Wednesday, 8 January 2014

2-year trial to improve bus service reliability

'On time' bus service plan starts next month
Operators get cash rewards, fines in pilot scheme to improve punctuality
By Christopher Tan, The Straits Times, 7 Jan 2014

They are part of 22 services which will be involved in a two-year pilot to measure how far buses depart from their schedule while en route.

For every six seconds it reduces from previously recorded waiting times, an operator stands to gain up to $6,000 every month.

On the other hand, it stands to lose up to $4,000 for every six seconds a previously recorded waiting time is exceeded.

The plan was first announced by Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew last month, in a bid to address longstanding complaints about the unpredictability of bus services.

Speaking to reporters yesterday, Mr Lui said: "Today, we measure their departure from the interchange. But to commuters along the route, it is more important if buses arrive more regularly at the bus stop they're waiting at."

The minister said similar carrot-and-stick schemes have worked well abroad. "We've seen benefits of such a system in places such as London - they've done a very good job of it."

In London, passengers waited on average an extra minute for their buses in 2012, compared with two minutes in 2000, before the scheme began.

Singapore operator SBS Transit, whose services 3, 17, 39, 52, 228, 241, 242 and 325 will be among the first to be measured, said "bus service reliability has always been one of our top priorities and it is something we are constantly seeking to improve".

SMRT, whose services 176, 184, 188, 302, 858, 901 and 911 are also involved, did not wish to comment.

The 15 services represent a mixture of long trunk, short trunk and feeder routes.

The Government will gauge the results of the pilot and make necessary adjustments before extending the scheme to all other bus services. "You want to be able to show that the improvements you have made can be sustained over time," Mr Lui said.

Of the just over 270 bus services plying the roads here today, 16 were additions made under the government-funded Bus Service Enhancement Programme, which began in 2012.

The $1.1 billion plan sought to add 550 buses to a fleet of 4,000. Thus far, 291 have been placed in service, with the rest to be put on the road before the year end. Mr Lui said the programme has so far shortened service intervals by "three to five minutes".

Asked how this translated into waiting times, he explained it differed from service to service.

"Some of the most crowded buses you see - your 163, 166, 190 - during peak hours, buses can come at five-, four-minute intervals, simply because demand is so great."

Bus reliability scheme a welcome move
Observers agree carrot-and-stick framework is a good starting point
By Christopher Tan, The Straits Times, 7 Jan 2014

BY HOW much will Singapore's Bus Service Reliability Framework improve service punctuality?

The jury is still out, but observers agree that the first incentive-and-penalty scheme of its kind here is a step in the right direction.

A two-year pilot scheme will begin next month, which Public Transport Council chairman Gerard Ee called "work in progress".

"It's a start point," he said. "We have to give it time to work. And everyone must play a part - including motorists giving way to buses, or playing cat-and-mouse with enforcement officers. But quite logically, a carrot-and-stick approach should help."

The Land Transport Authority said the scheme seeks to minimise excess waiting time (EWT) - the difference between actual and scheduled wait times.

"An EWT score of one minute is considered good, while an EWT score of two minutes is satisfactory," it said.

"As the EWT score is an average... it is possible that for a single bus stop on a specific day, the actual waiting time of commuters deviates more significantly than the EWT score of that service."

Mr Tan Pang Soon, a regular bus commuter, said: "The framework is good as it tries to penalise buses that are not on time or worse, too early.

"Buses being early are the main cause of erratic bus waiting time."

The 24-year-old university student added that the 15 services selected to be measured from next month "cover a good range with feeder, trunk and loop services".

In the pilot, an operator stands to gain up to $6,000 per month for every six seconds it shaves from a service's historical EWT. On the other hand, it could lose up to $4,000 for every six seconds it exceeds the EWT by.

The idea comes from London's system.

There, every 0.1-minute (six-second) improvement in EWT earns a bus operator a bonus amounting to 1.5 per cent of its annual operating contract value. For every 0.1-minute of deterioration, 1 per cent will be deducted from the contract.

The scheme has clearly worked since it started in 2001. Buses in London arrive every two minutes during peak hours along some routes, rivalling the frequency of trains. And even if they are held up, they are often no more than a minute late.

The London scheme does have drawbacks, though. For instance, buses can be taken out of service halfway through their journeys if bunching occurs. This means passengers will be asked to get off and take the next bus, or make alternative travel plans.

Speaking to reporters at the launch of City Direct service 652 yesterday, Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew said the new reliability framework will need to be "fine-tuned along the way".

He said: "It is the start of a programme that, if done properly, can make quite a difference."

City Direct service 652 travels between Upper Thomson and the city centre during peak hours.

Operated by Ren Quan Transport, which has a fleet of about 30 buses, it is the second of 10 supplementary services to be contracted out to private operators. The first was from Jurong West to the city and back.

SBS and SMRT gear up to tackle 'bus bunching'
More controllers deployed for trial on some routes starting next month
By Royston Sim, The Straits Times, 25 Jan 2014

BUS operators SBS Transit and SMRT are boosting manpower to help space out the arrival of their buses, as they gear up for a trial to cut commuter waiting times.

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) gave more details yesterday of the carrot-and-stick scheme, which will start next month and involve 12 SBS Transit services and 10 SMRT routes.

The test run is aimed at tackling a common bugbear of commuters here: Buses of the same route often arrive too close together, especially during peak hours. This leads to longer intervals for subsequent buses, and a longer wait.

The trial aims to tackle such "bus bunching" by requiring operators to take a more active role in managing their buses on the back end. For example, they would have to make buses slow down or wait at bus stops for up to a minute, or inject buses along the route, to make arrivals more regular and predictable.

The bus operators said they will deploy more bus controllers, but did not elaborate on how many when asked.

But SBS Transit had said last June that it wanted to improve its controller-to-vehicle ratio to one for every 80 - up from one per 150 - in three years. Its spokesman Tammy Tan said yesterday that it will beef up its operations control centre by adding controllers, as well as investing in more equipment and systems.

SMRT spokesman Alina Boey said the operator has deployed more controllers. "These controllers will ensure that the buses depart on time from interchanges, and that intervals between buses are regulated to minimise bus bunching en route," she added.

An LTA spokesman said one controller typically manages about 10 to 18 bus services. This ratio will go down for services undergoing the trial, though the LTA has left it to the operators to decide how to assign their staff.

Taking a leaf from a similar scheme in London that cut bus waiting times by a minute over 13 years, the LTA will offer monetary bonuses and penalties to encourage operators to run their buses on time.

Yesterday, it provided the timing criterion by which the services will be assessed. The $10 million scheme will measure excess wait time - the average additional time commuters spend waiting at a bus stop compared to if buses arrive at regular intervals. This will be measured across all trips of a single bus service on weekdays, at three to five bus stops along the route. Each bus service will have a "baseline" excess wait time it should strive to improve upon.

For instance, service 858 has a base excess wait time of 2.1 minutes. Service operator SMRT can reduce this by ensuring its buses arrive at bus stops more regularly.

Operators can get up to $6,000 per service each month for every six seconds of waiting time they shave off, and can lose up to $4,000 for every six-second deterioration.

This is based on its excess wait time averaged over six months.

The incentives and penalties will apply only from June, to give the operators time to adapt.

First to go on the test run from Feb 3 will be seven SMRT bus services - 176, 184, 188, 302, 858, 901 and 911. Eight SBS Transit routes - 3, 17, 39, 52, 228, 241, 242 and 325 - will do so by March. The remaining seven services will start by June.

The selected services are a mix of long- and short-trunk routes, as well as feeder bus routes with reliability issues.

Think big and bold to boost bus services
By Christopher Tan, The Straits Times, 30 Jan 2014

THE Government has been stepping up efforts to improve bus service standards.

It started with the announcement in 2012 of a $1.1 billion Bus Service Enhancement Programme, under which the state finances the purchase and operation of 550 additional public buses. By the end of this year, all of the new buses will be on the road.

That was followed recently by a carrot-and-stick scheme to incentivise operators to keep "excess waiting time" to a minimum. The plan, the first of its kind here, will start with a two-year trial involving 22 services.

And next year, a sophisticated satellite-tracked system that will forecast to the minute when a particular bus will arrive at any given stop.

These are good moves, to be sure. But are they enough? More to the point, do they make a difference where it matters most: to commuters' bus journeys?

Consider for example that the carrot-and-stick scheme - called the Bus Service Reliability Framework - will involve only 8 per cent of services here. And it is only a trial.

Secondly, a satellite-tracked bus arrival forecasting system may be a technological marvel, but nothing beats having buses stick to a dependable bus timetable - whether the timetable is printed on plain paper or is available as a sophisticated app.

Mr Bruno Wildermuth, a respected industry consultant, says a published bus timetable is a must. That way, commuters can plan their day effectively. And regulators can gauge the service of operators.

Mr Wildermuth points out that bus timetables are common in many developed countries, including Japan, Australia, Scandinavia, Germany and Switzerland.

"Not everyone has a computer or a smartphone," Mr Wildermuth says, referring to bus arrival information systems that smartphone users can tap on.

"Secondly, how do I plan for a meeting in town? How do I plan my transfers if there isn't a timetable?"

He says that in Zurich a commuter can plan his journey down to the minute because buses there are required to run to a strict timetable.

In Tokyo, buses are so reliable that commuters can set their watches to a service.

National University of Singapore transport economist Anthony Chin agrees that a fixed timetable is preferred.

"What you need is certainty in arrival times according to a published schedule," he says.

The Land Transport Authority, however, seems to think that timetables are needed only for services that are less frequent.

An LTA spokesman says that when the new arrival system is ready next year, it will be able to provide updates on bus arrival information "so that commuters have more predictability on the arrival of their bus service".

The LTA will then consider the merit of providing timetables "for low-frequency bus services".

This is puzzling. Why not a timetable for all services? After all, the planners have access to a wealth of commuting information through the ez-link card. With some planning, it would be possible to come up with a bus timetable that will benefit the commuter and is feasible for the operator.

So while a satellite-tracked arrival system sounds sophisticated, it is of limited use to commuters who cannot plan journeys in advance.

In fact, LTA and bus planners should go beyond buying buses and tracking journey times. For a move that would have a more significant impact on the daily bus commute, they should revisit the plan to redraw Singapore's bus routes. Mr Raymond Lim made the LTA the central bus route planner when he was transport minister. The idea was for it to come up with a hub-and-spoke network that is optimal, efficient and not necessarily profit-motivated.

But the changes have been slow in coming. And many bus routes that are extraordinarily long remain. Take Service 196 for instance. It plies between Bedok in the east and Clementi in the west. But most commuters on it actually travel between the city and the two towns. Why not split it into two shorter routes?

Dr Park Byung Joon, head of the Master of Science programme in urban transport management at UniSIM's School of Business, observes that long bus routes are not desirable.

"It has been empirically proven that the longer the bus route, the poorer the bus reliability," he notes. "The Seoul bus reform implemented in 2003 divided Seoul into eight zones and most of the bus routes ran only within a zone.

"Since bus routes became relatively short, the reliability naturally improved."

The Seoul bus reform has been hailed as a success story by transport experts, where decisive government intervention turned around a messy industry.

Then there is the question of whether Singapore's fleet of 4,000-plus public buses is well utilised.

Mr Wildermuth observes large numbers of buses at interchanges - even during peak hours. "Drivers should take tea breaks, not buses," he asserts. He believes, with better manpower planning, operators could do a lot more with their fleets.

Dr Park agrees. "It is well established that simply adding more buses to the fleet is not an effective way of improving bus reliability," he says. "It must come with other measures."

Truth be told, the bus commuter's lot has generally improved. This is especially so for those who use services such as 72, 106 and 922, which got more buses under the Bus Service Enhancement Programme. Many also benefit from new City Direct express services.

But some services are below par. Service 147 has waiting times of as long as 30 minutes; Service 7's departure times from Clementi interchange are patchy; and the infamous 190 made headlines last October when a commuter complained that she could not get on it for 13 times.

To fix the industry conclusively, perhaps bigger, bolder steps need to be taken.

Timing is not everything

IN AN upcoming trial, bus operators can get up to $6,000 per service each month for every six seconds of waiting time they shave off, and can lose up to $4,000 for every six-second deterioration ("SBS and SMRT gear up to tackle 'bus bunching'"; last Saturday).

The operators are deploying more controllers to ensure that buses depart on time from interchanges, and that intervals between buses are regulated to minimise bus bunching.

It is a tall order to set bus timings to within seconds.

The duration of a bus journey depends significantly on the passengers. Elderly commuters move much slower than younger ones. Would a driver rushing to keep to his schedule wait for an "auntie" moving as fast as she can to catch the bus?

When load factors, road traffic conditions and passenger profile are favourable, is it productive for the driver to slow down to keep to his targets?

Fines affect the profitability of public transport companies, and the bottom line is a factor when considering fare increases. So will commuters ultimately pay the price? And are rewards funded by taxpayers?

If bus companies are able to recruit drivers with positive work attitudes, who are motivated to provide good service and trained to drive well, wouldn't that be better than having them looking at their watches all the time?

Wong Tuck Yin
ST Forum, 28 Jan 2014

Bus drivers should focus on providing good service

MR WONG Tuck Yin raised valid points in his letter ("Bus services: Timing is not everything"; Tuesday).

Some commuters may slow down boarding and alighting at bus stops.

For instance, those who are not familiar with bus routes, such as tourists, may ask the driver for directions.

Then there are those who do not have the exact fare and hold up boarding by asking fellow commuters for coins in exchange for notes.

Some commuters do not move to the back of the bus despite appeals from the driver, and they hold up others queueing to board the bus. The delay snowballs as other buses wait for their turn to pull into the bay.

Wheelchair-friendly buses may also have to dwell longer at bus stops as the drivers need to assist wheelchair users to board and alight.

It is unrealistic to expect buses to be punctual because there will be circumstances beyond the drivers' control.

Instead, drivers should focus on providing quality service, such as ensuring the bus does not jerk too much, keeping a lookout for the safety of commuters, and ensuring cleanliness.

There should be small cash incentives for drivers who consistently demonstrate good service and attitude.

Ada Chan Siew Foen (Ms)
ST Forum, 30 Jan 2014

Average timing taken to improve bus regularity

BUS bunching followed by long waiting times is common feedback that the Land Transport Authority has received ("Timing is not everything" by Mr Wong Tuck Yin, Jan 28; and "Bus drivers should focus on providing good service" by Ms Ada Chan Siew Foen, Jan 30).

The Bus Service Reliability Framework (BSRF) aims to address this by improving the regularity of buses and reducing instances of bus bunching.

Improved reliability and regularity of bus services will ensure a better spread of passengers on board at trip level. The BSRF complements the Bus Service Enhancement Programme, where buses are injected to reduce crowding and shorten waiting times.

Under the BSRF, bus operators are given incentives if they are able to reduce commuters' excess wait time. Similarly, they will be penalised if the excess wait time increases.

However, the excess wait time is not measured in seconds for a single bus trip, but for all bus trips during the six-month assessment period. The average is then taken to derive the final excess wait time score before the incentive or penalty is imposed.

Each BSRF bus will start with its own unique "baseline" excess wait time, which is derived from the bus service's past excess wait time performance.

We have also set a buffer zone where operators will not be incentivised or penalised within a certain excess wait time range, to account for traffic congestion or seasonal fluctuation.

The BSRF is not likely to encourage unsafe driving behaviour. Bus captains will be instructed by the service controllers to slow down, or even "hold" at bus stops when necessary, if the bus does not obstruct traffic and other buses.

All buses, including those under the BSRF, are already required to adhere to speed limits on the roads. All buses also have speed limiters that prevent them from going beyond 60kmh.

Bus operators have standard operating procedures on safe driving standards, and safe driving skills are continually reinforced.

Helen Lim (Ms)
Director, Media Relations
Land Transport Authority
ST Forum, 7 Feb 2014

* Results of trial to make buses run on time 'encouraging'
Buses on most trial routes arriving at more regular intervals, says LTA
By Royston Sim, The Straits Times, 17 Jun 2014

A TWO-YEAR trial to make buses run on time has shown encouraging results so far, said the Land Transport Authority (LTA), with more regular service on the 15 routes being tested.

According to figures released by the LTA yesterday, buses on most of these routes are arriving at more regular intervals since it began in February.

This means these buses are less likely to bunch - which refers to two buses of the same service reaching a bus stop at the same time, resulting in a longer wait for some commuters.

The routes on trial are a mix of trunk and feeder services, plying in estates islandwide including Bukit Batok, Bishan, Clementi, Pasir Ris, Hougang and Bedok.

Another seven routes will be added to the trial from next Monday. The authorities will also start rewarding and penalising bus operators based on their performance from this month.

Operators SBS Transit and SMRT can either earn $6,000 a month for every 0.1 minute shaved off a route's baseline standard, or face a $4,000 penalty for every additional 0.1 minute.

The incentive-penalty scheme is expected to motivate them to ensure buses run more regularly.

The trial measures "excess wait time", or the average extra time commuters wait when bus services are irregular.

LTA's figures show that four of the seven SMRT routes being tested have improved from February to April, including trunk service 858 that runs between Woodlands and Changi Airport, but its three feeder routes in Bukit Panjang and Choa Chu Kang arrived less regularly in April.

Buses are arriving slightly more regularly on the eight SBS Transit routes in the trial. For example, service 39 from Tampines to Yishun had a base excess wait time of 1.2 minutes. This improved to 1.1 minutes in April.

LTA group director of public transport Yeo Teck Guan said: "The results of the trial are encouraging considering the buses have only been placed on the trial for a very short period."

From next Monday, SBS Transit's services 51, 154, 292 and 354 and SMRT's services 189, 853 and 962 will join the trial.

Transport researcher Alexander Erath of the Singapore-ETH Centre noted, however, that excess wait time is only one aspect of service quality. It does not reflect frequency or how many people are affected as the figures show an average of the entire day's performance, he said.

For some commuters at least, the improvements have not been apparent. Though SMRT's service 858 has buses running more regularly, customer service agent Rona Tagala, 26, has not felt much difference. She waits an average of 12 minutes for the service on weekday afternoons, but waited 22 minutes yesterday. "It would be much better if buses come at regular intervals," she said.

Still, Dr Erath believes bus reliability will improve further when buses are upgraded to run under a common bus fleet management system that can track buses with greater precision from the end of next year. "Once this is out, I think more improvements are to be expected," he said.

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