Friday 20 June 2014

Operating public buses: Lessons from London

Getting the public bus system right is no easy road. Private operators need to make money, commuters want affordable fares and good service. Singapore is now looking to the London solution of contracted routes. Is this the ticket to a better ride?
By Royston Sim, The Straits Times, 14 Jun 2014

LONDON resident Peter Smith may be 78, but he happily takes the bus at least twice a week. The retiree says the bus system has improved since the switch from a single, nationalised operator to a contracting model.

"The buses are much better than they used to be. There are more of them, and they travel faster because of the bus lanes."

London's bus system is a success - ridership has grown, service reliability has improved and customer satisfaction is at a record high.

But it did not arrive at this state without several wrong turns along the way.

The experience holds lessons for Singapore, where a gradual change to contract-based routes awarded under a tender system was announced last month, to raise the quality of service.

Currently, licensed private operators SBS Transit and SMRT run public buses according to standards set by the Public Transport Council.

But in recent years, commuter complaints about overcrowding and long waits have increased.

Continuing pressures on the bus network mean it is timely for a rethink of the relationship between the Government and operators, says Mr Richard Smith from consultancy CH2M Hill, which recently did a study on bus contracting here.

The former director of planning at Transport for London (TfL) - the equivalent of the Land Transport Authority (LTA) - notes that an expanding MRT network will mean major changes to the bus network.

"A contracting model will enable the LTA to specify more directly the routes, frequencies and capacities required," he says.

Insight went along for a ride in London to see how its system works, and how that might translate here.

The road to improvement

IN SINGAPORE, customer satisfaction with buses has long been below levels seen with the MRT.

An annual survey on public transport found that 82.3 per cent of commuters were satisfied with buses in 2007 compared with 94.2 per cent for the MRT. However, satisfaction with buses increased to 88.3 per cent last year.

That was thanks to more buses, via the Bus Service Enhancement Programme (BSEP) introduced in September 2012. This puts 550 state-funded buses on the road to increase capacity.

The BSEP was an acknowledgment that private, profit-driven operators could not improve bus services at the scale or speed that the Government desired.

SBS Transit and SMRT were reluctant to increase their fleets too quickly, as they were making losses on their bus operations, and fare increases had not kept pace with rising costs. But commuters resisted fare hikes, as both operators remained profitable overall.

With the BSEP under way, the LTA focused on finding a more sustainable system, and it looked mainly to London and Perth for role models.

In London, a combination of better service and greater capacity saw bus ridership surge to 2.4 billion passengers a year in 2012/2013, up 69 per cent from levels 12 years ago.

Bus operators compete in tenders to operate routes for a duration of five years, with a two-year extension for good performance.

The contracts are termed quality incentive contracts. Under these gross cost contracts, TfL keeps the fares (as the LTA plans to do here) and pays operators a sum to run services, but an incentive-penalty scheme is worked in to keep service quality high.

Operators are paid about £4 million (S$8.4 million) to £5 million a year. An amount (£5 a mile, for example) is deducted for mileage not operated for reasons such as bus breakdowns or staff showing up late. Operators are not penalised for traffic disruptions.

Routes are typically tendered in tranches of five to six, with 15-20 per cent of the network tendered each year.

However, until 1985, buses in London were run under a nationalised model.

That year, London Transport (now known as TfL) started competitive tendering to reduce the cost of providing bus services.

Mr Simon Thomas, contracts tendering manager for TfL's bus division, tells Insight this was done "slowly" and "quite cautiously" - something Singapore seems to have learnt from with its careful approach.

In 1989, London Transport's subsidiary was split into 13 smaller, publicly owned companies to compete with private operators.

These were privatised by January 1995, and London Transport then began experimenting with net cost contracts on new routes.

For net cost contracts, unlike gross cost, operators keep the fares and bear revenue risk.

"The theory is that operators would have the incentive to provide better quality of service if they had some benefit financially," Mr Thomas says.

However, service quality took a hit, and London Transport faced opposition when it tried to make changes to the network, as operators would argue that their revenue was affected and ask to renegotiate contracts.

Says Mr Jaspal Singh, chief executive of London bus operator Metroline, a subsidiary of SBS Transit's parent company ComfortDelGro: "With net cost, it was chaos on the road.

"The operators would not want to leave the bus stop because the more passengers they got, the more they benefited."

London abandoned the net cost model after 1998, introducing quality incentive contracts in 2001.

The incentive-penalty scheme has helped improve service reliability, with buses now late by no more than a minute on average, down from two minutes in 2001.

CH2M Hill's Mr Smith says the gross cost model is suitable for Singapore as the bidding process is straightforward, and it allows for flexibility to change routes or schedules.

The London network regulated by TfL has 700 routes run by seven major bus operators and several smaller ones.

Buses and depots are bought and owned by the operators - one facet of London's system that Singapore will not adopt. Here, the Government will buy new buses, and it is still deciding how to pay for those owned by the operators.

The LTA follows Perth's example instead, where Transperth owns a fleet of 1,300 public buses and leases them to the operators. The LTA has said this helps lower entry barriers.

Issues for Singapore

SOMETHING that Singapore is still in the process of sorting out from the London experience is how the latter subjects operators that want to bid for routes to a pre-qualification system.

Under London's system, checks are done on a firm's financial status, management capability, depot proposal and previous experience, among other things.

Singapore will feature some form of vetting process as well for parties interested in bidding for the first route packaged to be tendered later this year, but details are still being worked out.

Another aspect that cost-conscious Singapore will have to weigh up: "The tender evaluation is based on the most economically advantageous tender," Mr Thomas says. "That doesn't mean to say lowest cost always wins."

Factors taken into consideration include driver recruitment plans, having enough buses, schedules, service control and the ability to start on time.

Metroline chief operating officer Sean O'Shea estimates that TfL awards about 75 per cent of tenders to the lowest bidders.

With nearly 19 per cent of the London bus market, Metroline is the third-largest player there.

Mr John Trayner, managing director of Go-Ahead London - the largest of the city's operators - notes that staff costs, including those for drivers, account for 60-65 per cent of its bids.

Fuel costs take up about 10 per cent; other costs include those for engineering and vehicles.

Go-Ahead generally prices for a profit margin of 10 per cent in its contracts, Mr Trayner notes.

At Metroline, Mr O'Shea says labour costs account for 65-70 per cent of its bids.

In Singapore, various parties have expressed interest - including incumbents SBS Transit and SMRT, Australia's Tower Transit and local private bus operators such as Woodlands Transport, which is one of the largest.

Nanyang Technological University adjunct associate professor Gopinath Menon says the incumbents have the advantage of experience, but does not rule out a new party winning the tender.

"It depends on the price," he says. "Take Woodlands Transport - they've been in the business for some time and have run premium bus services."

Under the contracting regime, London has seen customer satisfaction with buses rise from 75.3 per cent in 2001/2002 to a high of 82 per cent now.

A key factor that Singapore must consider is that an extensive bus service does not come cheap - TfL pumps in a subsidy of several hundred million pounds a year.

Still, TfL has managed to reduce that from £563 million in 2008/2009 to £377 million in 2012/2013.

Mr Thomas says this was done by tightening standards on its contracts, so it does not pay out as much in bonuses.

In addition, each route is now contested by an average of three operators, he says. "Because the good quality competition is there, prices have been coming down. The cost of running the bus network has been reduced."

With Singapore moving to a similar model, observers expect that the LTA will have to fork out more money to subsidise the network, in return for better service.

"It's inevitable," says Assoc Prof Menon.

A big question mark remains over fares under the new model, however.

With SBS Transit and SMRT still running the MRT in addition to buses, the LTA has said they will continue to apply to the Public Transport Council for fare increases. What this means for bus fares is unclear.

Londoners, meanwhile, appear hardened to the reality of annual fare increases, based on a formula of the Retail Price Index plus one per cent.

Following suit

WHILE not without its challenges, the London example demonstrates how a well-regulated bus system run by private operators can work.

Competition keeps bus operators on their toes, while quality incentive contracts still allow them to earn profits, provided costs are well-managed.

The competitive tendering means TfL is able to get a high-quality bus service that remains cost-effective.

And commuters like the improvements.

Says financial analyst Sean Donahoe, 29, who has lived in London for 21/2 years and takes the bus regularly: "It's great. The buses are efficient, and I can usually board the first one."

The route to a new system
- 2006/2007: Consultant Booz Allen Hamilton engaged to conduct a review of land transport
- 2008: Government reveals intention to introduce competitive tendering to the bus industry in its Land Transport Masterplan
- 2009: LTA takes over as master bus route planner
- 2012: $1.1 billion Bus Service Enhancement Programme announced
- 2013: LTA engages consultant CH2M Hill to study bus contracting in Singapore
- 2014: Government announces move to a bus contracting model, routes to be split into 12 packages for tendering
- Second half of 2014: First package of routes to be tendered out
- 2016: SBS Transit and SMRT's operating licences expire, will run nine of 12 route packages under new model for about five years
- 2022: More bus services to be tendered out after contracts expire
- Beyond 2022: Three to five operators to run the 12 packages of bus routes

How London does it: Pro-active intervention key to beating gridlock
By Royston Sim, The Straits Times, 14 Jun 2014

IT IS Wednesday, June 4 - the date of the annual State Opening of Parliament in central London.

Roads around the Houses of Parliament are closed, and traffic has slowed to a crawl.

The gridlock is wreaking havoc on bus schedules. Mr Jorge Perea Suarez, 49, a bus controller with operator Go-Ahead London, tells Insight: "All my services are affected."

One service he is monitoring from Go-Ahead's Stockwell Garage control centre is No. 68, which usually has an interval of eight to 10 minutes but is now arriving every 25 minutes or worse. Mr Suarez starts instructing drivers to cut short their trips. He sends these buses around the congested area to serve passengers at stops farther down the route so they do not have to wait too long.

"There's no point sending every bus through," he says. Such pro-active intervention is the key to buses running at regular intervals.

Bus operators in London are placed under "Quality Incentive Contracts", which reward or penalise them based on excess waiting time (EWT) - the average time commuters spend waiting at a bus stop when a bus is late.

Operators get a bonus of 1.5 per cent of the annual contract price for every 0.1 minute improvement in EWT above a set baseline standard, up to 15 per cent.

Conversely, they can be penalised up to 10 per cent of the annual contract price for falling below the prescribed standard.

Since the incentive-penalty contracts were introduced, EWT has gone down from two minutes to one over 10 years.

Go-Ahead has about 130 controllers managing its buses.

It is vital to have the right schedule and good control strategies, says Go-Ahead managing director John Trayner. "We maintain 'headway' almost like a religion. We're looking at every vehicle, when it's going to be held up, what do we need to do - communicating to the people and making sure that it works."

Operator Metroline, a subsidiary of Singapore's ComfortDelGro, has about 180 service controllers.

They undergo intense training, and a significant part of their daily job is cutting routes short to keep service at regular intervals, says Metroline chief operating officer Sean O'Shea.

Metroline chief executive Jaspal Singh notes that controllers have to check with bus authority TfL's own controllers before curtailing routes, as they oversee the entire bus network.

Since 2012, TfL has begun using a system named iBus that allows it to track the location of every bus in London in real-time. Bus routes are relatively short to help reliability, says TfL contracts tendering manager Simon Thomas, adding that there are long routes but the majority do not exceed 11km to 13km.

Singapore in April this year awarded a $68 million contract for a similar centralised fleet management system. SBS and SMRT currently use separate systems. Singapore is also trying out an incentive-penalty scheme on 22 bus routes with reliability problems.

Another aspect Singapore has studied is how bus drivers' interests are taken care of when they are affected by contracting.

In London, bus driver transfers are governed through legislation called Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006, or TUPE.

This gives drivers on a route that changes hands the right to move to the new operator, on equal or better contract terms.

For instance, 1,000 out of Go-Ahead's 6,000 bus drivers moved over through TUPE.

Genesis of major shift in Singapore's bus system
By Royston Sim, The Straits Times, 14 Jun 2014

THE idea of a bus contracting system came up as early as 2006, when the Government embarked on a thorough review of the land transport sector.

It engaged international consultant Booz Allen Hamilton to study how it could improve public transport; and one of the suggestions was for a system where buses bid for routes to run.

The consultant was not the only one who thought Singapore should adopt this model, which has proven to be successful in cities such as London and Perth.

Mr Cedric Foo, current and then chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Transport, had also proposed carving up the island into regions, and letting companies bid to operate in each region for a specified tenure.

He made that suggestion then as the status quo of a duopoly was unsatisfactory, he recalled. "There were only two players (SBS Transit and SMRT), each operating bus services for different parts of Singapore," he said. "There was no competition, and I believe effective competition will drive performance."

The Government took heed - in its 2008 Masterplan, it outlined plans to have operators compete for packages of bus services. Other major changes included making the Land Transport Authority (LTA) the master bus route planner in 2009.

The rationale was that if it opened the market up to competition, operators would be compelled to provide better service and become more efficient - which in turn could lower costs.

Yet, it wasn't until last month that the Government announced it was ready to make the shift.

Why did it take six years?

Mr Yeo Teck Guan, LTA's group director for public transport, told Insight that several factors held back the implementation of the new model.

First, the LTA introduced distance-based fares in 2010 to eliminate transfer penalties and opened the Circle Line in stages from 2009 to 2011.

It had expected demand for certain bus services to change as a result, and wanted to wait for demand patterns to stabilise before calling any tenders, he said.

Then, when grouses about overcrowding on trains and a spate of breakdowns happened in 2011, the authorities' priority quickly shifted to solving those problems, which they tried to do by pumping in $1.1 billion to put 550 more buses on the roads.

Planners also felt a logical time to introduce the sweeping changes would be in August 2016, when operating licences held by the two bus operators, SBS Transit and SMRT, expire.

Finally, issues such as ownership of bus assets and type of contract for the new model had to be ironed out as well, Mr Yeo said.

"You must have a set of specifications that can tell very clearly what is going to happen throughout the length of the contract," he said. "If you have uncertainty, you're not going to get a cost-effective proposal."

When the overcrowding on trains surfaced as a hot-button issue in 2011, the LTA had yet to decide if it should own the buses and depots under the new model.

And even if tenders were called at that time to introduce competition, it would have taken a new operator two to three years before it was ready to run services, Mr Yeo said. "Because of the rail capacity issue, we needed to introduce alternatives quickly."

Discussions on competition "really sped up" while the $1.1 billion Bus Service Enhancement Programme (BSEP) was being implemented, he said. As part of the BSEP, the LTA started contracting out bus routes to private operators last year, in a prelude to the contracting model.

Last November, it engaged consultant CH2M Hill to make a contestable bus model work in Singapore.

The firm recommended that the LTA adopt a gross cost contract, where it keeps fare revenue and absorbs revenue risk, instead of a net cost contract, where the operator keeps the fares.

Mr Richard Smith, transportation director with CH2M Hill, said: "Gross cost is a useful model to start where there is a need to bring about reform."

With a gross cost model, the bidding process is straightforward, he said. The model also allows the regulator the flexibility to change routes based on demand, and better integrate bus services with train services.

Various experts told the LTA there would be greater competition if barriers to entry were lowered, Mr Yeo said.

The LTA settled on owning the buses, so potential operators would not have to make that substantial investment.

It also decided to own the bus depots, to overcome the issue of land scarcity, as new operators could have difficulty finding new sites in developed areas. This move is to ensure depots would not be located in areas where buses had to ply long distances just to get on their routes.

This major shift in adopting a part-nationalised model marks the latest evolution in Singapore's bus system, which in the 1960s had 11 unregulated private bus companies that controlled different territories.

Those companies merged into three firms in 1970 under a directive from the Government, and combined again in 1973 to form Singapore Bus Services (now SBS Transit).

In 1982, Trans-Island Bus Services (now SMRT Buses) became the second public bus operator - the arrangement in place today.

The Government had received complaints about the SBS monopoly back then, and allowed a second player into the market to introduce some competition.

As for the new model, the biggest challenge would be how to transition smoothly from one operator to another, said Mr Yeo. One option the LTA is exploring is to further divide each package of routes into tranches for handover, so a new operator does not assume control of more than 20 routes in a single day.

This could minimise disruptions to commuters, and also give a new operator more time to hire drivers if needed, he said.

"We don't underestimate the scale of the challenges, and the complexity of the issues. There may be hiccups along the way, but we'll do our very best."

Mr Jaspal Singh, chief executive of London bus operator Metroline which is a subsidiary of SBS Transit's parent group ComfortDelGro, calls this latest move "revolutionary".

"The Government is formally taking over responsibility and accountability for the provision of public transport," he said. "If it is implemented the way London has implemented it... issues of reliability and inadequate capacity will be a thing of the past."

Moving to a new bus contracting model - lessons from London
Public bus transportation is set to change in Singapore as it moves towards a government contracting model for the industry. Our reporter looks at how London transitioned to a similar model.
By Saifulbahri Ismail, Channel NewsAsia, 13 Jun 2014

LONDON: London is one of the most congested cities in Europe. It has a population of more than eight million, most of them using the bus for transport. Moving large numbers of passengers efficiently is a challenge. So to improve service reliability, the city introduced the contracting regime in the mid-1980s. For the first time, there was open competition in the market.

"Undoubtedly it was scary at times, things were changing, companies were being privatised, new people were coming to compete in London," said Mr John Trayner, Managing Director of bus operator Go-Ahead London. "You're constantly learning, you're constantly trying to make yourself as efficient as you can, as competitive as you can, and each time a route contract comes up for grabs, you are learning something more about what the competition is doing, what you are doing to keep ahead of them, and it's constant innovation to be honest."

Under the London contracting model, bus services are tendered by routes. Operators compete for routes regularly. Each contract is worth between three and four million pounds.

Singapore-listed company ComfortDelgro entered the market 15 years ago, when it bought over Metroline. 

"The competition here is very fierce. There are several operators who are operating in the market. If you know your business, if you know how to price your bids, if you know how to run your routes reliably, you can make a good return. If you can't, then you will be forced out of the market," said Mr Jaspal Singh, Chief Executive Officer of Comfort Delgro in the UK and Ireland.

Over the years, many operators have left. London now consists of seven major companies, operating about 96 per cent of the market. Go-Ahead London is the biggest company, with a quarter of the market share.

Stockwell garage is one of 17 depots owned by Go-Ahead London. The depot can hold 200 buses, and it serves about 15 routes. "Depots like these are important for a bus operator, because it allows them to compete for routes when they go up for tender," explained Go-Ahead bus driver Dane Wellington.

The winning operator runs the route for five years. The tender can be extended for two more years for good performance. However, in competitive tendering, operators may also lose routes to other companies. And when routes change hands, bus drivers may also get transferred. 

Go-Ahead London has 6,000 drivers - 1,000 of which are from other companies.

Said Mr Trayner: "It's a communication exercise. The biggest factor most drivers are concerned with is job security. Can we retain their work? Can we keep their work in the garage they work from?"

"Personally it's not something that I will be looking forward to, because this company has been very good to me," said Mr Wellington. "It will be very drastic for me if we were to lose a route and I move on to another company. That's why personally, as a driver, I will try my best to do my work, try to meet the schedule, so the company won't have this problem because losing routes is not very good."

London's transition arrangements ensures the employee's working conditions are not worsened. Workers also have a choice whether to move to the new operator, who may offer a higher salary to incentivise them. However, this may not necessarily be the case if the employee is already earning a high salary. Such transfers are also seen as a loss to operators who have invested heavily in staff development. Well-trained workers are also essential in ensuring the reliability and quality of bus services.

London's iBus system
Controllers at London's CentreCom are responsible for keeping the city moving, watching over the entire fleet of the city's buses. They use the iBus system, which includes satellite technology, to track every bus.
By Saifulbahri Ismail, Channel NewsAsia, 13 Jun 2014

LONDON: When Singapore moves to a government contracting model for the public bus industry, there will be open competition in the market.

It's a model which has worked in cities like London, one of the most congested cities in Europe.

It has a population of more than eight million, most of them using the bus for transport.

To improve service reliability, London introduced the contracting regime in the mid-1980s.

And, bus operators in the city are graded using a system called "excess waiting time" (EWT).

This is the average time passengers wait over and above what would have been expected if the service was running exactly as scheduled.

Our reporter was in London to look at the city's iBus system, which controllers at London's CentreCom use to track every bus.

Alex Moffat, manager (performance development) at Transport for London, said: "They can see if the bus is late, the bus is early, or there are long gaps between the buses, or bunching up, and then they can take actions to improve that performance, such as separating the gaps, splitting up bunches. We get much better performance, because the operators know where the buses are, and they can intervene."

Controllers can intervene by putting more buses on the route or pull them out out of service so they can stay on schedule.

Curtailing the buses means that passengers will be asked to get off, and take the next bus which comes along.

There are also iBus control centres at individual depots where controllers work with CentreCom and communicate with drivers, who alert them of incidents on the roads.

Jorge Andres Perea, Go-Ahead London controller, said: "The drivers are my eyes on the road, and if I maintain good communications with them, they will never hesitate in calling me just to give me the information. If the road closure is ahead, I will be able to actually tell the driver to divert."

Information from the bus control centre is also shared with commuters so they can plan their journeys better.

Countdown is a real time display information that predicts the arrival time of buses. It is available at 2,500 selected bus stops, and the information can also be found via apps on the mobile phone.

The arrival times displayed here are generally reliable, and accurate.

Since iBus was introduced, excess wait time has been reduced to one minute - down from the earlier 1.2 minutes.

The improvements also mean operators have to meet higher standards.

Go-Ahead London managing director John Trayner said: "As we improve performance, that new performance becomes your new target. When the contract is re-tendered, it becomes ever more difficult to continue to achieve, and improve that performance. Across the whole London bus network now, the EWT of one minute is difficult to improve on, but we are now looking at ways we can do that, where we can squeeze every last bit out."

This has translated to better commuter experience.

The latest Transport for London report showed passenger satisfaction at a record 83 per cent.

London TravelWatch's director for policy and investigation, Tim Bellenger, said: "The contracting regime has been here for quite some time, and it has worked very well. We see a wide range of people using the bus network right across different aspects of society. So, passenger confidence in the bus network has been built on that strong experience of having, knowing what exactly they are going to get from the bus network."

"Buses in the morning (are) very fast, they are quite on time generally. Obviously, there are a lot of people using the public transport, so you have to wait maybe one or two buses, but overall the consistency is pretty good," said bus commuter Umesh Kumar.

"It would be nice if we can clear the roads a little bit more, so you don't get stuck in traffic jams all the time," said bus commuter Jo Tinning-Clowes.

Clearing the roads is a big challenge in a city which is constantly growing.

Bus operators hope London authorities can alleviate congestion and give buses more priority on the roads.

Key lessons from London’s bus services
By Joy Fang, TODAY, 23 Jun 2014

Two weeks ago, I headed to London for a trip sponsored by the Land Transport Authority (LTA) to learn about the bus system there, armed with a sceptical attitude.

London’s bus system has often made the news for the wrong reasons. Fare hikes, choking traffic and bus driver strikes — the most recent was in 2012, which was over demands for a £500 (S$1,060) Olympics bonus and brought services to a halt — often make the headlines there.

But what I saw surprised me. Despite heavy traffic, the bus system is efficient (most of the time) and seemingly runs like clockwork.

In Aldwych, in the heart of London, bus service 11 — which cuts through some of the city’s most famous landmarks such as Westminster Abbey and Trafalgar Square — shows up every three to four minutes.

A check with the live bus arrival board at the bus stop showed that other buses arrived as frequently and were as punctual.


The Government has pushed hard to improve the bus system here, launching the S$1.1 billion Bus Service Enhancement Programme in 2012 to increase bus capacity and the recent bus contracting model to improve services.

There are promising signs. The LTA’s public transport satisfaction survey released in March indicated that the proportion of those who were satisfied with buses went up to 88.3 per cent, from 86.4 per cent in 2012. Bus ridership climbed 3.4 per cent last year to 3.6 million a day.

Still, Singapore can do well to learn a few things from the English.

My take — keep routes short, look after the welfare of drivers, enforce bus lane rules strictly and keep bus performances tight.

Over here, lengthy waits and complicated routes are common grouses.

Many analysts have pointed to more simplified routes as a more effective measure to reduce bunching or bus gaps and this is true in London’s system.

Routes that ply London’s city centre are generally around 9km to 14km long, with some hitting 16km to 19km. Service 11’s, for example, is 11km long.

There is also some duplication, with a few services plying the same stretch, giving commuters more options.

In comparison, many bus routes here span long distances. SBS Transit’s service 51 travels 38km from Hougang Central to Jurong East, passing through Geylang, Chinatown, Commonwealth Avenue and West Coast. Service 30 traverses a similar distance, plying between Bedok and Boon Lay and passing through Old Airport, Pasir Panjang and Teban Gardens Roads.

SMRT’s service 858 travels from Woodlands Regional Interchange and loops at Changi Airport, covering a distance of about 73km.

Dr Alex Erath, a Future Cities Laboratory senior researcher, found in recent studies on bus systems in Singapore that splitting a long bus route into two parts can potentially increase reliability by 35 per cent. To me, it seems almost common sense that a long route means it is subjected to more unpredictable traffic conditions and unreliable service.

Culture also makes a difference. Londoners are a more laid-back bunch. Disruptions from strikes or curtailment — London’s solution to delays which involves ending a service midway, letting commuters alight and sending the bus to skirt the congested areas and serve those further down the route — are taken with nary a protest. These are seen as par for the course. Londoners simply get on with it and find other ways, like what one commuter told me.

Curtailment will be impossible here, until Singaporeans learn a more forgiving attitude and treat hiccups with more magnanimity.

The system, too, has to make it much easier for commuters here. There are too few alternatives should commuters have to alight from their bus midway through.

Another issue Singapore faces is unprofitable routes. The authorities here are working around this problem under the new model by grouping routes and tendering them out in packages.

But this was never a problem in London, which tenders out routes individually and has seven major operators. The question of non-profitable routes does not come into play, because there is no loss if you price the contract right, explained Mr John Trayner, managing director of Go-Ahead London, which has 6,000 drivers for its 2,200 bus fleet. Most operators can earn a profit just from the contract value, if they keep to their estimated costs, he added.


The London system, of course, is not without flaws. Issues with drivers’ welfare, the huge passenger load and vehicular traffic could introduce snags into the well-oiled system.

In a way, London is a victim of its own success. About 6.5 million passengers travel by bus a day and ridership has increased to a record 2.4 billion passenger boardings in the financial year of 2013, up 69 per cent from 1999. Huge passenger numbers have led to gripes about crowded buses, especially during peak hours.

Mr Trayner said everything from buses to depots are at full capacity and one glitch could lead to a gridlock in the system.

But passenger satisfaction remains high because of extensive bus priority lanes and strict timelines.

London bus fares are much higher than Singapore’s too. At a flat fee of £1.45, those who are travelling shorter distances are disadvantaged. Bus fares have been increasing the past six years at rates higher than inflation.

Furthermore, with their Quality Incentive Contracts regime in place, which awards incentives or penalties based on the quality of service, drivers are on a tight schedule, plying routes like a race against time.

Mr Trayner told reporters that the bus operators maintain headway — or gaps between buses — almost like a religion.

The obsession with timings has implications. At an Aldwych bus station, where drivers can park their vehicles for a short break, drivers seem to have little time for themselves. They stay in their vehicles and within minutes they are off. When I approached one who came out for a smoke break, he tersely told me: “I have no time, I only have three minutes.”

A driver there works an average of 36 hours for a five-day week, but that could stretch to more than 40 hours with overtime.

Fatigue can be a issue for drivers put through such a relentless pace. Their welfare and the safety of passengers have to take priority over the pursuit of excellence.

Singapore has found it hard to recruit Singaporeans to be bus drivers. If the demands of the job go up, this task would become even harder.

To be fair, London’s success did not occur overnight. It took more than a decade to reduce excess waiting times by more than a minute.

So it behooves us to be patient and to know that these things, ultimately, take time, even with the strongest Government commitment.

A bus driver's perspective

I THANK The Straits Times for the articles on public bus operations ("Operating Public Buses: Lessons from London"; last Saturday; and "Results of trial to make buses run on time 'encouraging'"; Tuesday)

As a bus driver, I notice that the input of the person behind the steering wheel is generally missing in discussions about improving the public bus system.

Driving a public bus comes with huge responsibilities.

The driver has to be alert for the 71/2 hours he is on the road, with few breaks between trips. He has to meet customer requirements, arrive at destinations on time and most importantly, maintain safety by being alert to on-board incidents or road hazards.

So his physical and mental well-being is also important when drawing up plans to improve the public bus system.

It is never the intention of the bus operator or its employees to hold up arrival times. Such accusations are unjust. Take, for instance, service 178, which plies between Woodlands Regional Interchange and Boon Lay Interchange.

The route is about 30km long. There are 34 bus stops along the way and more than 40 pedestrian crossings and traffic lights. The buses are dispatched from the interchange every 15 minutes by a timekeeper. But it can take two to nine minutes from the time the driver clocks out from the timekeeper's office to when the bus actually hits the main service road.

This is because the driver has to walk to his bus, safely reverse it out of its bay and drive to the designated berth, where he waits as passengers board. If the bus travels at 60kmh (the speed limit allowed) non-stop from Woodlands to Boon Lay, it will take no more than 30 minutes to arrive. But in reality, it takes 80 to 105 minutes.

If the bus is held up by roadworks or traffic congestion, the next bus deployed may eventually catch up if it does not encounter similar obstructions on its trip. One suggestion to avoid this "bus bunching" is to dispatch the next bus only when the preceding bus reaches the first traffic light on the main service route. This is possible as all buses are monitored by GPS.

I appreciate the efforts, perseverance and commitment of all parties - from the Transport Ministry to the Public Transport Council to bus operators and my colleagues - for aiming to make bus rides comfortable and convenient.

Wong Kam Wah
ST Forum, 20 Jun 2014


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