From the Red Line
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From the Red Line

The Budget

They spoke a lot about money, obviously.

With other things in the pipeline, only now have I sat down to look properly at what the Budget announcements mean for us. A theme repeatedly reiterated is to “tighten the belt”. Or to be less charitable, the fact that money (and people) don’t grow on trees has been repeatedly restated, not by me, but by the authorities.

To understand why they say all this now requires a short history lesson. When Minister Khaw Boon Wan entered MOT in 2015, he was given the mission to right the ship and set course for a better future. I don’t think he was tasked to actually see through a lot of the initiatives he put in or consider its long-term sustainability. And I would say that a lot of the effort that he had put in was mere brute force — throw more resources at the problem and hope it fixes itself. Crude, but it worked. Somewhat.

The negative effects were likely ignored during Khaw’s time in the name of the greater good of rail reliability and restoring confidence in public transport. But the wakeup call probably came sometime when it was announced that the LTA was blowing a billion dollars on bus contracting yearly. This is a fair judgment; after all, at a whole-of-government level every dollar not spent on transport is a dollar that can go to more meaningful public services such as healthcare and education. Yes, in the grand scheme of things, how much do you matter?

The Beeching Axes are out

It’s fair to say that if you work in LTA Bus Planning, you have a pretty hard time. First, you don’t want busfans to get hold of your business card, for you may find yourself at the receiving end of plenty of hate mail; why, I wouldn’t know. But at the same time, you also get pressured by the Ministry of Finance to at least stem the bleeding and minimize the socialization of losses, also known as “fees paid out of government coffers to (private) bus companies”.

So what do you do? You listen to the fellows who control your paycheck (and that of your boss), of course. But now you have another problem. Cut too much, and half of Parliament, and the corresponding irate constituents, will also be at your throat. You could buy them off, sure, MP Liang Eng Hwa would have war stories to tell. But once you have to buy people off, you do so one at a time, and the resultant product may have one too many compromises. Worse still, the clock’s still ticking.

Other departments have also blown billions on rail lines. So what do you do now? You arrive at the conclusion that it’s a better use of your money to strengthen buses within the new towns, providing connections not only to each other, but also to rail services. All the more with new rail lines being routed separately through towns, with no opportunity to connect at an interchange station (see Bedok, Bukit Batok/Beauty World and the TEL stations in Ang Mo Kio). Well-routed buses bridge that gap.

Even the permanence of MRT infrastructure doesn’t mean it isn’t immune to cuts. Off peak frequencies went and dropped by a minute (unless you work in Tuas, in which case it halved) after Khaw said something. Is it the end of the world? Depends on who you ask, I don’t think so, but some other people might. Though I’d argue that currently, if the intention is to penny pinch, we might as well use the features of the trains that we design for full automation at least on lines capable of it, which should save some manpower costs.

Pick your fights

This week marks the beginning of 75% of workers being allowed to return to the office. What difference will this make? Again, nobody knows for sure, and so there are many schools of thought, but the most apocalyptic ones typically involves the same tropes of some boomer boss not knowing how to use Microsoft Teams and making everyone go back. And as it turned out, it didn’t mean a lot.

Some other companies may look at the global situation and already have embarked down the path of no return, with downsizing of physical office space and technological investment into things like seat allocation software or other gadgets. Undoing even some of this will take even more money, so it’s fair to say that these are already committed to the so-called “new normal”.

Alas, the way I see it is that this isn’t really something the Transport Ministry by itself can do. Not everyone wants to work from home, where even with understanding superiors the boundaries of personal and office life get murky. That’s why you have the concept of work-from-hotel (yes, that’s a thing!) — willing buyer, willing seller. However, as tourism gets back on its feet, there may be a market for flexible working spaces, scattered around the island. A realistic scenario would be this: Work in Hougang near your house one day, at Jurong to be near a client’s meeting tomorrow, and go to the office in Paya Lebar the day after; spend the rest of the week at home.

Of course, zoning will need to be equally flexible. You’d need to allow someone to set up a shared co-working space for rent in Hougang, for example. But that may be an urban planning thing, so one might have to consult the URA on how willing they are to allow for such blending of uses.

More relevant for this blog, what does this mean for public transport? What I think might happen is that you’ll see people going in all directions, and not a large proportion just to the central cores of the CBD and Jurong in the day and out to the north/northeast new towns at night. This means very different battles to fight. As a starter, we might need to reverse Khaw’s diktat and start running more trains in the off peak. One minute may not be a lot in the grand scheme of things, but the amount of capacity added by the extra trains would be useful.

Apart from the train design, we may also need to reconsider the design of our stations as well. If significantly higher passenger flow where more people are also alighting as well as boarding means that stations are more heavily used, then that’s another battle that has to be fought; even if this is already an issue at some of the older Initial System stations. And if we’re talking about things to be built, there may be a reason to accelerate the Cross Island Line, if at all possible.

Capital investment matters too

Busfans are rightly up in arms about the fact that LTA has purchased several new buses and left them to rot in storage. The busfan-compiled lists aren’t all — LTG claims there are even more in cold storage that haven’t even been registered yet, and those probably won’t see roads for a while since they won’t benefit from the sponsorship of some mad science experiment, such as cleaner energy vehicles or the three-door double deckers, so there’s no rush to see how they work.

A reflexive reaction that comes from the abovementioned Beeching Axes would be that more vehicles would return to storage, making the above issue even worse. Maybe that was why SMRT wanted to get rid of their old SMB-plated single deckers from the 2000s. Or why SBST is scrapping their oldest B9TLs, though one could consider that newer vehicles with tighter emissions standards may also be preferred in the name of preserving the environment.

If I were a Ministry bean counter, I wouldn’t be very amused, too, and any further proposals for more purchases would rightly have to be scrutinized carefully, perhaps with a presumption of denial unless the aforementioned LTA bus planners can demonstrate an immediate need the day they arrive. In fact, we can’t even keep them around for rail reliability purposes — MTR’s post mortem of a three-hour power fault similar to last week on the NEL indicates that they too view bus bridging service as ineffective at best. 125 individual buses serving only eight thousand passengers in both directions is a bad look; it’s only less than 10% of the usual carrying capacity of MTR’s heavy rail lines.

Viewed from this perspective, it’s not hard to think Khaw’s buying 450 buses using rail reliability as an excuse was a bad idea — all the more if we can’t staff them. Bridging services for planned rail service changes can and should also be drawn from existing vehicles not needed outside peak hours, which may be unfortunate for the salesmen. The additional manpower deployed to assist passengers and operate bridging services also aren’t free, and whether the operator pays for that luxury or an LTA Project does so, someone still has to pay.

On the rail side, some may think there’s also some belt tightening to be done. As mentioned earlier, closures impose a cost on everyone, so they should not be done lightly. And while automation of operations and several maintenance tasks, if done properly as mentioned above, can keep operating costs down, adherents of the Levyist school of thought says that we spend too much on MRT lines with no form of middle way between that and a bus. While most of the investment can be justified with few if any good alternatives delivering on the same capacity benefits, some value engineering is bound to occur. Loans may be a double edged sword with limited benefits; it may also be possible that the need to qualify for financing results in good projects being compromised.

What I think looks to be happening, despite my earlier call for faster completion of projects, is that things just get cut; any time saved is a happy coincidence, much like the design evolution of LTA’s planned Jurong offices. Though I don’t think they’ll go as crazy as Prasarana and start reducing fleet and other things. From a utilitarian philosophy, as long as the stations don’t look too horrible and frequent train service is run, I think that’s enough.

What is insanity?

According to the famous quote, it’s doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. This will have multiple meanings in this part.

Firstly, the one way I can think of where a belt tightening exercise would make sense would be that if it staves off a fare increase, or cushions the pain. After all, removal of direct bus routes and having people change to the MRT means transfer penalties in time and walking effort are introduced. This means a level of inconvenience providing the same effect as a fare increase, just to your person instead of your wallet. And are fare increases ever popular?

Secondly, the pursuit of rail reliability at any and all costs may have to be reconsidered to find a better balance. I have always felt that operators cannot alone kaizen their way to net zero if not profitability, if the regulatory landscape itself is still unforgiving enough to require them to make unsustainably high levels of investment just to meet their KPIs. This is also despite the fact that there may be a fair bit of productivity gains to be had from digitalization, smarter inspection strategies, and other technological fixes.

For one, I don’t like the whole show made about MKBF. While complex I think it ultimately means nothing at best, especially when it doesn’t necessarily indicate anything about severity of any particular incident. It’s also a number I’ve generally seen only applying to fleets of vehicles; not to entire railways. Worse still, the lack of context to take such figures with means that I understand if figures in the millions seem manufactured; it’s important to know what it means in terms of passenger impact. This context may be more easily provided by cutting all the crap and simply saying how many incidents happened over the given 12-month rolling window.

On just the public transport perspective, this year’s Budget makes it very clear to me that it is no longer business as usual. Reviews of financing frameworks and capital investments are coming, the Network Capacity Factor will likely be here to stay, bus routes will be cut. Maybe, just maybe, it should all have been done sooner.



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