Side Views

Privatised, but not deregulated — Cheow Xin Yi

APRIL 19 — The striking red double-deckers are instantly recognisable almost anywhere in the world and 7,500 of them ply London’s streets ferrying more than six million passengers daily.

But did you know that up to 14 per cent of this public bus network is operated by Metroline — a unit of Singapore transport operator ComfortDelGro (CDG)?

Metroline, acquired by CDG in 2000, ranks No. 4 among the six major bus operators in London and it is the only one with Asian ownership (the rest are owned by British or European transport giants).

And heading CDG’s United Kingdom and Ireland business units is a former deputy secretary at Singapore’s Transport Ministry, Jaspal Singh. After seven years in the UK capital, he is particularly well-placed to draw comparisons between the city’s public bus transport network and Singapore’s, which has been the subject of review and public debate in recent years.

“If you ask someone out there who runs London’s buses,” Jaspal observed, “the answer won’t be Metroline or Arriva.”

It would be London Buses, one of the public entities under the city’s integrated transport body, Transport for London (TfL). That would be like saying the “Land Transport Authority (LTA) ran Singapore’s buses” — if the republic adopted London’s privatised-but-not-deregulated model, he noted.

“All buses carry a similar livery, red, because it is a unified network. We are only a contractor to London Buses … they specify the routes, what type of bus to use, the capacity, the frequency, the exact route length and the hours of operation, all right to the last detail, and then we bid for it based on how we need to resource,” explained Jaspal to the group of visiting Singaporeans, including this reporter.

At the same time, London Buses assumes the revenue risk — commuter fares collected by the operators are handed back to the authorities, said Jaspal, and the operators’ revenue comes directly from the value of their contracts.

But that doesn’t absolve operators of the risk altogether. The model’s heavy emphasis on quality of service means it is not a simple case of “I give you £5 million (RM25 million) and you run the network”, said Jaspal.

“If we run the service better than the reliability that we contract for, they give us bonuses which (theoretically) can be as high as 15 per cent of the contract revenue,” he said, adding: “Conversely, if we do badly we are penalised and the penalties can be as high as 10 per cent.

“So we are very focused (on service), because we are incentivised to be focused. I make sure that our services are extremely reliable, which means, from a commuter’s point of view, if the bus is expected to come within 10 minutes, it comes within 10 minutes.”

As for how the authorities monitor the operators’ performance, Jaspal points to iBus, an integrated system using the latest technology — including satellite tracking — installed on all London buses to provide audio-visual journey information for passengers even as it tracks the reliability of the buses.

Extremely detailed results of each contractor’s performance are published online every quarter, covering indicators that range from waiting times for different types of services to customer satisfaction with crowding; the state of the buses and even staff behaviour. (The latest quarterly results showed a satisfaction score of 80 out of 100 and an 86 per cent chance of waiting less than 10 minutes for a high-frequency service. The excess wait for high frequency services fell from 2.2 minutes in 1990, to under 1.2 minutes in the past seven years.)

Given what Jaspal calls London’s “superior way” of planning the transport system, could Singapore not take a leaf from them?

The chief executive would not be drawn in by the question, noting merely that a different business model does not mean operations would be any different.

The idea of opening the bus market in Singapore to competitive bidding was officially floated as early as 2008 by former Transport Minister Raymond Lim.

In end-2009, the government even technically assumed the role of master bus-route planner — although further plans in effect seem to have been put on the back burner.

In January this year, the Transport Ministry reportedly called bus tendering a “major decision” that involves a fundamental change in the industry, requiring a “measured approach” that will take time.

Meanwhile, the government is concentrating on increasing the capacities of the two bus operators, SBS Transit (a CDG subsidiary) and SMRT Corp, with a S$1.1 billion (RM2.64 billion) funding subsidy over the next five years.

When contacted by Today, an LTA spokesperson said: “The government’s longer-term intention to inject contestability in the bus industry remains unchanged.

“This could mean eventually carving out meaningful packages of bus routes, some of which will be competitively tendered.”

The LTA, however, added that changing Singapore’s framework is a “complex matter” that will “take quite some time” to prepare for and execute.

“This includes careful reviews on how the LTA’s role as the central bus planner should evolve under this new paradigm ... (and) questions on whether revenue-risk should be borne by taxpayers through the government, and how best to structure the terms of future tenders. We will also need to explore how best to incentivise higher service quality as part of our study,” said the spokesperson.

The LTA also noted that London’s current bus financing framework costs taxpayers some £550 million in subsidies annually.

“It is, therefore, critical for us to get the details of any new framework correct so that we can achieve the outcome we want of delivering cost-efficient, high quality bus services with affordable fares.”

Lastly, there are transition issues to work through, so that implementation can be as smooth as possible with minimal disruption to commuters, the LTA said.

Bus fares in London are definitely also more expensive — a single-trip journey costs £2.30 if paid in cash and £1.35 on a stored-value card, compared with S$2.20 for Singapore’s longest distance-based fares for its basic bus services. While acknowledging that London is an expensive city, Jaspal noted that students under 16 and those above 55 travel free on the bus.

“It’s a matter of policy. They decide they wanted to subsidise the system. And it’s an inclusive system. And all our buses are fitted with ramps. We are required to test every bus for working ramps every day in the morning before it gets out of the garage,” he said. “It is a system where they provide for you.” — Today

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication. The Malaysian Insider does not endorse the view unless specified.

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