Putting Commuters First in Public Transportation – Adjournment Motion by Dennis Tan Lip Fong

(Delivered in Parliament on 15 January 2019)

A good public transportation system is critical to Singapore

Mr Deputy Speaker sir, a good public transportation system is critical to our city, people and economy. With 13 straight years of ridership expansion, Singaporeans are highly dependent on this public good. The Government’s drive towards a car lite society creates a stronger imperative for a seamlessly working public transport system. The feedback from the ground on the most recent Fare Review Exercise has presented us in this House with a timely opportunity to look critically at our public transportation system. Our starting point must be to put our commuters first over other stakeholders and be world-class leaders in areas such as reliability, affordability and quality.

Train delays – are we really out of the woods?

On the issue of rail reliability, not too long ago, MRT breakdowns became a familiar, yet unwelcome part of our news cycle. Our bus services were inadequate to fully run parallel to our train systems, and private bus operators had to be called in to help with some of the major breakdowns in the past few years.

The Government has more recently injected public funds to nationalize our public transportation assets and infrastructure. Various schemes were rolled out aimed at expanding and upgrading its public transportation infrastructure. One can only imagine what would have happened if the Government had not chosen to invest, and kept to its previous stance of leaving entirely to market forces.

With these investments, we have seen Mean Kilometres Between Failures (MKBF) improve from 180,000 train-km to 661,000 train-km between 2017 and the first three quarters of 2018. With a new reliability target of 1 million train-km by 2020, it may appear that our train reliability is on the up.

But train delays are not really a thing of the past, as can be seen in the recent train delays late last year and early this year. Let us also not forget that the latest MKBF statistics did not include delays caused by the signalling works which SMRT and LTA have reportedly agreed to exclude, nor did it include delays of not more than 5 minutes.
MKBF measures delays of more than 5 minutes. Notwithstanding their exclusion from the internationally used MKBF benchmark, commuters may still have lingering doubts on the reliability of our MRT systems if we completely disregard delays of not more than 5 minutes.

MKBF is also an operational metric that may not truly measure the convenience to passengers, a point made in a 2013 OECD International Transport Forum discussion paper entitled ‘Measuring and Valuing Convenience and Service Quality’. The authors also mentioned that measuring delays from a more customer focused perspective requires appropriate data collected in a sufficient level of detail, such as number of passengers affected and passenger hours delay. Such data do not seem to be within the public sphere currently and will be necessary if we are to move towards a holistic commuter-centric public transport system. In other words, convenience and service quality should be measured and reported.

Affordability of fares and NCF

With such big investments as I have mentioned earlier, the affordability of fares is crucial. Even as we are second among twelve cities in affordability from a recent NTU study, our focus should be on Singaporeans and how they are impacted by fare prices. Indeed, the yearly review of transportation fares by the Public Transport Council are always closely watched by the public. The 2018 exercise saw the first use of the revised Fare Review formula with a new component known as the Network Capacity Factor (NCF), and the first fare hike which hit the cap of 4.3% in over 3 years drew many negative responses from citizens.

Even as the Government has argued the case for NCF, there are many other views expressed about this new component. One Straits Times reader expressed that this factor is akin to taxing commuters twice. Current Nominated Member of Parliament, the honourable Associate Professor Walter Theseira, opined that the factor makes a rise in fares more likely, as capacity will rise faster than ridership in the short term. Straits Times’ Senior Transport Correspondent Mr Christopher Tan also pointed out the irony that a negative NCF will imply more crowded buses and trains , an outcome that no commuter wants to see. For now, I note in passing that, even as SMRT and SBS Transit are mandated to transfer 5% of the added fare revenue to the Public Transport Fund that funds subsidy vouchers for vulnerable groups, we must maintain a vigilant watch on the impact of such fare hikes on our disadvantaged groups, especially to the groups that still prefer cash transactions that saw the highest fare hikes. Perhaps the Minister can share on how MOT intends to help such individuals transit to cashless payments.

The need to enhance service quality and on different fronts

Our public transportation system needs to deliver on quality, most important of which is the punctuality of services and the minimizing of all delays. Beyond that, it will also require timely and accurate information to be delivered by operators on matters of relevance, such as service disruptions, minimising bus bunching, ensuring a comfortable ride and cost-effectively improving physical comfort such as improving ventilation on our open-air MRT stations and bus interchanges.

We understand that current service quality lapses are penalised with fines, but have these fines exercised a sufficient deterrent effect thus far including delays of not more than 5 minutes?

There may be scope to include service quality in our fare regulation framework to incentivise public transport operators to work actively on service quality and to maintain a higher standard in these areas.

All of the above requires entrenching a service culture among our operators, one that places commuters at the heart of everything they do. This is of course easier said than done. Our public transport personnel need to be understanding when facing problems, and take flak from disgruntled commuters with a smile. At this point, I wish to put on record the sincere appreciation we in the Workers’ Party have for all public transport workers tirelessly working to ensure that our systems are running smoothly.

Many Singaporeans spend a good part of their lives on public transport. As a public good that is inextricably tied to quality of life and is critical for our economy, we must spare no effort in evaluating all transport policies to ensure that we put our commuters first and be class-leading in reliability, affordability and quality.

Five suggestions for improving our public transportation system

Here, I would like to put forth some suggestions for MOT to consider in improving our public transportation system moving forward.

(1) Enhance incentivisation and monitoring of reliability and service quality

Firstly, we can do more to incentivise better monitoring of reliability and service quality by PTOs. Beyond and alongside the traditional measure of MKBF for more than 5 minutes only, I would suggest having other categories of MKBF for all incidents such as less than 5 minutes, between 5 – 30 minutes and more than 30 minutes.

Alongside an expansion of MKBF metrics, we can be more holistic in our approach to measure reliability. Seeing that SMRT is part of the Community of Metros (CoMET), we can also get our rail PTOs to work towards a full implementation of the CoMET scorecard, with disclosure of its results on a yearly basis to the public. Covering areas such as Customer, Environment, Safety, etc, it is a balanced approach to understand the public transport system, and aligns operator incentives to improve our public transport system beyond just the current singular metric that is operationally focused.

(a) Surveys – avoiding bias and tinkering

LTA and PTC do run surveys to gather feedback. A recent survey for the 2040 Land Transport Master Plan has concluded that commuters prize convenience the most in Singapore’s land transport system, followed by connectivity and fast travel time. However, the survey did not touch on the reliability and affordability of our future public transport.

As for service quality, while LTA and the PTC do run surveys of customer satisfaction for public transport, the numbers of satisfied commuters look very high compared to a similar survey run by the Institute of Service Excellence or ISE .

Perhaps third party evaluators like the ISE who run independent surveys can provide a picture less likely to draw accusations of bias. Such independently-derived scores can then be directly factored into the Fare Review formula where positive commuter experiences should be rewarded while stagnant or negative commuter experience should be a factor against fare raises.

(b) Service quality should be one of the factors in Fare Review formula – don’t shield the PTOs anymore.

Next, in November 2016, the Government said that the PTC had excluded service quality as a factor from the Fare Review formula as the plan was for the government to (I quote from Minister Khaw Boon Wan in his PQ answer of 7 November 2016) “regulate and work with the operators independently to improve service levels” (unquote) and in doing so, kept the (I quote from Minister Khaw again) “fare formula relatively straightforward, without the complication of differentiating fare adjustments on account of service quality” (unquote). But has this really worked as intended?

I believe that a direct link between the ability to raise prices and service quality will help to improve the total commuter experience. The inclusion of service quality as perceived by commuters themselves, realistically measured by an independent body, can help mitigate the risk of operators raising fares as a result of pursuing other goals at the expense of service quality. I should emphasize that service quality should be merely one of the factors and not the only or predominant factor.

Some may argue that with the recent improvements we have seen in MKBF, it is unnecessary to link fare review to service quality. However if MKBF and overall service quality are both truly improving, that is all the more reason why now is a good time to introduce service quality as a factor in the annual Fare Review exercise – to ensure that service quality will keep improving and not go backwards in future.

(2) Taking into account the profits of public transport operators as one factor in the fare regulation framework

My second point, also related to the topic of fare review, is that we ought to consider including the profits of public transport operators as one factor in the Fare Review formula. The size of operating profits derived from both transport and transport-related lines of business (such as retail operations) should be one of the factors considered in allowing fares to be raised (but not the only or predominant factor).

To any who may proffer the superficial view that this would create a perverse incentive for public transport operators to run their outfits in such a way as to lower profits, so as to be allowed to raise fares, my reply would be that no reasonable profit maximizing company would deliberately lower profitability so as to increase the chances of being allowed to raise fares when the linkage between profitability and fare review is small and indirect.

My proposal is not without precedent. In Hong Kong’s formula for adjusting their MTR fares, the Fare Adjustment Mechanism or FAM, the profits of the MTR Corporation are set within the factor of productivity, where “productivity” is revenue from the corporation’s Hong Kong transport operations divided by its expenses relating to Hong Kong transport operations. In a public consultation in Hong Kong on the FAM in 2016, the government noted that (i) a majority of the public submissions requested that the profitability of the MTR Corporation should be reflected in the FAM”, (ii) when the profit of the MTR Corporation in a particular year reaches a certain level, the MTR Corporation should not increase fares”, and (iii) a new “profit factor”, which reflects the profit made in a particular year, should be added to the existing FAM formula to reduce fare increase.

Hong Kong’s experience can offer insights into how Singapore can go about tweaking our Fare Regulation Framework to account for newly proposed factors.

It is possible for us to factor in profit via the current Productivity Extraction Factor. This would be to redefine or tweak the current definition to account for the PTOs’ profitability. Since Productivity as a factor is a minus, any increase in this factor would lead to a lower fare hike for commuters, and will be more equitable for commuters. The extent of profits in an oligopolistic, highly regulated industry with huge barriers to entry like public transport cannot and should not be completely irrelevant to the ability to raise fares.

(3) Putting back more profits into our public transport funds

Third, there is room for public transport operators to put in more of their profits from their operations into our various funds investing in long-term public transport quality. Currently, 5% of additional fare revenues earned by the public transport operators are transferred to the Public Transport Fund to subsidise vulnerable groups. A further step can be taken in this regard. Retail operations in MRT stations will not be profitable without the infrastructure in or around the stations. Mandating a level of profits from retail operations to be added to the Railway Sinking Fund and the Rail Infrastructure Fund will move us towards a more equitable development of our infrastructure. Having benefitted from the fleet expansion through the Bus Service Enhancement Programme, a similar profit transfer mechanism can also apply to our bus operators leasing and operating the various bus interchanges.

(4) Multi-channel, multi-platform and multilingual approach to send out timely and accurate broadcast messages about service disruptions

Fourth, timely information is needed about service disruptions and planned early closing announcements. There are still many commuters that are less technologically inclined and may not have the needed apps installed.

We can consider a multi-channel, multi-platform and multilingual approach to send out broadcast messages on service disruptions, planned early closing and late openings – for example via electronic notice boards and radio, not unlike what the Ministry of Home Affairs has done with alerts in times of emergencies .

Information that is being piped out must be both timely and accurate. Complaints of inaccurate estimated waiting time, information about alternative bus arrangements and even lack of reports of delays by PTOs are common over social media. The Government should work to ensure that such complaints will become a thing of the past.

(5) Renewal plans and what is being done on other older train lines

Lastly, while the bulk of the attention is now rightly given to our oldest two lines, we should not forget that our other lines are reaching their age milestones as well. To not repeat past mistakes, the Government must have renewal plans in place. I am therefore glad to note that there will be major enhancement and renewal works for North East Line starting in 2019. With this in mind, I call for the Government to commit to major renewals for rail assets under the New Rail Financing Framework at every 15 year milestone.

Deputy Speaker, sir, in Mandarin.

副议长先生,一个方便、有效率的公共交通系统,是我国经济,人民和社会 发展的关键。
要人民减少用车,实现我国成为一个 空气清新,环境优良 的宜居社会,公共交通系统 必须是 满足交通需求的 主要模式。

要建设一个方便、有效率的 公共交通系统,我认为 可靠性、车资是否负担得起 和 高质量 是3个重点:

地铁的可靠性是一项不断在进行中的工作。我们注意到政府对公共交通 资产 和 基础设施 的投资 确实 有所改善。2018年的平均 故障公里数(MKBF)也有改进。但是,只是关注 平均 故障公里数有其局限,因为这意味 我们将只关注 地铁延迟 超过5分钟的事件,而忽略了那些延迟 不超过5分钟的事故。

去年年底 检讨车资 的新方程式 引进了新的网络 容量因素指标,也就是把公共交通 乘客容量 的增加 和 乘客使用率 纳入检讨车资的 考虑因素,以更好地反映 营运成本 的变化。我们必须密切关注 车资涨幅 对弱势群体 的影响。

此外,我们更需要确保 公共交通系统 能提供 高质量的服务,这包括 舒适度 和 营运商 提供 及时 准确 的信息。在此,工人党感谢 所有 公共交通业 服务人员 的付出。

公共交通对我们的经济和社会的发展 至关重要,我们必须 不遗余力地 改善公共交通系统。我有五个建议:

第一,通过进行第三方的独立调查,以整体记分卡制度 和 服务质量 作为 车资 调整 公式的一部分 来激励 营运商;同时也用来对 可靠性 和 服务质量 的 整体监控。

第二,将公共交通 营运商 的利润作为车资调整公式的一部分。

第三,将部分 零售业务 的利润 纳入地铁 累积基金 和 地铁基础建设基金。

第四,采用多管道、多平台和多种语言的方式,及时而准确地 传达 有关 服务中断 的信息。

第五,工人党吁请政府在新地铁 融资 框架下, 每15年对地铁资产进行大规模的更新。

总的来说,我们现在来庆祝在公共交通系统方面所取得的成就 还为时过早。在改善公共交通系统方面,我们还有许多工作要做,特别是 探讨如何能够 更进一步 在可靠性、车资是否负担得起 和 高服务质量 等方面 为通勤者 提供更好的 乘车经验。

Let me conclude in English. We should refrain from patting ourselves on the back on our current progress in our public transportation system. There is still work to do in improving our public transportation system, particularly in putting our commuters first over other stakeholders in areas such as reliability, affordability and quality.