Transport – BT

Transport Central – on its way to wean you off cars

LTA will play central planner; more operators in bus industry to raise efficiency

In moves that will nudge car owners to hop onto public transport for a quick and comfortable ride, the government has unveiled plans to integrate bus and rail services and to open up the basic bus service industry to more operators.

The changes were announced yesterday by Transport Minister Raymond Lim and are part of a land transport review which seeks to make public transport the preferred mode of travel.

Among the initiatives being rolled out:

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) will take a centralised bus planning role from end-2009.

There will be more bus lanes and an extension of the full-day bus lane scheme.

On the road, buses will have priority over other vehicles when exiting bus bays and at major junctions.

After 2009, the bus service industry will be gradually opened up and routes tendered out.

A review of the rail network, cars and the road system was also undertaken and the respective details will be announced over the next couple of weeks.

Yesterday, Mr Lim said that the land transport review sought to answer the key question: What will it take for the majority of Singaporeans to choose the bus or MRT over the car? With the current 8.9 million daily journeys today set to jump to 14.3 million by 2020, making public transport the centrepiece of Singapore’s land transport system is crucial.

‘We will invest in quality, not just system capacity,’ he said. ‘We need to ask: Can people get to a train station or bus stop quickly and comfortably?’

More competition – but of a different kind – is seen as a key element in this strategy.

By next year, buses may not just be adorned with the familiar SBS Transit or SMRT colours. Competition will be introduced to raise efficiency and service levels. There are about 3,700 public buses today, of which 2,900 are SBST‘s. Mr Lim said that economies of scale are limited for bus operators with a fleet size above 500 buses.

‘Our intention is to introduce competition ‘for’ the market, where operators compete periodically for the right to provide a package of bus services designed by the LTA,’ he explained. ‘This is different from competition ‘in’ the market or head-on competition for market share, which would be detrimental to an integrated public transport system where the emphasis is on cooperation to grow the overall pie.’

The LTA could not say how many new operators are expected to enter the field but currently, there are only a handful of private bus operators with a fleet of 50 buses or more. Ironically, the market leader is ComfortDelGro Bus, a subsidiary of ComfortDelGro Corp, the parent company of SBST, with more than 300 buses.

But as with other private bus operators such as Woodlands Transport and Yeap Transport, its mainly school and tour buses are not suited for basic bus services.

‘These private companies will have to invest in new buses if they want to tender for the routes,’ said one bus company executive. ‘But they have also been known to cooperate among themselves as joint ventures, so we will have to see.’

To solve the problems of waiting time, travel time and overcrowding, the government wants to make the hub-and-spoke system seamless. This model, using buses to ferry commuters to a hub from which they will continue their journey on another bus, is more efficient than a direct bus service.

‘We need to improve the connectivity of our hub-and-spoke system, in particular, the integration between the feeders, trunk buses and MRT,’ said Mr Lim. ‘Only then can we ensure seamless transfers and make the whole public transport journey as convenient as possible.’

Currently, the two public transport operators – SBST and SMRT Buses – plan bus routes based on commercial considerations with minimum service obligations. As part of the new people-centric approach, LTA will become the central planner. By 2015, the target is for 80 per cent of public transport commuters to complete their journeys within an hour – up from 71 per cent today. And by 2020, the gap between public transport and car journey times will be reduced, with the former not taking more than 1.5 times the latter – down from the current 1.7 times.

To shorten waiting time for buses and reduce crowding, at least 80 per cent of bus services must be run at peak frequencies of 10 minutes or less by August 2009, compared with 15 minutes today.

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