From the Red Line
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From the Red Line

The “pingdemic”

Without essential workers, essential services cannot operate.

I have been pretty clear about my support, or lack of, for extensive bus service, in favour of the rail network. Granted, I did start out writing about trains, but things happened and I clearly write about other things today.

In any case, the recent uptick in virus cases, especially amongst staff at bus interchanges, has made things a lot worse for bus operations. Drivers required to self-isolate means they can’t operate their bus services. And if those bus services would be running half empty in a world of flexi-work and an expanded rail network, it might serve as a grim reminder of whether those services need to exist in such a new normal.

I don’t think I will be going on about the current approach to disease control , or on the flexibility available to the civil service— enough ink has been spilled on that elsewhere — but rather its impacts on public transport, which are very similar to other such shocks we have received in the history of the local bus industry. Not the one in 1955, but far more recent.

Bend and twist

The good news about buses is that they are flexible. Any changes made can be easily reverted, unlike a subway or even just a tram line. That’s apparently why policymakers prefer them over trams, after all.

Go-Ahead took the preemptive approach of cutting five express bus services, albeit “temporarily”. Most of them won’t be missed, and it might even say something that 43e is on the chopping block despite the LTA’s attempts to shift eastbound passengers from Serangoon interchange. But yet 518 is on the block too. This looks odd to me. 518 clearly sees good enough ridership levels to justify the introduction of three door double deckers. Perhaps, as always, the explanation might just be far simpler — the economics rarely work out to use an express bus.

Other operators have not done so, instead choosing to only take an across-the-board drop in frequency. That means passengers wait longer for buses, even ones that I would arguably consider as “essential”, since they serve either transit deserts or form last mile connections between train stations and other places of interest.

For something that is deemed “temporary” this may be an easier way. It’s also possibly better for route knowledge if the same trained drivers can stick to the same routes. Though it does raise the question of whether technology, such as the GPS assist feature within the Trapeze CFMS, can help with short-term redeployments of drivers to other services they may not be as familiar with; or even in emergencies when their services are needed for other routes.

Conversely, the process to implement semi-permanent features such as cutting express or even trunk routes may be too slow — in that getting the stakeholder buy in for such drops in service level, even for routes that may not be used anyway, is difficult. What’s the point going through all that trouble, since drivers will be back from isolation and ready to do their work in two to three weeks?

But again, due to the flexibility of buses, it’s very possible to cut now and bring it back later. Even 518 was brought back within two weeks of suspension; and at least while the remote working mandate is still present, putting a temporary pause on City Direct and such to operate more feeder capacity is also reasonable.

Gone down the slippery slope

But what about in the long term? You’ve heard enough from me, now hear it from Alon Levy:

All of these bus reforms — network redesigns, dedicated lanes, bus shelter, real-time information, signal priority — push back the decline, but they do not halt it. Eventually, something other than labor-intensive buses will be required

Something additional to consider, apart from Levy’s argument of increasing manpower cost, is the presence of the private sector here, who will take any opportunity to cut any cost they can and pocket whatever they can get away with — especially with the BCM, where there may or may not be a race to the bottom, although that might be somewhat expected. The question now is whether the operation of the existing network is already stretching things too thin.

And even in better days, it might be said that bus drivers do not necessarily enjoy good conditions here. Sure, they might have been forced to pay more these days, because in the current situation, it is all but impossible to ship in drivers from other countries — even in better days, that has its own problems too — but that might not say anything about rostering and other related working conditions. Progress has been made, but there can still be more.

In any case, we can now see a similar problem and solution with the JRL. The JRL Boon Lay station, unlike other JRL interchange stations, will not see significant expansion. Why? The entire western half of the JRL is mainly a bus replacement service. Boon Lay is quite unlikely to see significantly more crowding with the JRL than without it, since many potential JRL passengers would be existing feeder bus users anyway — as long as they are well equipped to walk to JRL stations. And most Tengah users would probably want Jurong East.

I think this example helps build the case for railstitution, but that’s not all. Railstitution as a means of reducing operating costs only helps when serious thought is put into how that can help. Automation is a plus point, but only if used properly. It would still be important that Boon Lay and Jurong West bus systems are redesigned to make the most of the JRL service; and this must happen with the development of the train line.

For a greater good?

I’ve said this before too, but I’m no fan of the Khaw ministry, under which a lot of money was, and still is, being spent in pursuit of a single minded goal and forsaking everything else. Inevitably, someone will have to clean up after all that prodigal spending, especially so when the current situation has made it very clear that government has far more important places to spend their money, such as in healthcare and perhaps housing.

It may be a good idea to provide excess capacity these days to reassure fears of public transport crowding, even if this is a forever moral panic further amplified by the current situation. But we need to consider that in 2019, MRT ridership was already dropping with the rise of private hires. Can we keep this up?

While there are things we can and should do to accelerate projects, we need to also consider if we can afford to keep bleeding cash. They plan to undertake some form of financial review when the situation improves, but the question now becomes, when will that happen? When will it deliver results? Can we even afford to wait an uncertain amount of time, given the short-term unpredictability that we have seen for the past two years? Or will a steady state even be achievable in the longer term, looking at the timelines for rail expansion which leave little space for things to settle?

Though I guess this episode may be a good time to explore what won’t be missed. A vast majority of bus services saw five minutes more waiting time, but some fared even worse. The list of services that faced nasty cutbacks due to low demand — if it does exist — might say something. It would be a good reference for when that review eventually happens and they need to choose what goes, or is promoted to a (genuinely) express service for the privileged few who have their routes retained, to pay for that privilege.

But of course, we all have our own definitions of “essential”. For me, most immediately I’d argue that it’s the feeder-type bus services connecting people to the rail network, where service levels should ideally be preserved. Thus, the blanket cuts were ill advised, in that it did a bad job of matching supply to demand; perhaps even amplifying existing capacity imbalances.

They have the data, and the low level minions might mean well. But I’m more inclined to think that systemwide bureaucratic inertia is causing more problems than it solves, and makes it difficult for change to happen when it needs to the most.

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A blog on transport issues in the Garden City of Singapore. You can say that I love controversy. Posts can get technical! Abuse of comments may be blocked. Subscribe to Telegram for updates: https://t.me/ftrlsg

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yuuka

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

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