becomes unacceptable to them since their bus-only concession pass cannot be used on the rail network, and they will have to pay. The logic goes the other way too.

It is thus understandable why these demographics are some of the loudest voices opposing a shift to multimodal public transport planning with journeys involving both bus and rail lines, even if steps are being made to increase the accessibility of the public transport system and make these transfers more convenient. We must address these concerns.

Tragedy of the commons

But what harm does modal purity cause? An example lies in NUS. The ISB Man’s guide to riding 95 for free — which I must say should be compulsory reading for every incoming NUS freshman — has a large disclaimer near the top.

Disclaimer: ignore this post entirely if you have a train-only concession pass. It will not work.

And why will it not work? As mentioned above, concession passes are “magic keys”. The second-order effects of this is that trips may be counted in the data, but the use of a modal concession pass essentially causes the transfer benefit of distance fares to evaporate, as the system cannot track for which leg of a journey is the pass valid. Because of this, should the transfer rules be broken, any connecting bus trips are now individually counted. And that’s how 95 is no longer free for train concession pass users.

The greater value proposition, though, is more tantalizing, NUS school fees paying for the ISB operation aside. At $48 a month and assuming a 20-day school month, if you can walk or cycle to an MRT station that is at least 5.2km away from Kent Ridge station, a train concession pass is likely to be far more of value for money than paying either by SimplyGo or by topping up an ezlink card. After all, university students pay adult fares, and at those rates one has to spend more than $2.40 a day on train rides for concession passes to make sense.

But which stations are greater than 5.2km away from Kent Ridge, the main transfer point to the ISB? Actually, much of the MRT system. It might be easier to say what’s within 5.2km — the area bounded by HarbourFront, Botanic Gardens, Clementi, and Redhill. If you have to pass these stations on your way to Kent Ridge and you’re an NUS student, you’re better off getting a train concession pass if you ride no other bus service.

So we have the reasons why someone would do it, let’s now explore why this is a bad idea. The long and the short of it is that because of the added financial outlay, NUS students are more likely to pass up a 95 in favour of an ISB going the same way. They then jam themselves onto that ISB with predictable results. Is it any surprise why the new 3-door ISB bus models have to have much more standing space than the regular LTA-spec bus?

It gets worse with concession passes. Someone paying the full trip might find that the incremental ride on 95 is perhaps only 9 cents more at most (assuming they don’t qualify for free 95 rides), which works out to 18 cents a day or one less teh peng every two weeks, but a train concession pass user would be paying the base fare for a bus trip (nearly $1 as of 2023) to make that same trip.

One could get a hybrid concession pass to work around this issue, but it’s nearly double the cost at $90.50 for not a lot of benefit. Maybe it might be justified if you had to take a feeder bus at the other end of the trip, and the MRT trip was not short enough (greater than 45 mins including bus waiting time) for everything to count as a valid bus-bus transfer.

But also bear in mind that the highest possible adult fare is only $2.26 for trips over 40.2km at time of writing; which is almost impossible to reach from Kent Ridge station. Even if it was possible, one would barely make the $4.52 a day necessary to break even on that concession pass on that highest fare, again assuming a 20 day school month. For such a traveller, paying for singular feeder bus/95 rides at $1 each, over the train concession pass price of $48, would still save $2.50.

If all concession passes were multimodal, though, it means that realistically there may not be such a difference between taking 95 and taking the ISB. After all, I surmise that’s why the ISB Man wrote that post, for every person on 95 is a person not on the ISB, helping equalize loads between the services. Perhaps this might even make the option of using 96 from Clementi more compelling for those coming from the EWL west side, avoiding the Circle Line, and provide policymakers a better reason to strengthen the service levels there.

In a similar vein, if much of the political support for retaining the BKE-PIE expressway basic bus services is coming from bus concession pass users, it is only natural that it will be a difficult ask for them to switch to using the MRT instead of the expressway bus route. If they had to take a feeder bus to the expressway bus anyway, using the MRT would cost them significantly more.

Likewise, the low price of MRT passes will likely significantly threaten the economics of bus routes catering to student populations as these students shift to the train network with MRT expansion, more so over the usual route rationalisations. Examples include 179/199 to NTU after JRL3, and the many Clementi Road bus services after the opening of Maju station on CRL2. The northeast to TP/ITE College East bus routes may also see effects from the CRL Punggol Extension.

What is right, or what is popular?

The summary of this argument is that in order to make multimodal transport planning and operations more readily accepted, the modal-specific concession passes must be abolished and only hybrid concession passes should remain. But yet the last time they tried taking away concession passes from students, it didn’t go down well. I do realize that what I’m going to say might end up going the same way.

The solution, though, may lie in a 2019 parliamentary reply to a question made by MP Liang Eng Hwa. MOT claims that the main rationale for the significant jump in hybrid concession pass prices compared to single-mode concession passes is because it affords flexibility compared to just a single-mode concession pass. At that time, perhaps, flexibility may be considered a plus, something nice to have. And before 2014, the cost of the hybrid concession was literally the train and bus concession prices added up — pretty much the same as what NUS students had to do in the 1970s.

But in 2023, if we want multimodal transport planning, bus services feeding rail services, and the accompanying paradigms, we will have to accept that the flexibility is no longer something that is nice to have, but something that is very necessary as we expect more to make intermodal transfers. This means that there is no longer a rationale to significantly jack up the cost of a hybrid concession pass compared to the old modal concession pass.

In exchange for removing modal concession passes, though, the cost of the hybrid concession must be lowered — perhaps even for the AMTC and for senior citizens. Primary and quite a lot of secondary school students who study within their neighbourhood may not necessarily be benefiting from even modal concession passes either, due to the fare cap at 7.2km keeping their fares below what is justified for a modal concession pass.

Consequently, I would suggest that for this group, the new hybrid concession be offered at a price that is at most 10–15% higher than that of current bus concession passes. To make up the difference, perhaps the 7.2km cap on student and senior citizen single trip fares can be removed, and those travelling for longer distances can be encouraged to get the concession pass instead.

Alternatively, a short-distance pass can be introduced in place of modal concession passes. These passes can deduct a blanket distance off fares, with any trips shorter than that being free, similar to WMATA’s monthly passes. Lower monthly pass prices in general can also help to increase the use of public transport, since additional trips are already part of a sunk cost. Want to know how well this works? Ask the Malaysians about their My50 pass.

Why is this important? Should the LTA and PTC refuse to reform this pass system and remove the incentive for modal purity, they will only incur further political costs when making the very necessary service changes required for an integrated public transport system. Removing the options of direct service on a single mode without removing some of the reasons why someone might want that service, will only make planners’ life more difficult due to the political pushback that results.

With around two million concession cards out there, this is a very large constituency, and increasing the burden on adult fare payers to subsidize this group may be difficult to ask too.

In the longer term, though, with fare system modernization, we could even get rid of the concept of passes and just implement fare capping for all. That takes away the cognitive burden of planning one’s monthly travel and then deciding if one should get a monthly pass.



From the Red Line

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