The Straits Times did an interview with me last week about the performance of public transport since the last General Election, quotes of which were published on Saturday’s (3 May 2014) Insight article, “On track to solve public transport woes?”. Below is the full transcript of the interview.
[Straits Times] In terms of train reliability, the disruptions in December 2011 were probably the turning point for the worse. 2012 saw the number of train delays hit a high, and according to LTA stats the number of delays and withdrawals came down last year. Some measures the Govt has implemented to tackle this include setting up joint teams with the operators post COI, and raising the maximum fine this year. What is your sense of rail reliability since 2011? Has the situation improved, stagnated or deteriorated, and why?
[Gerald] The number of delays lasting longer than 5 minutes may have come down last year, but this was from a high base of 396 in 2012 and 393 in 2011. The number of delays in 2013 was still higher than in 2010 and 2009. So I think it is still too early to declare victory.
Furthermore, I have often experienced trains stopping many times for less than 5 minutes along the way, resulting in the overall journey being significantly delayed. This has also been the experience of other commuters I have spoken to. Sometimes the statistics that the Government looks at don’t tell the whole story.
[Straits Times] Looking ahead, what needs to be done in to improve train reliability further?
[Gerald] It is usually cheaper to maintain a machine regularly than to replace a machine that has broken down because of poor maintenance. Our MRT system has suffered for years of under-investment in maintenance. It will take a massive re-investment in maintenance to restore reliability to acceptable levels. Beyond maintenance, technology and infrastructure needs to be upgraded to keep up with population and commuter growth. For example, I believe the multiple short delays during trips that I mentioned earlier are often due to the signalling system not being able to accommodate shorter headways (the distance or time between trains).
[Straits Times] In terms of crowding, have trains become even more packed since 2011? Any feedback you have gotten from commuters or residents about this issue?
[Gerald] I find that the train frequency during peak hours has increased slightly, but trains are often still not arriving fast enough to clear the continuous stream of people who are entering the station platforms. Once there is even a slight delay, the platforms would be overflowing with people. While MRT operators may have increased train frequency, there are also more commuters due to continued population increases. It is meaningless to tell commuters that trains are now arriving every 2 minutes instead of every 5 minutes, when they needs to wait for 3 full trains to pass by before being able to board a train.
[Straits Times] Some measures to ease train overcrowding include travel demand management schemes such as free travel and Insinc, as well as introducing express/parallel bus services under the BSEP. To what extent do you think these have been effective? And do you think the overcrowding situation will ease when the Downtown and Thomson lines open a few years down the road?
[Gerald] If we can find a way to spread out the commuter load away from peak hours, that would help ease peak hour overcrowding. However, I don’t think free travel or other incentives will make a significant impact. These will only work if most commuters have flexible working hours, which is clearly not the case now. More employer mindsets need to change to allow for more flexible working hours and telecommuting.
We also need to develop more alternative city centres so that commuters do not all head in the same direction at the same time, as this causes additional strain on the public transport network.
I hope overcrowding will ease with the opening of new lines, but keep in mind there will also be more commuters in the coming years because of an increasing population. Furthermore, many of the new lines are serving areas which previously had no easy access to MRTs. I think the main benefit of these new lines would be an increasing mode-share of commuters taking the MRT. It may not translate to less crowded trains along the existing lines.
[Straits Times] Do you think bus services have improved overall since the BSEP was rolled out, and to what extent? Why or why not?
[Gerald] I understand there has been an improvement in bus frequency along routes benefiting from BSEP, with some services seeing waiting times of 30 minutes reduced to 10 minutes. With $1.1 billion of taxpayer money poured into this programme, plus another $1 billion or so on the way (with BSEP 2), I think this is the least that commuters can expect.
[Straits Times] Are there any problematic routes you know of – whether in terms of being too crowded/very long waiting time/bunching – that need to be addressed?
[Gerald] I am not able to itemise every problematic route, but I am told that SBS services 225G and 225W from Bedok Interchange often experience very long queues, such that passengers at the back of the queue are not able to board the bus or have to squeeze themselves onto the steps of the bus entrance.
[Straits Times] Moving forward, what else needs to be done to improve the bus network? More bus priority schemes, moving more quickly to the contracts model, or even nationalization?
[Gerald] We need to prioritise the needs of public transport commuters over users of private transport. The former mayor of Bogota, Colombia once said that if all citizens are equal before the law, then “a bus with 80 passengers has a right to 80 times more road space than a car with one.”
With this in mind, I would like to see more all-day bus lanes to make bus journeys smoother and more predictable in terms of timing, even if it means taking away some road space from cars.
I think whichever public transport model we adopt must incentivise operators to place reliability, affordability and commuter comfort and convenience ahead of profits. I can’t see how this can be achieved with two operators that are profit-oriented and enjoy de facto monopolies on each of their routes. The PTOs’ profits should be used to lower fares and for maintenance and upgrades, not to distribute as dividends to shareholders. Alternatively, we should, where feasible, introduce genuine competition that will spur innovation and productivity improvements to lower costs and improve service quality. It is competition that spurs efficiency and productivity improvements, not the profit incentive as our Government leaders wrongly assume. PTOs cannot be allowed to keep their profits yet be shielded from competition, because the ones who will suffer are commuters, who come mostly from the middle and lower income groups.