SINGAPORE, April 17 — About a month after the radical suggestion was mooted in Parliament, the government announced yesterday that it has said “yes” to free travel on the MRT network before the morning rush hour.
A one-year trial, costing the government some S$10 million (RM24.6 million), will start on June 24, under which commuters who exit at any of the 16 designated stations — mostly in the Central Business District — on weekdays before 7.45am will not have to pay for the MRT ride.
Those who miss the cut-off time by as much as 15 minutes — and exit at one of these stations between 7.45am and 8am — will enjoy discounts of up to 50 cents on the train fare.
Announcing the trial, Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew, who spoke to reporters after a visit to Raffles Place MRT Station, reiterated the authorities’ wish to shift between 10 and 20 per cent of commuters away from the morning peak period.
Lui said that, currently, almost 60,000 commuters in total exit the designated stations daily on weekdays between 8.30am and 9am. In comparison, about 30,000 exit between 7.45am and 8.15am, and 18,000 between 7.15am and 7.45am.
On concerns that free travel could create a new peak, Lui gave the assurance that there was enough capacity on trains. More trains could also be added and run at higher frequencies if needed.
“We are also able to inject more trains if necessary, because ... the intervals between trains now at about 7.30am is about three to four minutes, so there is potential to include more trains,” he said.
Currently, apart from existing discounts of up to 50 cents, the government offers other incentives, including a chance to win S$200. These incentives have moved about 3 to 4 per cent of commuters away from the peak period.
Assuring that the trial would not result in higher fares for other commuters, Lui said that “it is worthwhile for us to put a little money into this scheme and see how we can make the train journey more comfortable for everybody”. On whether the trial is a judicious use of taxpayers’ money, Lui noted that, in general, public transport is largely funded by the same source because of the massive investments on infrastructure.
He pointed out that schemes that are funded by the operators — such as concessionary travel for certain groups — are cross-subsidised by other commuters. Adding that the free travel trial “may well be extended”, Lui reiterated that the Government “will fund this scheme entirely so that commuters can be assured that whatever it is that they do or not do, it is not going to affect their fares”.
The SMRT is in discussion with the Land Transport Authority (LTA) on the details of the trial and the operational requirements needed to support it — including, possibly, the deployment of more trains and staff at the designated stations before the morning rush hour.
To date, SMRT has set aside S$10 million since October 2011 to incentivise commuters to change their travel patterns. As of February, about 40 per cent of the money has been used. The remaining will go towards supporting the year-long trial, said SMRT vice-president for Corporate Marketing and Communications Kalai Natarajan.
The trial was welcomed by both the private and public sectors.
The Association of Banks in Singapore said it would support more financial sector employees opting for flexible working arrangements.
More than 40 public agencies — hiring some 14,000 officers — are located near the designated stations for the trial. The Public Service Division said these employees can opt to start work early under its staggered work-hours policy and enjoy the free or discounted rail travel. Nevertheless, service levels of front-line staff — for example, at the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority located near Lavendar MRT Station — would not be compromised.
Transport analysts and Members of Parliament were divided on whether, by starting the trial, the authorities would find it difficult to withdraw the scheme in the future.
SIM University transport expert Park Byung Joon said: “Since it is spending taxpayers’ money, the Government must have an option to stop (it) if the scheme is not achieving intended objectives.”
Mountbatten MP Lim Biow Chuan, who sits on the government Parliamentary Committee for Transport, noted that the trial could have a positive spillover effect, by easing congestion on buses.
“Some bus commuters may shift to (taking) the trains and this will allow bus commuters to have a less taxing ride as well,” he said.
On the flip side, it could possibly lead to more crowded feeder buses — with workers and students trying to get on the buses during the same time belt. To prevent this, bus operators might need to adjust their deployment schedule in the morning, Park pointed out. - Today