Sunday 9 December 2012

Raise bus fares? No way, say most

Transport operators must bear cost of drivers' pay increase, say those polled
By Maria Almenoar, The Straits Times, 8 Dec 2012

A Straits Times street and online poll of 325 commuters yesterday found that 92 per cent of respondents are opposed to the idea that Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew strongly hinted at on Thursday.

The response of Mr Lau Yong Fong, an IT support engineer, was typical of the majority.

Said the 34-year-old: "It is good to increase salaries of bus drivers, but you can't just push it to commuters. The Government has to think of other alternatives before increasing fares."

Among the suggestions they made: Cut the bonus of top executives of the two public transport operators, require the operators SMRT and SBS Transit to use profits to pay the drivers more, or have the Government subsidise the increase in wages.

Mr Lui had hinted at the possibility of bus fares being raised when he commented on last week's illegal strike by 180 SMRT bus drivers from China over living conditions and pay.

He said fares might go up in future to help cover the cost of raising the wages of bus drivers. He also expressed hope that an ongoing fare review would allow the operators to increase drivers' pay.

Commuters acknowledged Mr Lui's point that the bus drivers deserve to be paid more, but were adamant that the cost be borne by SMRT and SBS Transit.

Undergraduate Frank Poh, 24, said the operators needed to play their part and bear the costs.

"It is ridiculous that the Government pays partially for infrastructure, the public pays for the pay rise - bearing in mind the operational profit is in the hundreds of millions of dollars - then what about the company?" he asked.

Commuters argued that the operators were making healthy profits and could well afford the additional cost. "If the companies are not making profits, then it is fine to increase bus fares, but they make so much money," said restaurant manager Kamal Bashyal, 35.

Similarly, supermarket cashier Jenny Wong, 34, said in Mandarin: "This is unreasonable. When they make profits, do they pass them on to commuters as discounts in fares? Why don't they use the profits to increase the salaries of drivers?"

SMRT's last full-year net profit was $119.9 million while that of ComfortDelGro, which runs SBS Transit, was $235.6 million. Both listed companies have rail and taxi operations in addition to buses.

National University of Singapore transport researcher Lee Der-Horng said that as public transport services were a public good, the operators should look for ways internally to increase their efficiency. "They should consider all other alternatives and cut their costs before approaching the commuters, as a last resort," he said.

He pointed out that the goal in privatising public transport was for the companies to run the service efficiently and profitably. "When they claim that fare revenue is not enough to cover their costs, I would have to disagree with that," he said.

For the small group of commuters in favour of a fare rise to help bus drivers, they were agreeable if the increase was between two and five cents.

But they said such an increase would be fair only if there was a corresponding improvement in bus services. Said hotel cleaner Pari Natasina, 50: "Bus drivers are very hard-working, and if the raise is only a bit, it's okay. It's understandable."

Public transport costs are already high in Singapore. The Government has to moderate expectations of earnings of dividends to shareholders of transport companies.
- Dr Sarani Omar, 51, general practitioner

The Government made a mistake in privatising transport because the companies will always have profit in mind. The only way would be for the Government to claim both transport companies back so that costs will not be transferred to commuters.
- Miss Susan Koh, 31, teacher

Why should we accommodate the operators just because they have to raise the drivers' pay? What about people from low-income families? I'm sure they'll feel the pinch. I will also feel the pinch, because I've no fixed income, no fixed job.
- Ms Saliza Ramilan, 45, housewife

You can increase fares to boost drivers' pay but only if the number of seats is increased, and the frequency of bus services increases too. Then the rise in fares is justified.
- Ms Karen Lin, 29, marketing manager

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