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TOC Policy Feature: Improving Singapore’s Public Transport System – A Commuter’s Perspective

Posted by theonlinecitizen on February 4, 2008

By Gerald Giam, Selene Cheng, et al.

Objective

This paper seeks to highlight problems and provide suggestions for improving the public transport system in Singapore. It is based on the author’s own experiences as a middle-income commuter who relies almost exclusively on public transport, with input received from fellow commuters.

Land transport a key focus for 2008

In his New Year’s Day message, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that a key focus for 2008 for the government is to improve our public transport system, so that more Singaporeans will take buses and trains instead of driving cars. He acknowledged that the government “can do more to make public transport a choice mode of travel”.

Among the proposed measures PM Lee highlighted were long-term goals like building more rail lines. However, he pointed out that there are some changes which “can and should be made more quickly” like improving bus services, making transfers more convenient, as well as running more trains at peak hours. This policy focus by the PM is certainly welcome news for the millions of Singaporeans who depend on public transport to get around.

In January, Transport Minister Raymond Lim unveiled a series of short and long-term changes to the public transport system, a culmination of the Ministry of Transport’s Land Transport Review. This paper builds upon these proposed changes and offers more recommendations for further improvements.

‘Good’ is not enough

The standard of Singapore‘s public transport system is generally good compared with other major metropolitan areas like Los Angeles and Sydney. However, simply being ‘good’ may not be enough, because of the unique constraints that Singapore faces.

It is the government’s stated goal to make public transport a “choice option” [1]and a “viable alternative to the car” [2]. With just 617 sq km on our main island (much of which is set aside for water catchment and SAF training areas), it is untenable for Singapore to have the same proportion of residents driving their own cars as in, say, Los Angeles, which has a much larger land area.

Hence, with private cars priced out of the reach of most of the population, they are left with little choice but public transport. It is therefore inappropriate to just

benchmark Singapore‘s public transport system against other cities in developed countries. In most of these countries, a car can be purchased for as little as $3,000, making private transport a viable alternative for a much larger percentage of the population. Most Singaporeans enjoy no such luxury. Furthermore, we should not be comparing Singapore with countries that are known to have overcrowded and inferior public transport systems. If there are improvements to be made, Singapore should strive for them rather than look backwards.

There are two broad categories of commuters who regularly take public transport:

Category 1: People who cannot afford to buy a car or take taxis except during emergencies;

Category 2: People who may be able to afford a car in the near future.

For the Category 1 commuters, who are likely to comprise the bottom 50 per cent of income earners, the government has a moral obligation to ensure that the cost of public transport is kept affordable, and that most parts of the island (especially where workplaces are located) are within reach of the bus and rail networks.

Public transport operators SMRT Corporation (SMRT) and SBS Transit (SBST) need to continually explore ways to improve the efficiency of their services, so as to keep their costs and fares affordable for this group of Singaporeans.

Category 2 commuters are probably the target of the government’s efforts to make public transport an attractive alternative to cars and cabs. For this group, comfort, convenience and speed are three main factors besides cost that influence their decision whether to take public transport or to drive.

Once these people switch to driving, it is very unlikely that they will return to using public transport. A recent Singapore Press Holdings survey of 295 people who drive cars showed that only two per cent reverted to taking the MRT or buses [3].

With the expected increase of Singapore‘s population to 6.5 million from the current 4.3 million and the growing affluence of the population as a whole, it is imperative that improvements be implemented soon to make public transport a more attractive option than cars.

Ride or Drive?

For most commuters, the decision on the mode of transport is dictated by three main factors:

a. Comfort

b. Convenience

c. Cost

Lower travel costs are usually the only reason for taking public transport instead of driving. Remove the cost factor, and the comfort, convenience and speed offered by cars or taxis make public transport a hands-down lose.

The key for the government, therefore, is to ensure that costs of public transport are kept low, while increasing comfort and convenience.

As illustrated in Figure 1, as fares and commuters’ income increase, the scale will be tipped in favour of driving. Since fares and income will inevitably increase in the long run, the government and public transport companies need to put in more effort into increasing the comfort and convenience of MRT trains and buses.

Problems and Solutions

As a commuter who relies almost exclusively on public transport, I have observed the following key problem areas in our current public transport system:

· Overcrowded buses and trains;

· Inadequate trip planning facilities;

· Inconsiderate commuters;

· Lack of genuine competition, resulting in ever-increasing fares

This paper offers two sets of suggestions on improving the public transport system in Singapore. The first are the “quick wins” — measures which can be implemented quickly and with minimal cost. The second set of suggestions, while not asking for the moon, will require some policy and perhaps mindset changes to implement.

The Quick Wins

Recommendation 1: Lengthen peak hour timings

Unlike many other major cities I have travelled in, including Tokyo, Singapore‘s MRT is crowded at almost every hour of the day, including late evenings and weekends.

It has become a norm to be standing sandwiched between other passengers for the entire ride. Passengers jostle for personal space. Women passengers clutch their handbags closely to their chests to preserve their modesty. At least 20 per cent of standing passengers have nothing to hold on to, as the grab poles are located at the centre of the carriages. Whenever the train comes to a sudden stop, many of them get thrown off balance. The situation is magnified for pregnant mothers, senior citizens and people with disabilities. It is simply not safe, in many cases, for them to board these crowded trains.

Is it any wonder that many young Singaporeans will swear to buy a car as soon as they can afford it to escape this madness?

The most distressing times to take public transport are during the morning and evening rush hours, or late at night on weekends. According to SMRT, peak hours are defined as:

Monday to Friday, between 8 to 9 am and 5.15 to 6.30 pm

Saturday, between 8.15 to 9 am and 1 to 2.30 pm

During these times, the train frequency is about 2 to 5 minutes. However after “peak hours”, train frequency drops to about 7 to 8 minutes. Disappointingly, SMRT’s “peak hours” do not seem to coincide with the full evening rush hour timings, and curiously neither do they coincide with the taxi peak hour surcharge timings (5 to 8 pm).

Busy professionals rarely leave work in time to make it to the MRT station by 6.30 pm. Many (particularly Category 2 commuters) leave work between 6.15 and 7.30 pm. The result is a space crunch as passengers try to get on the trains between 6.30 and 8 pm. Commuters find themselves packed like sardines on both the North-South and East-West lines.

Later at night between 10 and 11 pm, especially on weekend nights, this crunch situation is repeated when people head home after an evening out in town. Unfortunately, train frequency is not as high as during peak hours and the trains are often packed to overflowing.

SMRT’s 2007 annual report [4] (see Table 1) revealed that while the number of passenger-trips has increased 10 per cent from 2003 to 2007, the number of car kilometres operated actually decreased by 14 per cent. This explains how average car occupancy increased 23 per cent in that same period.

Is it fair for commuters to be paying higher fares yet having to squeeze into much more crowded trains?

 

SMRT should be compelled to increase its train frequency and extend its peak hour timings.

In response to my suggestion on 23 Sep 07 to extend peak hour timings, SMRT responded:

(T)he current train service frequency is sufficient to meet commuter demand during these time (sic).

On the perception of overcrowded trains, we would like to point out that, although our trains are designed with an engineering limit of 1,800 commuters, we rarely carry more than 1,400 commuters per train during peak hours. In fact, the actual typical average passenger load per train is about 1,200. Furthermore, when benchmarked against 15 of the world’s top metro operators from major cities, we are ranked among the top five with one of the lowest density of passengers on our trains. During peak hours, we have an average of four passengers per square metre, as compared to six passengers per square metre for metros located in other densely populated cities.

SMRT has admitted that during peak hours, there are up to 233 passengers squeezed in to each carriage, and that peak hour passenger density is 4 passengers per square metre. Based on my experience commuting at peak periods, it appears 6 passengers per square metre would be a more accurate estimate.

In any case, even 4 passengers per square metre is too close for comfort. As explained earlier, it is immaterial to benchmark our passenger density against other major cities if we want public transport to be the desired option for most Singaporeans.

To solve the overcrowding problem, SMRT should extend the evening peak hours to 8 pm every day (even on weekends) and have a higher frequency during the late evening from 10 to 11 pm. During peak hours, the train frequency should be 2 minutes. After peak hours, a frequency of 3 to 5 minutes should be the norm. There is no reason to have train frequency exceeding 6 minutes at any time of the day.

I note that it was recently announced that the government will be spending $40 billion by 2020 to extend the rail network, and the Land Transport Authority (LTA) will be working with rail operators to run 93 additional train trips per week from February 2008. These are positive steps in the right direction.

Recommendation 2: Develop a harmonized trip-planning e-portal

The available trip-planning facilities on our public transport network are dismal relative to the level of technological advancement of our country.

Although a printed bus guide is available for purchase, it is not convenient to carry around and it is not easy to plan one’s trip using it. SMRT and SBST run their own online bus and MRT guides. However, most people plan their trips based on where they want to go, not which transport company to use. To have to run a web search on both sites is excessively time consuming and confusing.

LTA, SMRT and SBS Transit should jointly develop a harmonised online bus and MRT guide with “intelligent” features that help commuters plan the fastest, most convenient way to get from point A to B — be it on the MRT, buses or a combination of both. This online guide should be viewable even on small mobile screens and should be able to accept queries via SMS.

In order to ensure the best possible product is built using the most appropriate technology available, the government should fund part of its development costs. In addition, the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) should grant permission for the free use of their road maps in this portal.

Long-Haul Changes

Recommendation 3: Tackle inconsiderate behaviour

There is an appalling lack of courtesy and consideration among many commuters. This contributes much of the unpleasantness of taking public transport, especially for less able-bodied people.

Some examples of discourteous behaviour include:

· Not giving up seats to the elderly, pregnant mothers or parents carrying infants;

· Rushing into the train without giving way to alighting passengers;

· Not moving to the centre of the carriage or the back of the bus;

· Leaning against grab poles, preventing others from holding on to them.

Although it is not the core business of public transport operators to teach commuters manners, inculcating a culture of courtesy among commuters could help to make the ride much more enjoyable.

Many commuters do not seem to be aware that they are obliged to abide by certain unofficial rules. For example, the sign located above the corner seats on the MRT, “Please give up this seat to someone who needs it more than you,” is ambiguous and comes across as more of a suggestion than a requirement. It is not surprising that many passengers find it perfectly acceptable to fall asleep (or pretend to do so) on those seats and not give up their seats even if a heavily-pregnant woman is standing in front of them.

The approach of the public transport companies ought then to be

i. Making clear to commuters the behaviour expected of them;

ii. Feed societal pressure to encourage good behaviour;

iii. Work with the Ministry of Education in implementing a social graces programme in schools .

A list of suggestions on how to do this is in the annex at the end of this article.

Recommendation 4: Introduce genuine competition into public transport

SMRT and SBST form a duopoly over public transport in Singapore. Not only do they control both the bus and rail networks, they control the taxi fleet as well. The rationale for the government’s decision to privatise public transport was to reduce costs to the government and to promote greater efficiency brought about by market pressures.

However, market pressures only work if there is genuine competition. This cannot happen when there are only two players in the market.

The recent move by the government to introduce a tendering system for bus routes is sound in principle. However, unless more independent bus operators are allowed to enter the market, the tendering exercises will serve only as window dressing for the same oligopoly.

The government’s concern about allowing more entrants is that it would impede its efforts to have an integrated bus and rail network. This can be addressed by establishing a common set of standards that different operators are obliged to adhere to. For example, ezlink card readers should be installed on all buses, regardless of operator, and these readers must be able to calculate transfer fare reductions. With the LTA taking over the centralised planning of public transport routes, it would not take much more effort to plan for more than two bus companies to cover all the necessary routes in Singapore.

A similar bidding process should be implemented for MRT lines as well. As there are no other local companies with the expertise to run MRT lines other than SMRT and SBST, foreign operators should be allowed into the market to compete with the incumbents. Ultimately it will be commuters who will benefit from lower fares and better service.

Recommendation 5: Appoint only officials who are accountable to Singaporeans to the PTC

The Public Transport Committee (PTC) is seen, rightly or wrongly, by many Singaporeans as a rubber stamp committee which only executes the wishes of the public transport companies.

It would be better to appoint to the PTC land transport professionals (e.g., LTA officials) and elected Members of Parliament from the two largest parties in Parliament. This will ensure that the PTC is both cognisant with the technical complexities of public transport, sensitive to the needs of the people and accountable to them.

Conclusion

While few will deny that Singapore‘s public transport system is above average compared to most of the world, there is still much room for improvement if we are to achieve the aim of making it an attractive alternative to driving.

Transport companies need to pay closer attention to comfort and convenience on public transport, and the government has a responsibility to ensure that there is sufficient competition so as to keep prices affordable. Having an affordable, efficient and comfortable public transport system will increase the quality of life for millions of Singaporeans, while easing the congestion on our roads.

Listed in the Annex is a summary of the above-mentioned points as well as further suggestions on how public transport companies can address the problems faced by commuters.

Annex

 

SUMMARY OF PROBLEMS AND SUGGESTED SOLUTIONS

Comfort

Problem

Suggested solution

1

Overcrowded MRT trains and buses

· Increase frequency of MRT trains and buses.

· Lengthen the peak hour timings.

2

Jerky and uncomfortable rides on buses.

· Provide training for bus drivers to start and stop their vehicles more smoothly.

3

Above-ground MRT station platforms hot and uncomfortable during daytime.

· Install fans at all outdoor MRT station platforms.

· Ensure that soon-to-be-installed platform screen doors allow wind to pass through.

4

Passengers not giving up their seats to elderly/disabled

· Clearly demarcate seats designated for the elderly or disabled.

· Paint these seats a different colour.

· Place unambiguous signs at eye level (for seated passengers) instructing — not merely suggesting — that they give up their seats.

· For example:

RESERVED SEAT

For the elderly, disabled, pregnant women or parents carrying infants

· Work with schools to organise educational “behind the scenes” tours of the MRT, and teach students the virtue of considerate behaviour from a young age, encouraging them to lead others in following their example.

5

Passengers (esp. teenagers) playing music aloud on the trains and buses.

· Have signs indicating that playing music aloud is banned.

· This is also implemented in the Tokyo metro.

6

Passengers not allowing others to alight from trains before boarding. Cutting in front of those considerate enough to allow others to alight first.

· Paint ‘queue’ lines outside train doors requiring passengers to queue while waiting to board.

· The first to arrive gets to board first.

· See Figure 2 below.

· Tokyo metro stations have these ‘queue’ lines.

Figure 2: Queue lines outside train doors

Convenience

Problem

Suggested solution

7

Poor trip-planning facilities

· Develop a harmonized bus and MRT trip-planning e-portal.

8

Lack of connectivity between MRT train lines and bus routes

· Situate bus stops closer to MRT stations.

· Post bus guides at MRT stations so commuters know which bus stop to head to and in which direction.

Cost

Problem

Suggested solution

9

Lack of genuine competition, leading to ever increasing prices

· Introduce genuine competition by allowing more players in the market.

10

Lack of public accountability of public transport regulators

· Appoint to the PTC only LTA officials and elected MPs from the Government and Opposition who are accountable to the electorate.

11

High operating costs for SMRT and SBST, leading to increases in fares.

· LTA to allow more space for advertising in MRT stations and bus interchanges.

· Space on MRT station walls is not being fully utilised for advertising.

· SMRT’s “Tunnel TV” is an innovative way to provide more space for advertisers in MRT tunnels. This should be expanded upon.

 

1 MOT’s Land Transport policy strategy (http://www.mot.gov.sg/landtransport/policy.htm)

2 Speech by Minister of Transport Raymond Lim, 18 Jan 08 (http://app.sprinter.gov.sg/data/pr/20080118996.htm)

3 Few make the switch to public transport, The Straits Times, 15 Jan 08

4 http://www.smrt.com.sg/annualreport2007/pdf/SMRT_Trains_LRT.pdf

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40 Responses to “TOC Policy Feature: Improving Singapore’s Public Transport System – A Commuter’s Perspective”

  1. Currently Spared said

    I must confess that the article’s suggestion sounds very tempting and it is apparent much work has gone into compiling this. Just out of curiosity, how many knows that the expected waiting time is not equal to the average time between arrivals of buses or trains?

    Few things to note, a less jerky ride will result in a longer ride. Physics dictates that. Transportation has an economy of scale and having more players can lead to problems too.

    However, the forever rising fares is getting ridiculous too. A simple and drastic way is to limit the companies annual profit to economy overall growth rate. After all, the people taking the ride is only earning that much more. Seriously, a profit oriented company with a monopoly will not get us anywhere.

    By the way, we should make the PTC committee take public transport. Okay, I am being too harsh. For at least 2 months before the annual review?

    Just my two dime worth.

  2. Andrew Loh said

    Excellent work, Gerald. 🙂

    I’ve only one suggestion to make to LTA/SMRT/SBS Transit. With the older trains, the level of noise when they enter the tunnels muffs or even obscure the announcements of which train station you’re at.

    Couple this with the chatter and noise from commuters themselves, oftentimes it is hard to know which station you’re at – especially when the trains are crowded and you can’t even peer out the doors to see the station signs.

    I’d suggest that SMRT and SBStransit install tickers or mini-screens above every exit door of the train/carriage which will flash the station name when the train pulls into the station. This way, we don’t have to strain our ears or peer out the doors everytime we want to know where we are at.

    It’s a simple solution which will improve the service and is well within the operators’ means.

  3. Robert HO said

    RH:
    1. Brilliant work from a 1-man think tank! Proves that 1 man can change the world when a whole bevy of multi-million $ ministers are totally clueless, stupid [really!] and idealess! Proves that blogging can change the world.

    2. I append some quick thoughts, not as detractions or even ‘improvements’ to your Paper but more to offer more thinking issues should anyone want to take these further.

    3. You wrote “With just 617 sq km on our main island (much of which is set aside for water catchment and SAF training areas), it is untenable for Singapore to have the same proportion of residents driving their own cars as in Los Angeles, which has a much larger land area.”

    Excellent point. Please include that the PAP elites have the highest number of golf courses in the world [for themselves, of course] at “1 golf course every 10 square miles”.

    4. Your points about the current profiteering situation by the duopolies are excellent. May I suggest that to help reduce this blatant profiteering, which is standard throughout the entire food chain of govt companies and govt depts, that no single entity, that is, person or company, be allowed to own more than say, S$10,000 worth of shares in essential or infrastructural services like these public transport companies. Especially LKY’s wife, his family, relatives and those of his cronies elites, etc, as well as and very especially govt companies like GIC or Temasick. This important step will instantly remove the major systemic abuses to profiteer by those who can actually control and manipulate the prices of services and their profitability [to themselves]. [LKY said decades ago in Parliament that his wife is worth ‘at least S$20 million” then. Her assets include huge shareholdings in public transport companies].

    5. Much of the current mess stem from stupidity of the PAP men in charge in not realising that copying others is not very smart. For example, the Park & Ride idea works in big cities and countries but in our 617 sq km islet only 42km x 23km, ha, ha, ha! Their stupidities are compounded by a smug belief that they are smart, that they are right, that they have a better system than most other Second or Third World countries [somewhat true only because everything in Singapore is new and so, the latest] — all these smugness compounded by a PAPaganda media that daily puts out nothing but good news, even more triumphs and successes, more worshipful verbiage devoted to showing how smart LKY, LHL, PAP and cronies are, even editing their logorrhoea like LKY’s current 1s, into seemingly intelligent observations and insights, their job description including ‘making the leaders, especially the Supreme Leader look better than he really is, through judicious editing’. [Remember how ST removed LHL gaffe by editing “mai hum” into “mai hiam”? If not caught on video and podcast, we would not have known this editing, like in the days before Internet]. There are more stupidities on public transport in my article : http://i-came-i-saw-i-solved-it.blogspot.com/search/label/Public%20transport%20another%20SCAM%20by%20LIE%20KY

  4. aygee said

    Gerald, interesting post.

    the sad thing, to me, is that it boggles me that LTA/PTC/Govt/MRTC, all these great minds, cant come to the same common-sense solutions you’ve suggested.

    But i think i know the reason why.

    in another blog where someone looked at MRTC’s annual report, there was a mention where they reduced train frequencies or number of train cars, etc.. “to maximise shareholders’ equity”.

    THIS, METHINKS, IS THE PROBLEM WITH OUR PUBLIC TRANSPORT SYSTEM – Singapore is quite possibly the only country in the world where the PUBLIC TRANSPORT systems focus on shareholder value first, rather than its service to the PUBLIC. comfort, convenience, cost is secondary to profit.

    The senior mgt gets their bonuses based on how much money they make for MRTC and shareholders (who happen to be…the Big T Holdings). and i think the monopoly situation they have in Singapore is making them a very lazy management.

    to echo and build upon some of your suggestions:

    1. have a stronger check and balance on MRTC’s senior management.

    as comparison, in HK, the Govt has a policy of “consumers first”. Any price changes in public transport will require Govt approval, and the Govt looks out for residents first, rather than PROFIT.

    it took 28 taxi organisations over 6 months of meetings before they unitedly came together to request the govt to increase HK$1 (approx S$0.20) on flagdown rates. and the govt is now reviewing the impact this has on the consumer.

    When one bus company wanted to buy another company, the Govt halted the acquisition because it felt it will create a duopoly – and consumers will suffer.

    So, for Singapore, govt agencies such as LTA or PTC or whatever, needs to focus on the consumers rights’ first. They should look out for consumers, rather than allow public transport companies to focus on PROFIT.

    2. Shareholders need to have a “consumer first” mindset too, rather than profits.

    Shareholders should be able to challenge the Senior Mgt at MRTC. Instead of easily passing on costs to consumers, why cant they come up with other ways to retain “high value return to shareholders”?

    e.g. look into ways to increase other revenue, or reduce costs, that does not impact the consumer directly. More creative media for advertising in stations and trains, more retail shops in stations, etc etc.

    i.e. impact on the consumer should be the act of LAST RESORT.

    But who are the main shareholders of SBS, MRTC, Comfort Delgro, etc? the public? or is it the Big T?

    the monopoly situation is making MRTC’s mgt lazy, and take the easy way out of passing rising costs to the consumers.

    In conclusion, once we put into place where everything is focused on the CONSUMER first, the teams in MRTC and PTC/LTA will naturally come up with solutions that TRULY will help the consumers, which i guess wont be very different to what you proposed.

    on a separate note, changing commuters’ mindset to be more considerate, wont happen in our lifetime, as MM Lee mentioned. 😉 if only we’re more like the japanese…

  5. Daniel said

    Gerald has once again proved that the establishment are nothing but expensive clowns in circus that collaborate with each other to entertain themselves not the audiences.

    Why ? The answer is simple. How can coffers know anything if he doesn’t do anything to engage and experience the problems. Rather, coffers will rather has its scholars to compile list of recommendation that appease its master not the public or just taking note of issues and do the waiting game. Of course, those recommendations are substandard because the majority of rich scholars own their own cars rather than take public transport. Do the coffers think that their life are so precious and important that if they take public transport one day and died , the whole Singapore will sink to bottom of the sea like Atlantis ?

    So I disgust by clowns who called themselves leaders when they are ignorance and not conversant with the real world. Leaders are supposed to be hand-on to be respected and should know the underlying problems.

    Gerald did prove that it doesn’t take millions to find out the root cause and think out a solution. Look like the million dollars just make the elite hiphoper dumb and dumber because they are more interested to earn more more bonus from the GLC’s profit.

    More MRT by 2020 ? Provided that we can recover the $30++ billions of dollars in writeoff from investment bank’s loss. We be naived to think that we can recover these at all since the business environment has been so volatile more than ever. With the globalization and intense competitions from India, Russia, China in coming years, do one really think that the environment will be stablilized. Let’s not kid ourselves.

    Unless the clowns can think out of the box rather confined themselves into a tiny red box filled by dollar notes, I doubt whatever plans they have are effective and efficient. The solution from them is just to dig more money out of the pleasant and pay millions to themselves.

  6. saintmoron said

    The Transportation System is currently undergoing large scale developments, especially the Train Services(MRT/LRT etc). As we have yet to asess their efficiencies and contributions towards solving congestions, long waiting time(Buses/Trains), safety and Route Plannings etc, feedbacks toward our Transportion Systems at this moment are truly valueable.

    Hopefully, our leaders will not insist that they know best and overlook calibres such as Gerald and others’ readings, understandings and suggestions. In fact, citizens have been contributing gems of opinions, ideas, suggestions and proposals. It very often so disappointing and sad to see zero acknowledgement to contributors who put in much efforts, time and sacrifices to come up with facts and ideas. It is even more upsetting to see ideas been copied, used and taken as though they were originals of the implementers. I think due respects and credits must be acknowledged and there is absolutely nothing shamefull to do so. Conversely, plagiarising and failures to give due recognitions are mighty shamefull deeds and speak volumes of the copiers’ integrities

    To make it short, me thinks the Leadership in Singapore is very fortunate nowadays because the people are so ever willing to contribute towards the wellbeings of the country and its’ populace. Wish the Leaders will make the best uses of their contributions. Gerald has been doing wonderfully well in his share of contibutions!

  7. Gerald said

    Andrew – good point! Yes installing visual tickers above the doors announcing the next station should be done. This is also done in the Tokyo Metro. In fact, the new trains do have a display at the end of the carriages, but for some silly reason they only display the time, not the station.

    Thanks all for your comments and suggestions. I’d like to point out that I did not write this piece alone. I was assisted by several people, including the editors at TOC (yes our pieces are edited!) and a friend whose name cannot be published because of his job.

    Please keep the suggestions flowing, esp if you are a commuter yourself, or you live in places like HK (thanks Aygee) that have transport systems that we can learn from.

  8. Seeking Salvation said

    Do the following sums

    Fare Hikes – no improvement
    Who gets punished – the commuters, cab drivers (income)

    Simple Sums – $90 (daily rental of cab) x 365 days x 7 years (life cycle of a cab) = $229,950 (excluding booking fees, advertisement rentals)

    We are all feeding the goons expensive lifestyle with no solutions.

    If u compare it with Hong Kong. Hong Kong fares much better as they have the privately own mini buses and cabs are aplenty as most are privately own. They don’t practise enslavement of the cab drivers

  9. Insouciant said

    Perhpas, if this isn’t already implemented, our public transport service providers could also introduce semi-peak hour periods to cope with periods of increased ridership that do not qualify as peak hours.

    Also, amidst all these hype about increasing peak hour train/bus frequency, I feel that non peak hour train/bus frequency could use some improvements too. While this compromises the profits of our public transport service providers, it will definitely offer a boost to commuters’ satisfaction with the public transport service.

    With regards to grab poles, I suggest that our public transport service providers discourage or even prohibit commuters from leaning against these grab poles. Leaning on these grab poles means other commuters will not be able to utilise the grab pole as there will be no place to hold on to. Usually, this results in commuters having to hold on to a higher point of the grab pole, beyond the comfortable level for their height.

  10. Gary said

    MM and Raymond Lim acknowledged that previous transport policies do not work to intended effect and we had to live with their miscalculations. So do we claim back pay from those previous transport clowns in charge.

  11. […] Reforms Announced – The Online Citizen: TOC Policy Feature: Improving Singapore’s Public Transport System – A Commuter’s Perspective – Yawning Bread: Are the planned bus and rail improvements […]

  12. An excellently written report! Well done, Gerald, Selene and co-writers.

    I think I agree in general with most points you’ve made. However, now that I’m browsing through the annex, I think that the solutions you suggested are not as innocently easy as they seem. For example:

    1) Increasing train frequencies to alleviate overcrowding. Certainly a straightforward and direct way, but I think there’s the concern about the maximum number of trains that can arrive at one time (and I think this was reported on the news). They cannot arrive too closely or safety (due to collisions) might be compromised. However, we do not know the maximum frequency of our MRT lines, and we must not forget that it is restricted by the “slowest” station in the line.

    6) Painting queue lines to discourage boarding passengers to prevent others from alighting. Personally, I think this won’t work. From my observation, I noticed that people rushed into the train so that they can get a seat. And if they were to wait for alighting passengers, then others might not. It does not benefit the passenger to wait.

    8) I don’t think your suggested solutions on the lack of connectivity of MRT and buses solve the problem, unless I have understood the problem wrongly. I think the problem is that it is difficult to change between MRTs and buses because of poor route plannings (as in the bus’s routes) and lack of information of one service at the conjugate station/stop. And I have seen both suggested solutions implemented anyway at the stations I frequent (though since I take the NEL, so those stations may not be what you were referring to).

    9) Introduce more players to encourage genuine competition. I’m not sure if this will work, since SMRT and SBS will control the market anyway (it’s a bit akin to the taxi situation). It will be very hard for other companies to make headway into the market. Not only do that have less resources (leading to dirtier buses and poorer drivers), they also have to fight for SBS’s and SMRT’s established facilities like bus terminals.

    On a separate note, I have wondered, on the issue of maximum frequency in point 1 above, what could be a possible solution in the future, if passengers were ever going to increase. While alternative lines like the Circle lines will serve to diffuse some of the stress placed on them, will it ever arise that we will hit that limit? And if we do, what then?

    I have casually fancied the idea of doubling those busy tracks for purposes of an express train that stops at selected stations like Jurong East and City Hall. This will ease the normal trains and make trips faster for passengers travelling long distances as well. However, there will be a need to upgrade those stations, and the building of a parallel track may be very costly, particularly those underground.

  13. Lol! My number 8 above has turned into a smiley! Ah well… take it as a happy CNY smile to all then! 8)

  14. xtrocious said

    A couple of other observations

    I say extend the peak hours to earlier, say 7am, as more and more people are starting work earlier, and let’s not forget the students…

    Secondly, train commuters must learn to be fluid like water, not be blocks of wood…many of them rush in and then immediately plant themselves there, leaving no room for others to come in, even though there are still pockets of space…

    Thirdly, bathe – one reason why there are large gaps between commuters is probably due to personal hygiene…can’t see how difficult it is to have a quick shower before leaving the house…swt

  15. Gerald said

    Pandemonium – Thanks for your analysis on our article.

    1) Increasing train frequencies to alleviate overcrowding. Certainly a straightforward and direct way, but I think there’s the concern about the maximum number of trains that can arrive at one time (and I think this was reported on the news). They cannot arrive too closely or safety (due to collisions) might be compromised. However, we do not know the maximum frequency of our MRT lines, and we must not forget that it is restricted by the “slowest” station in the line.

    I understand that 2 mins is probably the minimum interval between trains without them crashing into each other. I was asking for ‘peak period’ timings to be lengthened. This is different from asking for the peak period train frequencies to be increased. I’m asking for this 2 min interval to continue beyond 6.30pm. (Right now, after 6.30pm, the interval drops to 5 min or more.)

    6) Painting queue lines to discourage boarding passengers to prevent others from alighting. Personally, I think this won’t work. From my observation, I noticed that people rushed into the train so that they can get a seat. And if they were to wait for alighting passengers, then others might not. It does not benefit the passenger to wait.

    I’ve seen this work in Japan. Basically it creates a first come first ‘board’ system. Currently, even if I arrive first, people behind me will just cut in front and board before me because there is no clearly demarcated queue.

    9) Introduce more players to encourage genuine competition. I’m not sure if this will work, since SMRT and SBS will control the market anyway (it’s a bit akin to the taxi situation). It will be very hard for other companies to make headway into the market. Not only do that have less resources (leading to dirtier buses and poorer drivers), they also have to fight for SBS’s and SMRT’s established facilities like bus terminals.

    I wasn’t asking for 3 or more operators to be operating the MRT lines at any one time. What should be done is to have a tender system to operate the lines for X number of years. That way SMRT and SBST will be kept on their toes because they know that if they don’t meet expectations, another player could come take their place after the contract period is over. (This tendering system is already in place, but the operation period is something like 20 years, which is too long.)

    I don’t think any company in Singapore besides SMRT and SBST are able to compete with the two incumbents. That’s why I’m suggesting that foreign operators (e.g. Hong Kong’s MTR, if it gets corporatised) compete with them for the contracts.

  16. NATO said

    Gerald,

    no use want lah all yr suggestion for all the problem. it’s public interest versus shareholder interest. u think which is more important to them? taking into consideration of monopoly behind these company by government investment arm. as long as public transport is run by private company no use talking. it should be called private transport instead. hypocrite running these so call “public transport”

  17. Ronald Lim said

    May I add one more suggestion. — Open the channels for real dialogue and communication…. not the usual singapore-govt style feedback…but a healthy working process where real dialogue and communication lead to results.

    The Harvard Business Review last month (Jan 08 methinks) singled out an initiative in Toronto called TransitCamp … whereby the subway operator for once decided to brainstorm together with bloggers and members of the community on ways to improve Toronto’s ailing transport system.

    Underlying the entire problem, I sense a severe absence of trust between commuters, the government, and the profit-making SBS and SMRT. I envisage a civic initiative where the SMRT and SBS, together with the government brainstormed with the public in an open process …. whereby Gerald’s (and everyone else’s) ideas are channeled into a direct to-and-fro communications process between the public and the transport operators.

  18. Hi Gerald! Thanks for your reply.

    I understand that 2 mins is probably the minimum interval between trains without them crashing into each other. I was asking for ‘peak period’ timings to be lengthened. This is different from asking for the peak period train frequencies to be increased. I’m asking for this 2 min interval to continue beyond 6.30pm. (Right now, after 6.30pm, the interval drops to 5 min or more.)

    I certainly do support lengthening the peak hour periods, because the current peak hours are ridiculously short and somehow seem to reflect the typical working hours twenty years ago.

    I’ve seen this work in Japan. Basically it creates a first come first ‘board’ system. Currently, even if I arrive first, people behind me will just cut in front and board before me because there is no clearly demarcated queue.

    What I meant was that it may not work because we are Singaporeans. I fear that even with the queue lines, people will just ignore them. I recall an attempt by SMRT to paint such lines (though not as detailed as yours) at certain stations with personnel requesting passengers to follow them, but since efforts now have disappeared, I suppose it must have been an unsuccessful attempt.

    I wasn’t asking for 3 or more operators to be operating the MRT lines at any one time. What should be done is to have a tender system to operate the lines for X number of years. That way SMRT and SBST will be kept on their toes because they know that if they don’t meet expectations, another player could come take their place after the contract period is over. (This tendering system is already in place, but the operation period is something like 20 years, which is too long.)

    I see. Thanks for the clarification!

  19. Gerald said

    Hi Pandemonium,

    What I meant was that it may not work because we are Singaporeans. I fear that even with the queue lines, people will just ignore them. I recall an attempt by SMRT to paint such lines (though not as detailed as yours) at certain stations with personnel requesting passengers to follow them, but since efforts now have disappeared, I suppose it must have been an unsuccessful attempt.

    I have reason to be hopeful. In most other places where Singaporeans have been ‘trained’ to queue (e.g., fast food restaurants, supermarket checkout counters, taxi stands, etc), there are very few incidents of queue-cutting (most, if any, are accidental). Even at bus interchanges, those people who choose not to join the ‘zig-zag queue’ will ‘guai guai’ wait until all the people in the queue have boarded the bus before boarding themselves. (Of course there are a few bad apples, but generally people are quite well behaved when conditioned to do so.) So I think introducing Japan-style queues to board the MRT might just work.

    I actually don’t recall MRT ever painting such lines. But I recall some years back they had signs and staff at escalators to ask people to stand on the left. Well that hasn’t succeeded fully, but it’s better than before they started that short campaign.

    Roland – Thanks for pointing out about Toronto’s TransitCamp. I think that’s a great idea which should be done in Singapore not just for transport but a lot of other national issues. Can you post a link to that for the benefit of readers who may be interested to find out more about that?

    Thanks for all your comments!

  20. Ronald Lim said

    Here are some links to pages about Toronto Transit Camp. Granted, we need forward-looking leadership at SMRT and SBS and a “solutions-oriented” rather than “complaints-oriented” public for such an initiative to work.

    http://toronto.transitcamp.org/ttc/

    http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/005952.html

    http://harvardbusinessonline.hbsp.harvard.edu/hbsp/hbr/articles/article.jsp?ml_subscriber=true&_requestid=198275&referer=/hbsp/hbr/articles/article.jsp&reason=freeContent&productId=R0802A&OPERATION_TYPE=CHECK_COOKIE&FALSE=FALSE&TRUE=TRUE&ml_action=get-article&ml_issueid=BR0802&articleID=R0802A&pageNumber=17&ml_section=Section_1405610596#Section_1405610596

  21. Gerald said

    Thanks Ronald! This Toronto Transit Camp is really refreshing to learn about. I like the statement “Toronto Transit Camp is not a complaints department, it is a solution playground”. I’m also intrigued by the concept of an ‘Unconference’. Maybe TOC should organise an unconference or ‘camp’ like this to gather more ideas for improving public policy.

  22. Rain said

    There are several additional points that I would like to comment on the above article which I feel it is a good article.

    1. Peak hours should not be

    Monday to Friday, between 8 to 9 am and 5.15 to 6.30 pm

    Saturday, between 8.15 to 9 am and 1 to 2.30 pm

    as of now. It MUST be lengthen to at least 2 hours to accommodate people who left early for work; people who run errands after working hours etc. (No wonder I still find a crowded train at 9pm on weekdays).

    2. The running times of the trains and buses should extend to 1am in the morning. Currently we are having Cinderella syndrome in which everyone tries to take the last train or bus by the stroke of midnight (even before that as most last train or bus will leave the station before midnight). Or else they will have to face the mercy of the taxi and their increased midnight charge.

    3. During the launch of the NEL, SMRT scrapped the service of several bus routes stating that it was a waste of resources and forcing everyone to take the train. Currently there are no bus that travel from punggol directly to orchard road.

    We commuters demand a choice for transport alternatives (LTA if you can take the tab…)

    4. Sometimes people rush in the train carriages due to the fact that they do not know when the carriage door closes. It will be a good improvement to place a indicator on the door that shows that the carriage door will close in 3.. 2.. 1.. second.

    5. Another way to prevent congestion from the carriage door is that to designate 1 carriage door to be the entry point and another to be the exit point. (Very much like the bus concept). However, it will be the best to have another door installed on the carriage to allow entry to the train carriage only.

    6. Every year the public transport companies apply to PTC for increase in their fare to commuters. However, PTC had approved their price hike despite that there are no improvements to their level of service. I considered MobileTV to be a hinderance than imporvement.

    As of now as many of us do agree that the problems in our current public transport system having

    “· Overcrowded buses and trains;
    · Inadequate trip planning facilities;
    · Lack of genuine competition, resulting in ever-increasing fares”

    shouldn’t we commuters to be justified with a fare reduction to improve our confidence with the monopolistic transport companies?

    7. The PTC have an easy job of approving a fare hike or not, shouldn’t they conduct a review that the public transport companies will have a fare reduction if they do not meet their level of service?

    Is it because there are so many calls to have transparency in the PTC system and include members into the PTC whom do not have vested interested to the transport companies?

    8. Recently I seen the new bus fleet service 100 to be a disadvantage to the commuters on the road. I noticed that the number “100” sign on the bus to be very small and taking a small space on the side of the notice although lighted. As compared to the old sign, I can hardly make out the number of the service until it is “near” the bus stop. If I can’t make out the number, I persumed that the older folks can’t make out the number as well.

    I don’t know if I should vote for Raymond Lim in the next election, but he is truly a waste of our taxpayers money. But I like his “flag the bus early campaign”, it is the icing on the cake on our current public system.

  23. dominique said

    just some thoughts,

    1) bad road/traffic planning – frankly some of the congestions on the road are really created by bad road planning. This is being pretty micro here but i believe will solve the larger problem. Eg slow traffic on Orchard Rd turning into Cairnhill (after Paragon) basically because we have cars turning into Cairnhill/buses turning back to Orch/Pedestrian crossing. Another eg slow traffic on the short stretch of PIE (toward Tuas) where thomson joins in n steven exits. Of course at this point of time, solutions may range from easy ones (pedestrian directed to a bridge across traffic) to drastic ones (seal off entrance/exits like the old Kallang Bahru exit into PIE).

    In any case, this LTA revamp presents a good opportunity to relook at remodelling existing roads and plan new ones too.

    2) Commercial & administrative satellite town – When you have human traffic converging into one single point, you will definitely get congestion at that single point, during what we know as peak hours. Instead of furiously developing the CBD and building more highrise building to accomodate more offices (or for purpose of getting a pretty skyline), re-direct the traffic away from CBD. The govt is currently doing this but more could be done.

    We can always start by moving governmental administrative offices away from CBD and centralised them somewhere else (if you let me decide, Tuas is a good plc, what with the open space, undeveloped transportation modes and numerous companies).

    Naturally, those businesses closely related will also shift.

    3) construction, construction, construction – unfortunately along with the development boom as well as transport revamp, many construction works is currently affecting the flow of traffic. Those people who travel frequently on roads around Circle Line will know very well. I do not foresee traffic flow to ease out in near future (aka ERP will continue to go up)
    And unfortunately i think there is no solutions on this.

  24. Hi Gerald!

    The queue lines I was referring to are not actually queue lines, but lines telling people to stand in such a way so as to allow passengers to alight first.

    Here’s a photo I found through Google:

    As you can see, it’s not working very well. Can’t imagine how bad it’d get during peak hours.

  25. I was one of the organizers of Toronto TransitCamp and one of the co-authors of that HBR article. I’d like to point out that TransitCamp is an open framework, and we published an overview of how it came to be here in order to allow people from other jurisdictions around the world to take the model and adapt it to their needs. While a political signal of openness was critical to its success, it is important to note that the community organized itself and the event first and then invited the transit authority to join it. Also note that we are happy to setup http://singapore.transitcamp.org/ for the use of a Singapore TransitCamp community.

  26. Rahul said

    I wonder why there is no suggestion of making waterway transport a reality in Singapore. Since Singapore is an island country, there could be a hovercraft service or fast motor boats service which could pick or leave passenger from designated terminals. I believe it will be fast, cheap and hassle free transport for office goers.

  27. sarek_home said

    Hi Rahul,

    Our public transport problems are due to too many private cars on the road, and lack of planning of road buildup to meet the private car population growth. If people are willing to give up driving private cars and take up public transport and the public transport companies increase their passenger carrying capacity, the problem can be solved.

    For this waterway transport idea to work, people need to be willing to take up this form of public transportation with feeder bus support from some service providers. The second issue is whether the waterway is really that free enough to allow such service. Another question is whether it is really effective for some heart-lander residents travel to the terminals and then from the terminal to their final destination.

  28. Joker said

    Too many cars on the road? LTA has purposely increased the target
    of number of vehicles on the road from 500,000 to 750,000 last
    year. So, you go and figure out how congestion will be like in the
    near future.

    The main problem, as someone has already pointed out, with the
    public transportation is PROFITEERING. There should be a certain
    kind of limitations imposed by law upon all public transports as
    to the amount of annual profits that they can have and the number
    of shareholders, type of shareholders, and number of shares per
    shareholder. Otherwise, the big hidden or disguised “crocodiles”
    and “wolves-in-white” would continue to manipulate and “manage”
    the system to safeguard their own selfish interests.

    To me, as I see it, this is a new kind of corruption, which is more serious than the openly perceivable type of corruptions,
    emerging and starting to take roots over the past 15 years –
    starting with NKF, or course, and the Charity Sector. being
    the unlucky ones to be exposed first.

    I am not accusing anyone of corruption, but if the hat fits
    so be it!

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