Monday 5 May 2014

On track to solve public transport woes?

The Government is making changes to public transport but can it do so fast enough and in a way that will leave many more commuters impressed? Experts say that even as various initiatives are taken to improve the situation, the answer may lie in radically reforming how the industry is structured.
By Royston Sim, The Straits Times, 3 May 2014

Although measures such as free travel have moved some people from the peak period, their impact has ultimately been muted by steady ridership growth. There were 2.62 million train rides a day last year, up from 2.29 million in 2011.

WHEN train services on the North-South Line broke down on Dec 15 of 2011, crippling the network for five hours, and again for seven hours two days later, the reputation of Singapore's public transport took a big hit overnight.

Those two breakdowns, followed by a flurry of six disruptions in a six-week span from March 2012, swiftly turned public focus from congestion to how unreliable Singapore's rail network had become.

Luckily for the ruling party, these embarrassing episodes did not happen before the elections, or they might well have narrowed its winning margin further, say some experts.

Crowded trains had emerged as one of the sore points among voters during the General Election in May 2011. Opposition parties jumped on how overburdened the transport system had become, even as the Prime Minister apologised for the shortfall in infrastructure.

When the elections were over, newly-appointed Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew, who took over from Mr Raymond Lim, wasted no time in rolling out a slew of measures aimed at easing the peak-hour crush.

Along with that, the Government also tackled the issue of the influx of foreign workers, which had been blamed for the overcrowding problem on public transport.

Recognising that new trains and new MRT lines would take years to come into effect, the Government pushed for a billion-dollar bus programme to increase bus capacity.

That programme put four new parallel bus services and seven new City Direct routes on the road, to offer commuters an alternative to the MRT. The services had a combined daily ridership of about 2,700 as of March.

"These are commuters who would have otherwise taken the trains," said Land Transport Authority (LTA) group director for public transport Yeo Teck Guan.

The full opening of the Circle Line in October 2011 helped decant commuters from other lines, said observers. About 70 per cent of Circle Line ridership comes from commuters who transfer from other lines.

The LTA also spent $9.7 million to remove grab poles and add more handrails on trains to increase standing space.

And in a first, it set aside $10 million to fund free rides for commuters who exit at 18 stations in the city area by 7.45am. This has led to about 6 to 7 per cent of commuters shifting their journeys.

Another travel demand management scheme that provides incentives to commuters that change their travel times, Insinc, has nudged some commuters to travel outside of the peak hour as well.

The scheme has grown from 8,000 members in March 2012 to 170,000 last month, and close to 10 per cent of participants have shifted out of the crowded 7.30am to 8.30am window.

Meanwhile, operators SMRT and SBS Transit have also injected more than 2,000 train trips a week since 2011, though a majority of trips added to the North-South and East-West lines are outside of peak hours due to an aged signalling system which can run trains no closer than two minutes apart.

The system is being overhauled for $195 million so six trains, instead of the current five, can run every 10 minutes but it will be ready only in 2016 for the North-South Line and 2018 for the East-West Line. This upgrade is more than 10 years late, said veteran transport consultant Bruno Wildermuth, who was involved in building the North-South Line.

The original signalling system had a maximum life span of 15 years, but SMRT did not appoint a contractor to replace it until 2012 when it was 25 years old, he said.

Quite aside from these technical concerns, the big picture is that population has grown but transport infrastructure did not keep pace, said transport researcher Alexander Erath from the Singapore-ETH Centre. "There is a mismatch of supply and demand."

Although measures such as free travel have moved some people from the peak period, their impact has ultimately been muted by steady ridership growth. There were 2.62 million train rides a day last year, up from 2.29 million in 2011.

Non-constituency MP Gerald Giam agreed peak hour train frequency has increased slightly, but maintained trains are often still not arriving fast enough to clear the continuous stream of people entering the station platforms.

"Once there is even a slight delay, the platforms would be overflowing with people," he noted.

Bukit Panjang resident Chan Mun Tong, 42, feels the congestion has eased since 2011, but not by much. He still has to take the train from Choa Chu Kang in the reverse direction to Yew Tee before doubling back two to three times a month when it gets too crowded. "I thought the free rides are supposed to reduce the crowds, but it doesn't feel like it."

The Straits Times observed the peak-hour situation over several weeks, and found it is still common for commuters at stations such as Ang Mo Kio, Bukit Batok and Clementi to wait for multiple trains to pass before they can board during the morning peak period. On the North-East Line, for instance, trains have become more crowded each year as ridership grows. However, the additional 18 trains coming on stream from next year should ease peak-hour congestion.

Observers, including Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Transport member Ang Hin Kee, reckon the congestion issue will be alleviated only from 2016, after the North-South Line signalling upgrade is ready and Downtown Line 2 opens.

Tackling breakdowns

BUT even as overcrowding eases somewhat, a new problem has emerged and proved more challenging: making sure trains do not stall and leave commuters stranded.

Heavier ridership only means the impact of each disruption is magnified, especially because those affected do not seem to have good alternatives.

After the 2011 breakdowns - the worst since the MRT began operating in 1987 - the authorities moved in quickly to fix the problem, starting with a high-level Committee of Inquiry (COI).

Former SMRT chief executive Saw Phaik Hwa resigned after the two disruptions, and was eventually replaced by former chief of defence force Desmond Kuek. The senior management at SMRT also went through a major shakeup, with new hires with military and engineering backgrounds coming on board.

In the aftermath of the COI, the LTA tightened its oversight of SMRT while the operator embarked on an extensive overhaul of its ageing North-South and East-West lines. This includes replacing 188,000 timber sleepers, the entire third-rail system and refurbishing older trains.

To get the rail network back in shape, even the newer North-East and Circle Lines had to undergo major surgery to address the root cause of major breakdowns.

SBS Transit is replacing all stainless steel components of its overhead power supply system with galvanised steel, while SMRT has replaced all 120km of power cables on the Circle Line with higher-grade ones.

SMRT also increased its annual repair and maintenance expenditure for its two rail lines by about 65 per cent, with $64.5 million spent in its 2013 financial year compared to $38.3 million in 2011.

The various measures have brought the number of delays above five minutes across the network down from a high of 396 in 2012 to 311 last year.

The number of trains withdrawn from service has also fallen across the various lines. For instance, there were 2.25 trains withdrawn per 100,000km travelled last year, down from 3.32 in 2012.

Transport GPC member Lim Biow Chuan believes the Government and operators are on the right track, but said there is still room to intensify maintenance and reduce the number of train disruptions further.

Mr Giam from the Workers' Party noted, however, that the number of delays last year was still higher than 2010 and 2009, so "it is still too early to declare victory".

He also cited instances of trains stopping many times for less than five minutes along the way, resulting in a significant delay overall. "Sometimes the statistics that the Government looks at don't tell the whole story."

To clamp down on breakdowns further, the Government raised the maximum fine for each disruption to 10 per cent of the annual fare revenue of the affected line in February. This means the operators could face fines many times higher than previously.

Despite all these efforts, commuters have not been appeased.

More than half of the regular train commuters felt services have declined since 2011. Only 21 per cent said it had improved.

To be fair, while 28 per cent of respondents rated public transport as "bad" or "very bad", a tad more - 31 per cent - say the system is "good" or "very good". The remaining 41 per cent rated it as satisfactory.

Done by market research firm Asia Insight over a week in March, The Straits Times poll surveyed commuters on how satisfied they are with government policies.

Hot-button issue

What does this all mean for the ruling party as it works to address this hot-button issue ahead of the next General Election, which must be held by January 2017.

Well, the implementation of various big-bang initiatives - including a slew of concessions to address commuter concerns over higher fares - clearly shows the Government knows land transport is an area of great concern to the public and has spared no effort to solve it, said Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) senior research fellow Gillian Koh.

Also, the general view among more than 10 transport experts The Straits Times spoke to is that the rail system, and public transport in general, will improve in the coming years as more projects are completed.

In the long term, more attention should be devoted to improving existing train stations, providing more exits for new stations and making Singapore more walkable, said Mr Wildermuth, who wants to see more street-level crossings, and fewer overhead bridges or underpasses.

He said: "If you want people to use public transport, then naturally you have to prioritise people over vehicular traffic. At the moment, Singapore is a city for cars and not a city for people."

Yet with dissatisfaction over public transport still high halfway through its current term, the Government may be running out of time to address commuter woes.

Former Nominated MP Siew Kum Hong said that, like it or not, transport will be a prominent issue in the next elections if Singaporeans do not believe it has improved.

So what more can be done?

Mr Cedric Foo, who chairs the Transport GPC, said SMRT should report progress made on the COI's recommendations to signal that "no effort has been spared" and restore confidence.

He also suggests giving commuters fare credits, based on how badly they were affected by a disruption and for how long.

"We need to do more for commuters. Currently all penalties go to the LTA, and this doesn't square with affected passengers."

Mr Siew argued that despite the many reviews and announcements it had made, the Government has not taken any radical reform in transport, unlike areas such as housing.

The failure to review whether any fundamental changes are required to solve public transport problems means that there is a real chance Singaporeans will continue to be dissatisfied with transport policies and outcomes, Mr Siew said.

One reform could come from having a different operating, funding and regulatory model for bus and the rail system, suggested Dr Koh from IPS. Under the current model, public transport operators are pulled in all directions by its multiple stakeholders including commuters, shareholders and the Government, she said.

The Government is moving towards a contracts model for buses, but has only made tentative steps in that direction to date.

But it has long had to defend its decision to allow private operators to run public transport, as opposed to a nationalised model which it has dismissed as being inefficient.

The way forward, perhaps, is for the Government to conduct a "no sacred cows" review that is public, transparent and rigorous, argued Mr Siew.

While it is possible that the existing operating model of private, profit-driven operators continues to be the best one moving forward, Singaporeans will not have confidence in it till there is a proper discussion involving all stakeholders, including transport experts and academics, he said.

"We will also not know if we have made all the changes that we should make," he added.

He also listed three key areas to watch: public transport reliability and service standards, certificate of entitlement (COE) prices and the reliability of point-to-point transportation such as taxis.

"Unfortunately, to date Singaporeans do not think the Government has done anywhere near enough in any of these areas."

Smoother bus rides but still room for improvement
By Royston Sim, The Straits Times, 3 May 2014

WHEN overcrowding on trains became a hot-button issue during the last General Election, new Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew looked to buses as he took office shortly after.

Solving the rail problem was going to take time - new trains and new rail lines would take years to be built. Pumping in more buses would be faster. And commuters were griping about crowded buses too.

The price tag for putting 550 more buses on the road and adding 40 new routes - $1.1 billion.

The unprecedented move stirred controversy, with MPs and the public questioning if taxpayer money would be used to subsidise the bus operators and boost their profits.

The public bus sector is run by SBS Transit and SMRT, each with non-overlapping areas of operation. They are responsible for expanding and renewing their bus fleets.

Mr Lui assured MPs during the budget debate that year that the Bus Service Enhancement Programme (BSEP) was not expected to result in a profit for the bus operators.

As of March, 339 of 550 state-funded buses have been put on the road to improve 125 existing bus routes and introduce 18 new services islandwide, especially in estates such as Sengkang and Yishun.

Bus 39, which runs from Tampines to Yishun and was once a congested service, is a much more pleasant ride today.

LTA group director for public transport Yeo Teck Guan said the average bus load on this route decreased from 76 per cent in July 2012 to 64 per cent in March.

Injecting more buses into Bukit Panjang feeder route 922 has also brought the average interval between buses in the morning peak down from 24 minutes to 15 minutes, said Mr Yeo.

Despite lingering questions over whether taxpayers should foot the bill for this programme, commuters seem happier with their bus rides now.

In an annual poll conducted by UniSIM, the proportion of people who were satisfied with buses went up to 88.3 per cent, from 86.4 per cent in 2012.

In a recent survey commissioned by The Straits Times, two in five regular bus commuters also said services are better.

Holland-Bukit Timah GRC MP Liang Eng Hwa, whose ward was plagued by congested and irregular bus services, acknowledged the success of the BSEP.

"The BSEP has made a big difference. It's one of the most significant policies," he said.

He cited how the addition of buses and a new bus route 972 to Orchard Road has improved the congested service 190.

The service gained infamy after a frustrated commuter uploaded a video last October to show how she could not board 190 along Scotts Road even with 13 tries.

Professor Lee Der Horng, a transport researcher from the National University of Singapore, said new bus routes are important as they provide commuters with new options and take some pressure off the train system.

More buses are on the way. In March, Mr Lui announced that the Government would buy another 450 buses, and double the number of new routes.

The expansion of the BSEP is expected to cost another billion - news that has renewed concerns over the pumping of public funds into a private operator, with Nominated MP R. Dhinakaran noting in Parliament that the operators can "continue to work on their profitability motive with a fallback".

But building up infrastructure is just one strategy in dealing with the unhappiness over bus services. A large chunk of commuters' complaints has also been about the irregular intervals at which buses pull into bus stops.

The LTA is testing a carrot-and-stick scheme with 22 bus services, in a bid to tackle the perennial issue of bus bunching.

The road ahead

BUT though the general consensus is that the BSEP has led to tangible improvements, experts say more fundamental changes are needed to level up the public bus network further.

Dr Paul Barter, an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, says the BSEP appears to be more of a "coping mechanism" that has improved the frequency of some routes but is not felt by other commuters.

He had actually hoped the additional buses would be used to reform the bus network.

How? Dr Barter believes the entire network should be simplified, so bus routes are shortened and there is less duplication of bus routes along road corridors.

For key bus routes, the Government should aim for intervals of three to six minutes, he said. Currently, the Public Transport Council's service standards require at least 80 per cent of buses to run at intervals of no more 10 minutes during peak periods.

Bus stops should also be located closer to junctions to facilitate transfers.

"What I would like to see is people switching from bus to bus because it's so quick and so convenient," he said.

Dr Park Byung Joon, head of the Master of Science in urban transport management programme at UniSIM, agrees that many bus routes here are too long, which lengthens travelling time and leads to bunching.

But a consequence of reforming bus routes is people have to make transfers, which may not be politically popular, he said.

In addition, as shorter routes may be unprofitable, a shift to the contracts model adopted in cities such as London and Seoul is needed, he said. In this model, governments tender out bus routes and assume revenue risk.

The Government has moved in this direction, by testing the waters with privately run routes such as City Direct. It has also engaged a consultant to study how to make the bus sector more competitive.

Veteran transport consultant Bruno Wildermuth wants to see the introduction of timetables, which are used in cities such as Zurich, Tokyo and Copenhagen.

He said: "If bus frequency is five minutes or less, there is generally no need for timetables. But for anything more than that, it is useful to have one."

Associate Professor Marcelo Ang from the NUS department of mechanical engineering also questions why timetables are not adopted here.

While the LTA and operators provide bus arrival information via smartphone applications, these are not always accurate, he said. "The beauty of having a timetable is if I have an appointment tomorrow, I can be guaranteed to reach the bus stop at this time."

Observers believe the BSEP has led to some tangible improvements, but they question its overall reach, given that it does not address problems that come with long bus routes.

Still, in the absence of drastic reforms, it is still a positive move in the right direction.

Why figures don't impress commuters
By Christopher Tan, The Straits Times, 3 May 2014

THE results of a recent survey commissioned by The Straits Times were pretty damning for land transport.

More than one-third of the 512 people polled in early March felt that the Government fared worse in the way it managed transport issues than in 2011.

And more than one-quarter expressed low or no confidence in the Government's ability to turn things around in this sector.

While there were positive responses - for instance, 39 per cent of Singaporeans perceive the Government to have actually done better in handling the public transport issue since 2011 - these paled in comparison to the amount of positive feedback garnered for the other national issues.

Trains were a big part of the unhappiness. More than half of the respondents who took trains regularly felt that service had deteriorated since 2011. In contrast, less than one-fifth felt the same way about buses.

Grouses were not confined to public transport. Among those who considered transport as the Government's worst failure since 2011, high car prices were a top factor, followed by MRT breakdowns and delays.

As with all surveys, responses are seldom fully reflective of the population. But a sample size of 512 is statistically sound. It gives us a fair representation of sentiment, with an acceptable margin of error (less than 5 per cent).

The findings should not come as a big surprise. The Land Transport Authority's own public transport satisfaction survey, released in March, was just as telling.

Results of the last poll, done in October, revealed that the percentage of commuters satisfied with the public transport system was at its lowest since 2007.

The percentage satisfied with the MRT slipped from 92.1 per cent to 88.9 per cent - its lowest since the first poll in 2006.

But the proportion of those who were satisfied with buses went up to 88.3 per cent, from 86.4 per cent in 2012.

What is surprising though, is how this growing unhappiness seems to fly in the face of hard data.

For instance, SMRT's operating data indicate that trains are now less crowded than they were in 2011. In its latest annual report, the company said the average number of passengers occupying a carriage was 64.5 in 2013 - down substantially from 70.6 in 2011.

In fact, at 64.5, the trains were less packed than they were in 2001 (65.5).

As for rail service disruptions, LTA data showed the number of incidents leading to delays of more than five minutes per 100,000km operated had also fallen significantly - from 1.75 to 1.18.

So why are people still grumbling?

One reason could be that even though trains are less occupied on average, they are still packed to the brim during peak hours.

The same applies to station platforms, especially when the connecting train on the other end does not arrive on time.

The perception of how crowded a train is, is also coloured by other factors - including effectiveness of the air-conditioning, travelling speed, commuter behaviour on board, noise and vibration levels, and even how quickly doors open at a stop.

And although the number of incidents per 100,000km has plunged, the absolute number is still fairly high (311 in 2013, versus 396 in 2012 and 393 in 2011).

Also, there may be other forms of delay that are not captured, such as trains which are travelling at speeds lower than what commuters are used to.

And the number of major breakdowns has not really come down.

For delays of more than 30 minutes, there were 11 in 2011, and eight each in 2012 and 2013. For delays of more than an hour, there were six, four and five in 2011, 2012 and 2013 respectively.

In the first four months of this year alone, there were about half a dozen incidents that caused delays of more than 30 minutes.

Evidently, the impact of disruptions today is bigger than a decade ago, simply because more people are taking the train now.

Last year, rail ridership hit a record 2.75 million - more than double 2003's figure.

So, when there is a breakdown, chances are that twice the number of people are affected than 10 years ago. The outcome is often close to mayhem. No amount of bus bridging will be enough to absorb the number of passengers displaced by a rail disruption.

A comprehensive rail network may be able to mitigate the effects of a breakdown, but even then, there is no guarantee.

A senior executive of a top-performing metro told The Straits Times recently that there is a disconnect between data and how people feel on the ground.

Commuters, he said, do not remember "averages" or "statistics". But they remember major delays - especially if they happen in succession. That may well explain the diminishing satisfaction commuters in Singapore feel, despite seemingly rosier operating performance figures.

It also underlines the importance of a stringent maintenance regimen.

There is a video clip making its rounds on the Internet that shows how the Japanese do it. Shot by Discovery Channel, On-Time Metro explains why the Japanese mass transit system is so dependable.

Track maintenance includes lifting the running rail and repacking the ballast (granite chips) below. Every four years, trains are taken apart to be refurbished. The bogies (chassis) are washed at high temperatures till they are spotless. Then they are stripped down completely to be hand-polished, part by part.

A recent visitor to a Japanese train yard relates this to The Straits Times: "The wheels were so clean, it's nearly impossible to tell them apart from brand-new ones."

Clearly, such a stringent maintenance programme is costly. But a poorly maintained system is costly too - perhaps even more so. The difference is that the latter is borne mainly by commuters, instead of shareholders.

There are, of course, glitches that have little to do with maintenance.

Singapore's newish North-East and Circle lines are cases in point. The Circle Line's power cables were replaced when the line was merely three years old. And 1,600 U-bolts holding up the North-East Line's power lines had to be replaced when the line was barely 10 years old.

After a spate of breakdowns in recent months, Hong Kong MTR chief executive Jay Walder admitted publicly that the company's sourcing of materials and quality assurance were its weakest points.

If the first step to correcting a mistake is to admit it, then MTR is on the right track. In Singapore, no one had ever admitted fault for the premature failure of infrastructural assets on the Circle and North-East lines.

Besides being dependable, an excellent transport system has to have high accessibility and connectivity. They make it easier for commuters to get from origin to destination, as well as improve the first- and last-mile experience.

In tropical Singapore, that can mean the difference between a happy traveller, and a hot and bothered one.

This brings us back to the survey. If nothing else, it serves as a reality check. And a reminder that when it comes to gauging how well we are doing as a country, hard numbers sometimes do not add up.

Initiatives since 2011

- Bought additional trains for MRT and LRT
- Sengkang Punggol LRT to a two-car system
- Committed to doubling rail network to 360km by 2030
- Introduced free MRT rides and other travel demand management initiatives
- Appointed contractor to upgrade signalling system on the North-South and East-West lines
- Modified interior of existing trains
- Rolled out Bus Service Enhancement Programme

- Convened a Committee of Inquiry to probe two massive disruptions
- Tightened the regulatory oversight by LTA over operators; joint teams formed to improve reliability
- Raised the maximum fine for disruptions
- Replacing major components on the North-South and East-West lines, including sleepers and third rail
- Refurbishing older North-South and East-West trains
- Replaced power cables on Circle Line
- Replacing stainless steel parts of overhead power system on North-East Line

Parallel bus services draw more commuters
Ridership for 11 routes to city has grown - some by more than double
By Royston Sim, The Straits Times, 12 May 2014

BUS services rolled out under a billion-dollar scheme to ease train congestion have proven to be a hit.

Ridership for 11 such routes from outlying towns to the city, called "parallel" bus services by the Land Transport Authority (LTA), has grown since their respective debuts, in some cases by more than double.

For instance, the average daily ridership for Yishun service 850E grew from 199 in February last year to 489 in March this year, LTA figures show. Similarly, the number of daily rides on Woodlands route 951E rose from 221 last June to 509 in March.

"The demand for parallel bus services has been encouraging," said LTA group director for public transport Yeo Teck Guan.

Commuters and MPs say the new routes are popular for reasons including convenience, shorter travelling time and greater comfort compared with the MRT.

The new services comprise four routes by operators SBS Transit and SMRT as well as seven privately-run City Direct services.

Each route usually starts out with two morning trips and two evening ones but more are added if needed. For instance, four morning trips have been added to the Yishun 850E route, and three to the Woodlands 951E one. The LTA will work with the bus operators to increase service frequency if needed, said Mr Yeo.

Nee Soon GRC MP Lim Wee Kiak said demand has been strong from Sembawang residents for service 656, which takes them to Shenton Way.

The buses were filled from day one. And three runs of the service in the morning still cannot meet demand, said Dr Lim, who has asked LTA to add a fourth trip.

These new routes were put on the roads as part of the $1.1 billion Bus Service Enhancement Programme. With trains getting more crowded in recent years, these bus services have been called into action to serve commuters who would otherwise take a feeder bus and transfer to the MRT.

More are on the cards: Three more City Direct routes to serve Hougang, Bedok and Eunos will be added in the third quarter of this year.

Dr Park Byung Joon, an urban transport management expert at UniSIM, said ridership will improve over time as more people become aware of the bus services.

But while it is always good for commuters to have more options, parallel buses should remain a supplementary means of public transportation, he said.

"Buses cannot match trains in terms of passenger capacity and reliability," Dr Park said. "When all MRT networks are built, trains should be the backbone of public transport."

The buses are a boon for commuters such as claims manager Nancy Tay, 58, who takes City Direct service 652 from Ang Mo Kio to the Central Business District for work. She does not always get a seat, but the journey takes only 30 minutes, compared with about an hour if she takes service 55 to Bishan and switches to the MRT.

"This bus goes direct to my office and it saves time. The MRT is always very packed," she said.

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