SINGAPORE: Commuters can expect the bulk of plans to improve bus services to be implemented by end—2014, earlier than the initial target of 2016.
Speaking in Parliament on Tuesday during the debate on his ministry’s spending, Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew said this will be the result of speeding up the S$1.1 billion Bus Service Enhancement Programme (BSEP).
He said the move is contingent on operators — namely SBS Transit and SMRT — being able to raise salaries and recruit enough bus drivers in a tightening labour market.
But Mr Lui is confident that the improvements will come through, with efforts from all parties.
Operators will also be given incentives to boost service levels.
To increase capacity, 90 new public buses have been added to the roads in the five months since BSEP was launched. Mr Lui said this has resulted in five new bus routes, and improvement in about 50 existing services.
More than half of the 550 buses committed by the government are expected to be delivered by the end of the year.
As for trains, Mr Lui said the government is "seriously considering" the suggestion of offering free travel during off—peak hours —— to incentivise commuters to change their travelling patterns.
Singaporeans have been become less satisfied with the public transport system. Latest survey results from the Public Transport Customer Satisfaction Survey found that overall satisfaction dipped to 88.8 per cent last year — from 90.3 per cent in 2011.
The transport minister said the general drop in satisfaction stems largely from overcrowding and service reliability.
Waiting times for buses, for example, saw a 2.1 per cent dip in satisfaction.
Mr Lui said: "I know that for commuters, uncertain waiting times for buses means that the journey is less predictable, and more stressful. When service disruptions or even short delays happen, commuters are inconvenienced.
"I want to state unequivocally that the government will spare no effort to address these problems. I would like to assure Singaporeans that dealing with the needs of our commuters here—and—now is the key focus for my ministry, even as our longer term infrastructure plans are rolled out," he said.
A new Quality Incentive Framework will improve timeliness. Operators will need to ensure buses arrive regularly to earn incentives and avoid penalties.
Mr Lui said: "This means operators will have to make appropriate interventions and give guidance to the bus drivers even as the buses are running on the roads, to reduce bus bunching and long gaps between consecutive buses, such as by asking the buses to speed up or slow down where appropriate, or even by introducing some buses mid—stream when warranted."
The Land Transport Authority will try out the scheme on some 25 services, or about 10 per cent of bus services, towards the end of this year. Mr Lui said the framework will come on top of the existing Quality of Service standards, which are set out by the Public Transport Council.
By early next year, there will also be six more City Direct bus services, which will run during the peak hours along the expressways into the city in the morning and in the evening.
Residents of Ang Mo Kio and Bedok are among those to benefit.
Tenders for the six new routes will be opened to private bus operators from next quarter. The move will bring up the total number of parallel bus services previously announced under BSEP to 14, with nine to be operated by private operators.
There will also be more localised and "feeder—type" services during peak hours to bring residents to MRT stations. Mr Lui said tenders for these services will be from the third quarter of this year, before the services are implemented progressively from next year.
Turning to the rail network, extensive plans have already been announced to significantly improve peak—hour capacity from 2015 to 2016 by adding more trains and upgrading the signalling system.
But between now and then, Mr Lui said more will be done to shift travel demand to off—peak periods and better optimise capacity.
Currently, commuters who enter the SMRT network already enjoy a discount of up to 50 cents if they exit certain stations within the city area before 7:45am.
The scheme has generated only a three to four per cent shift so far.
"For example, at Raffles Place station, the large majority of commuters travelling to the station every morning make their exit during the 8:30 to 9:30 window.
"If we can get even 10 to 15 per cent of commuters in the peak period to travel up to an hour earlier, we would achieve a very perceptible improvement in commuters’ daily travel experience to get to work.
"This will also help us to run a more efficient transport system, and better optimise the capacity we have," Mr Lui said.
On Member of Parliament Dr Janil Puthucheary’s idea to allow commuters to travel free on public transport before the peak hours, "I have asked my staff to consider it seriously. What we are still studying is whether we should simply increase the current 50—cent discount substantially to say, S$1, or to go all the way to make it free for commuters travelling before a certain cut—off time in the morning," he said.
From the second half of this year, waiting times outside peak periods are also expected to improve, with operators expected to run about 10 per cent more train trips progressively.
The aim is to reduce waiting time to no more than five minutes, compared to the current seven minutes.
During the shoulder peak periods, the average waiting time should be about three minutes.
Commuters on the North—South and East—West Lines will benefit starting from the second half of this year.
Those on the North East and Circle Lines will benefit when new trains are delivered from 2015.
Mr Lui said reliability is an even bigger issue for trains because a disruption or service delay affects many more commuters.
A target has been set to reduce the number of faulty trains pulled out of service to about 2.1 per 100,000 kilometres this year.
Since the commencement of the LTA—SMRT Joint Team in June last year, train withdrawals for the North—South and East—West Lines have dropped to about 2.7 in February this year, compared to 4.5 in the second quarter last year.
Mr Lui said the government is also completing its review of the rail regulatory and penalty frameworks, which will take effect from the second half of this year.
The revised maximum penalty may be pegged to a percentage of the affected MRT line’s total annual fare revenue, to serve as a stronger deterrent against service disruptions and regulatory breaches.
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