From the Red Line
Published in

From the Red Line

We don’t talk about frequency

Trying to understand why route cancellations are taken so badly.

This is more of a personal reflection and an attempt to understand the current system, but to me, one possible reason that bus route terminations are taken so badly is because we don’t place enough importance on the other factors that make a bus route well-patronized.

As such, it feels to me that things have been allowed to get to a point where the existence of a bus service largely becomes a binary choice to policymakers, local representatives, and ultimately all of us. It is either there, or it is not there. I don’t think that ought to be the case, but it is what it is.

State of play

When service changes occur, it is often met with “think of the commuters” or some other NIMBY sort of rhetoric. Of course, it is understandable. People do not want to lose what they have. This is likely what happened to the Clementi Road express services that were withdrawn earlier in the year. Considering the pitfalls of express bus service, we have to note that this is the third year running where many of the affected express services saw a further reduction in service levels from the previous year — down, even, to hourly frequencies.

How useful can these even be? Having buses at hourly intervals chains you to the departure schedule of the bus. Miss one, and the next is a long wait away, by which time you may have missed your appointment or other engagement. At least in Singapore there are alternatives; just take the local bus. Chances are that the local bus will be faster compared to waiting for their express counterparts. Sure, incentive regimes could be put in to encourage people to consider using express services, but the suspension of Travel Smart Journeys doesn’t spell anything good for such a model.

I guess, though, some may appear to be more in love with the idea of the connection existing than those connections being adequately used. As long as the route runs, even if it’s just a regular 12m bus every 20–30 minutes, it’s there. Perhaps such thinking approaches may have been influenced by Hong Kong. Over there the bus companies compete against the MTR and are thus well-placed to profit from the MTR’s underinvestment in capacity and subsequent misfortune.

However, things may be changing there. Cross-harbour service cutbacks resulting from the opening of the East Rail Line extension to Admiralty on Hong Kong Island have also resulted in noise from the Hong Kong bus enthusiasts bemoaning a “loss of choices”, as Hong Kong bus companies refocus their scarce resources on routes actually beneficial to their bottom line instead of trying to compete with the MTR.

A similar ideology change may well be underway here, considering how the 700 saga only really blew up after 4.5 years, a change in MP, and a change in the transport minister. This, to me, indicates that it was a change in priorities with regard to transport that provoked the saga. If more is in store, it seems that a common theme with bus-related posts on the blog has now become “don’t say you weren’t warned” — all the more with a more ambitions rail expansion programme in Singapore compared to Hong Kong.

Patch Tuesday

So if this is going to be a more regular occurrence, in my opinion this means we should have a more formal and perhaps more regular process for introducing bus service changes, not just in routes but also in service levels as well. Sure, maybe people don’t really care if their double decker bus is replaced with a single decker, but I think we ought to know if frequency levels are increased or decreased.

Yes, this means poster making and distribution across bus stops. But this goes to the second point — poster making shouldn’t be ad hoc, done as needed. Perhaps all route changes for a given month should be aligned towards a single day across all operators, so that the poster making only needs to be done once a month. And in it, all the service changes being made for that month can be captured.

I’m in the IT industry, so the most immediate parallel I’d draw would be with the practice of Patch Tuesday, a given day of the month where Microsoft and other companies release their bugfix patches and what not, but this is actually common practice with several transit agencies. The complexity of the British rail network means that Network Rail must hold all timetable changes for twice-yearly updates, Japan most famously has a wave of changes in March, and the TTC also has monthly network-wide updates with both good and bad news.

And this in fact used to happen here too. The Quarterly Review of Bus Services back in the early 2010s brought with it a certain degree of expectations regarding what kind of service improvements one would get. Sure, they had to look like they were doing something at the time about overcrowded bus services. But what’s not to say that this should also be a permanent fixture?

From my point of view, making all these service changes publicly documented allows the public to see, live, what gives and takes in bus operations, and hopefully easier to persuade others when the time comes to do the right thing especially if it is unpopular. If the alternative is unacceptable waiting times, perhaps it might be better to just withdraw that bus service instead, and reroute alternatives.

But what can this look like? Sure, there used to be “we’ve added an additional bus/train!” kind of PR, but without knowing the context it’s understandable if those information are taken with large grains of salt. After all, adding one more train to a high frequency train line hits different compared to adding a bus to a route that previously ran every 15 minutes.

What do you need to know?

One might argue that publicly accessible bus schedules don’t actually matter as long as buses come often, and they might have a point. The “Excess Wait Time” metric used to evaluate the performance of a majority of bus services means that operators are rewarded for maintaining the frequency of buses, not so much of their exact adherence to the schedule. This means that on a good congestion-free day, if all buses adhere to the headway requirement, they essentially follow the times stipulated in the schedule.

If they don’t, it is still okay for the bus to be far behind the printed schedule as long as it makes a best effort to keep the prescribed distance from the bus in front. After all, this is Singapore; the sheer amount of vehicles on the road would make it difficult to enforce timetable adherence strictly. What does this mean? This means that even if you did have a schedule with the arrival times of every bus, it might be worthless if the bus is still very, very delayed. At that point, live data feeds showing the time to the next bus might be a better idea.

There are, however, a minority of bus services for which an actual schedule is published and drivers are expected to adhere to them. I can name two — 93 and 972M — but there are more. And not all these services operate to the schedule throughout the week — some may only have to follow the schedule during weekends, using Excess Wait Time on weekdays.

Yikes. (image screenshot SBST website)

The way SBS Transit presents this information, both online and on printed service guides, is a good compromise. Firstly, the colour bands make it clear what to expect during a more granular time period than the four official periods. As we can see in this 93 example, the large swathes of blue indicate service frequency more than 15 minutes; and if you scroll down the page you can see waiting time in excess of 20 minutes. Likewise, Tower Transit also shows these colour bands on their downloadable service guides, but not SMRT or Go-Ahead.

Additionally, one way SBS Transit provides better customer information than its competitors is that on the same page, you can scroll down to the list of bus stops and find individual arrival times for every bus stop. Mind you, this is the entire schedule, not the Datamall-powered next bus alerts. Then again, it is a shame that SBS Transit is the only bus operator doing this — even if the data has to be prepared by everyone else as timetable information is pasted on the bus stop pole.

Why do you need to know?

That said, why should the public even be informed of a bus or even train arrival schedule in the first place? On buses I think the case has been made above, but on railways the story is a bit sadder, but it has to be told to fully understand why. There are several sections of MRT lines where scheduled waiting time goes into the double digits, mostly on the EWL (trains to Tuas Link and Changi Airport), but also on the now-defunct BPLRT Service C to Ten Mile Junction.

At that time, SMRT published a timetable of trips to Ten Mile Junction. They sort of had to given that Service C only operated once every 20 minutes. My memory also tells me that a timetable was published for the Changi Airport branch with trains every 12 minutes, but I can’t find pictures. All these, of course, were of course offline and only displayed on posters put up in stations.

With trains only every 15 minutes (or even more!) during off-peak hours on the Tuas Extension, it might also make sense to produce a paper timetable of when trains go through from Joo Koon. Put this up only at Joo Koon and the Tuas Extension stations, better yet if they do so at every EWL station.

I feel the answer to why this isn’t done might just be that someone has better things to do. Every station will naturally have to have a different timetable. And that means somebody, probably a lowly-paid intern, will likely have to typeset all the information into a nice table (perhaps in Excel?). With a lot of trips, that can get complicated quickly. Perhaps, though, the Crossrail approach might work, with times only listed when trains deviate from the usual headways of every 5 minutes:

Yes, that’s it (source TfL)

As we re-orient our transport system around transfers, especially where that minority of relatively infrequent rail and bus services (more than 10 minute waiting times) are concerned, open timetabling and perhaps open realtime data becomes more important in helping people plan journeys; thus increasing the utilization of the public transport network as people gain more certainty about the kind of trip they will have. No one likes to be stuck waiting,

That said, empty buses are OK, as long as there are no alternatives. If and once there are alternatives, then we have to understand the sources of excess and what can be done. Perhaps the hatchet men may yet find their job more easily done if they choose to slide down the frequency-ridership spiral, but this has to be done in such a way that any decline is made clear to the public and that route cancellations are really a mercy kill for “unpopular” routes anyway.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store


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