From the Red Line
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From the Red Line

The true cost of express bus service

Like it or not, actions have consequences.

Nobody likes a fare increase. I don’t. This time, it appears all the more egregious especially since it could have been much worse; the PTC only granted one-quarter of the nearly 14% increase requested by the operators. Had the full increase been granted, we’re talking steps up in the range of 15–20 cents.

The remaining 10.6% increase quantum, being rolled over to 2023, will continue to hang over us like a Sword of Damocles, just like the impending GST hikes of the next two years. I think they should actually have spent more of it somehow, even if deflationary conditions in 2023 may result in the quantum being cancelled out next year.

But how? At least one good thing is that longer trips are relatively more heavily impacted than shorter trips, which goes somewhat to ease the injustice previously mentioned of short trips hitting the pocketbook more than long trips.

For residents in the north, the opening of TEL3 may also result in some of the impact of the fare increase being absorbed, by virtue of shorter routes made possible by TEL, and that’s before considering any eliminated bus transfers with a TEL station at one’s doorstep. Consider the following:

  • Woodlands to Orchard by TEL: 14.8 + 6.5 = 21.3km (measured by map)
  • Woodlands to Orchard by NSL: 22.6km (from LTA fare calculator)

But we can’t run away entirely from looking at how that money is being spent, especially if a reduction in average mileage from shorter trips means revenue is still affected anyway.

Car replacement bus

I don’t think it’s very unfair to say that passengers of the expressway bus network should be expected to pay their own fair share. There are still plenty of them, and not everyone wants the CBD-centric City Direct system to be completely gutted.

What causes this in the first place? With the kind of sentiments expressed at focus groups and whatnot, I’m honestly not surprised that there’s this kind of mindset which I call the “car replacement bus”, where there’s an expectation that the public transport system must provide as much direct trips as possible.

Owning a personal vehicle allows you to get from A to B directly and conveniently. The idea behind a car replacement bus was that someone might choose to take the bus if it was able to do the same job. This explains all the City Direct services, which pick up passengers in the outlying towns and then fly straight down expressways to the CBD area near Shenton Way; taking the exact same route as someone who would drive the same route.

Now, there’s nothing terribly wrong with this. But firstly, the limited potential demand means this is better left to market forces — just like how Premium 722 was brought back to replace the since-withdrawn Service 971. They also can’t fully be relied on — if you can’t drive a car there, you can’t drive a bus there. As we saw during F1, there were no temporary bus priority measures or anything of the sort during the road closures.

But the mindsets behind car replacement buses and a resulting insistent on direct travel mean that it becomes difficult for us to make the most out of our rail transport investments or to create frequent bus networks and improve bus operations. Again like in F1, where the MRT and connecting passageways could have brought people to Marina Square, if one does not already get themselves in the mindset, one won’t go there using those passageways either. No car and no car replacement bus = no visit.

Policymakers should find other ways of shaking this mindset, instead of punitive across-the-board fare increases that hit everyone equally hard. They are right when they say there’s a big difference in travel experience between the man willing to stand in a crowded MRT train and change twice, and the man who takes a direct double decker bus just because he can get a seat. That should be quantified as a cost as well.

To each according to his need

One of the contributing factors to the increase comes from what the PTC claims is a 117% increase in energy prices. Let’s unpack this, beginning with some charts. It’s useful to note our local electricity mix as well, where we use LNG to produce a significant proportion of our electricity needs. LNG prices are also going up due to the abhorrent war in Ukraine and other nations needing to find other sources to meet their energy needs, so it’s not just fossil fuels.

source CNA
source motorist.sg

I’m sure public transport operators get to negotiate much more favorable rates than what the public pays, with bulk purchases and their own onsite fuel storage, vehicle refuelling facilities, and high-efficiency high-voltage power intakes, but I’d be surprised if what they pay doesn’t generally track along with the public rates. So using the public rates should be a good proxy, even if it only seems like 70–80% compared to 117%.

This has two lessons for us. The first is that the increase in electricity prices has fortunately not yet outpaced the increase in diesel prices by too much. It also helps that the amount of land used by public transport facilities make it quite easy to implement things like solar panels to generate some of their own power needs.

The second is that we need to think about how to move more people given the same amount of energy. That means crowded vehicles, yes, but we can and ought to refocus resources from “emptier” routes to “fuller” ones to relieve pressure on them. Overall, across the entire country, vehicles can be more crowded on average, but improving frequencies means individual routes can see improvements, with crowding levels closer to national averages instead of being pulled up/down by demand and supply.

So how do we shift public transport to use more electricity over fuel? There’s an answer to that. But using more electric-based options means we can reduce our exposure to volatile diesel pricing. And whatever exposure to fuel we still have, we make the most out of it.

From each according to his choices

What was stated in the focus group discussions was that there was a desire for choice. But lest those free and energetic enough to go for the discussions to make their voices heard outcompete those who don’t, as is common in the West, we have to qualify this by a simple fact. I’ve said it at the beginning of this post and I’ll say it again now.

We can provide choice. There’s nothing wrong with that. But I think it’s only fair to ask that actions have consequences.

The thing about high cost per km for taking short trips is that it incentivizes, from an operation perspective, carrying many people on short trips. This is possible even on long cross-country routes like 51 and 61, where you’d be hard-pressed to find someone riding end to end apart from leisure riders, and most people are only travelling on a portion of the route between a handful of neighbourhoods.

This does not happen with the expressway bus routes, for obvious reasons; many don’t stop along the highways. Once you’re committed to an express bus line, you stay on it. And of course there’s also the labour cost, where 5 to 6 times the bus drivers are needed to carry the same passenger load as a 3-car MRT train that can carry 800 passengers. And bus drivers today are paid much more than they were 10 years ago. The LTA can also recoup their investments in automation by encouraging train companies to reconsider the manpower deployment needed to operate the train service, making it even cheaper.

How, then, would you make expressway bus riders pay their fair share? Is the 60 cent surcharge enough? It probably makes some sense to revamp the express bus fare scale such that it’s not a direct surcharge over the regular fare scale. Instead, the express fare scale should be replanned such that the cost per km to be paid by the passenger remains higher even as trips become longer. Some of the fare quantum could be used to quantify the increase in fares this revamped fare scale would bring in.

The second thing to be done would be to promote more services into this express fare scale. A simple rule of thumb I would propose is, if a majority of passengers of a given expressway bus route would be able to complete their journeys in a similar timeframe, with three transfers or less, using both other bus routes and the MRT network, then the bus route in question should be made an express bus route. This method underlines the impact of choice, whilst preserving affordability for those who have not much choice. Such as with the SLE/TPE bus services which conveniently fail at least one of the two tests proposed; with long detours necessary through the MRT network at least before CRL.

Doing this risks provoking the frequency-ridership spiral, but that’s not entirely a bad thing. We can focus on keeping other critical links such as neighbourhood feeders and MRT missing-links alive, whilst the newly promoted express bus routes find their new niches, whether through higher revenues to better justify the investments made, or through ridership reductions allowing resources to be redeployed to where they are needed the most.

Giving mutual aid

The argument made by the bus folks in retaining this system is that if the MRT breaks down, bridging buses operate, and free bus boarding can be put in place. Well, that argument, especially with dedicated MRT bridging bus, becomes less and less logical with an expanding MRT network and the use of parallel MRT lines to take the slack. That said, free bus boarding can still be a valuable tool to distribute passengers directly at the source based on their eventual destination, or to funnel them to other still-operating MRT lines.

The use of a higher express bus fare band can be used to subsidize this paradigm. A further measure should also be to enable express-fare buses to participate in free bus boarding as well. The private sector can also join in, if the decision is made for government contracting to no longer serve this market and to hand it over to private-sector Premium bus operations. We can even require such participation as a condition of their operating licenses.

Facilities can be put in place to track the amount of displaced rail passengers choosing to take privately-run Premium buses, with compensation to be paid by the affected rail operator. That should be enough of a financial stick to encourage rail operators to put in place robust recovery efforts that focus on preserving a level of service. Private operators, if they so desire, can even choose to operate additional runs of their Premium services on bad days for the rail operators to make a bit more money.

It’s not for want of private operators. Out of sixteen thousand registered buses in Singapore, only just under six thousand are public buses. The majority are thus privately owned, and if the opportunities are created for them to make a bit more money through premium bus services, I don’t see why they won’t go for it if there’s a market for their services. For starters, why would A&S Transit, a private bus company, find it commercially viable to purchase a double decker bus? I doubt they’re the only ones.

photo by A&S Transit

For the greater good

Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves what do we want out of our public transport system. Do we want it to be affordable and accessible for the masses? Or are we going to create an unfair system where a large bulk of subsidies go towards those already with great service levels, at the expense of longer waiting times for the rest and the hollowing out of off-peak service? Over 20 minute waits at night are nasty, but they’re a reality today.

I like to use the example of our own public healthcare system here. In the public healthcare system, it’s entirely possible to pay what you want with a corresponding level of care given. Subsidized ward classes, namely Class B2 and C, are less comfortable; but Ah Kong will pay more of your hospital bills. Non-subsidized ward classes (Class A and B1) provide more comfort such as air-conditioning and lesser people in a room, but their daily fees are easily multiples higher. Then of course there’s always the private hospitals. If you complain that the fees in an A/B1 ward are too high, you can always choose to drop to a subsidized ward class.

I do not see why public transport should not follow suit. Trains and local buses form the lowest level of comfort since a majority of passengers have to stand, and thus should receive the highest level of government subsidy. Going up a step are express buses using double decker buses where more passengers get a seat, albeit still harder public bus seats; receiving lesser subsidy but still some. Then there’s the privately run premium buses using softer seating, and lastly private-hire vehicles (still subsidized by the government somewhat) and then personal vehicles.

There is also international precedent too. New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area charge premium fares for express and transbay buses respectively, that are easily more than double the local bus/subway fares. Hong Kong bus companies, too, charge a higher fare for express/night bus services and/or services that cross the Victoria Harbour between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. I can’t find any comparisons for London and Paris, but it probably says more about network design there where long distance trips have already been pushed to the respective rail networks.

All in all, the government has the ability to offer these choices and make these consequences felt. They should, instead of punishing everyone in the name of keeping options available for a few.

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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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