SINGAPORE: Explaining the reinstatement of Bus Service 167, Acting Transport Minister Chee Hong Tat, said the Land Transport Authority (LTA) decided to retain the bus service at a reduced frequency for now, aims to afford commuters additional time to adapt to the recently implemented travel arrangements.
However, he warned that it is not financially sustainable for commuters and taxpayers if the government only add new MRT and bus services over time, without reducing or shortening existing bus services when ridership patterns change.
Mr Chee was responding to a Parliamentary question filed by Gerald Giam, Workers’ Party Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC.
Mr Giam asked the Minister what is the rationale for reinstating Bus Service 167, and the anticipated monthly cost to the government for restoring the service over the next two years.
He also asked whether the aforementioned rationale provides grounds for the LTA to reinstate other discontinued bus services, including along Bedok Reservoir Road.
LTA U-turn on earlier decision, maintains Bus Service 167 with 30-minute intervals
In a written reply on Wednesday (10 Jan), Mr Chee said the LTA initially planned to discontinue Service 167 and shorten Services 162/162M and 75.
This move aimed to optimize limited bus resources in response to evolving ridership patterns following the inauguration of the Thomson-East Coast Line Stage 3 (TEL3).
Service 167 is a long trunk route which serves commuters from Sembawang in the north to Tanjong Pagar in the south.
“As the shortening of Services 162/162M and 75 also affect these commuters, LTA decided to retain Service 167 at a reduced frequency for now, to give commuters more time to adjust to the new travel arrangements. ”
LTA proceeded with the changes to Services 162/162M and 75, as the ridership on these 26 services had declined significantly after TEL3 started operations.
LTA also made adjustments to increase the frequency of other services such as 121 and 980 to ensure that there is sufficient capacity on alternative routes for commuters, Mr Chee added.
Mr Chee disclosed that collectively, these changes resulted in an annual cost savings of S$5.1 million (approximately US$3.8 million).
This amount is reallocated to support new bus routes and feeder services for commuters from new housing estates in different parts of Singapore.
He shared that The annual subsidy required to operate the original Service 167 was S$6.2 million.
By reducing the frequency to one trip every 30 minutes, the amount of subsidies required dropped to S$3.6 million per year.
He assured LTA will continue to monitor the ridership on these amended services and make further adjustments where necessary.
LTA shortened Bedok Reservoir Road bus routes following DTL3 opening
For buses plying Bedok Reservoir Road following the opening of Downtown Line Stage 3 (DTL3), Mr Chee said LTA had shortened the routes for Services 22, 66 and 506 in December 2021, while providing commuters with additional connectivity and capacity on other services such as 65 and 228.
Mr Chee claimed that the majority of affected commuters have switched to using DTL3 since 2021, enjoying cost and time savings on their journeys compared to taking a long bus ride.
“Currently, during the weekday peak hour where demand is the highest, Service 228 buses are mostly only half-filled, with no bus reaching 75% of the maximum capacity.”
Mr Chee acknowledged that some commuters are affected when LTA shortens bus routes or removes services, as they would need to adjust their travel arrangements.
“This is why every such change is made judiciously, after careful assessment of the changing ridership patterns and alternative commute options, and taking on board feedback from key stakeholders.”
In line with the government’s efforts to expand the MRT network and introduce new bus routes and services for emerging housing estates, Mr Chee underscored the necessity for the LTA to consistently review and adjust existing bus services.
Mr Giam’s persistent questions on bus services rationalisation
This is not the first time Mr Giam has been brought to the parliament about the issues faced by Bedok Reservoir residents regarding the inconvenience following the removal of several bus routes in late 2021.
During the 2022 Committee of Supply debate, he already pointed out the critical aspect of rationalizing bus services.
He emphasized the importance of the LTA engaging in public consultations with affected residents before any decisions.
However, Chee Hong Tat, Senior Minister of State for Transport at the time, rationalized that shortening three bus services would save S$9.5 million in subsidies a year, which could be reallocated to new bus routes.
Mr Chee clarified that while some services operate with low ridership and run at a loss, they serve crucial connectivity needs for commuters in certain areas, necessitating government subsidies.
Mr Chee outlined cost reduction measures undertaken by LTA before deciding to modify bus services, such as considering single-deck buses, reducing service frequency, and exploring various strategies to optimize resources.
Mr Giam raises alarm on bus route rationalization impact amidst rising fares
During a Parliament session in October 2023, Mr Giam emphasized commuters’ concerns regarding the rationalization of bus routes, particularly trunk services favoured by the elderly, despite noticeable increases in bus fares.
He highlighted that while this practice benefits operator profits and government savings, it adversely affects service quality for affected commuters.
Mr Giam specifically mentioned the requests from his constituents for the reinstatement of bus services 66 and 506.
In response, Acting Transport Minister Chee Hong Tat defended the government’s approach, stating that they do not rationalize or remove buses arbitrarily.
He outlined key considerations in the decision-making process when rationalizing bus routes. First, they don’t remove services without providing an alternative. Second, they evaluate if there’s a parallel MRT route available for affected commuters.
“The concept that I hope Mr Giam can help us as well to explain to his residents, is that we encourage people to take public transport as much as possible within the town, feeder services to bring them them from their homes or near their homes to the key transport notes like bus interchanges and MRT stations. ”
He proposed a more efficient approach, suggesting the utilization of MRT for longer trunk routes, highlighting the system as feeder services primarily for local transport, leading to key nodes, and MRT for longer journeys.
Impact on elderly commuters due to altered bus services
On the other hand, during the Motion debate on the Cost of Living Crisis on 7 November, Mr Giam shed light on the financial burden faced by the public due to the 2023 Fare Review Exercise, which notably escalated the expenses of public transportation despite government subsidies.
Highlighting the profitability of public transport operators, Mr Giam cited, “Between 2011 and 2022, SMRT and SBS Transit have together posted profits averaging S$74.6 million a year, reaching S$110 million in the last financial year.”
In his critique, Mr Giam didn’t miss highlighting the effects on his constituents: “In the past three years, about 30 bus services have been shortened or removed.”
“Such changes have affected my residents in Bedok Reservoir, who continue to voice their concerns to me about long wait times and crowded feeder bus rides to Bedok MRT station.”
“Elderly commuters who favour direct trunk services, which facilitate shorter walking distances for the commute, are also affected by these changes.”
Proposing an alternative, Mr Giam revisited the Workers’ Party’s 2006 proposal to establish a National Transport Corporation (NTC).
He envisions the NTC as a “publicly-owned, non-profit, multi-modal land transport entity,” which he argues could redirect profits currently going to PTOs to benefit commuters instead.
“Such revenue could mitigate fare increases and subsidise transport for the elderly, people with disabilities and low-income households, directly addressing concerns about the cost of living,” he pointed out, underlining the direct benefits to the vulnerable demographics.
However, Mr Chee dismissed the Workers’ Party’s proposal to nationalize Singapore’s transport system.
He stressed that while nationalization might remove the profit aspect and transform it into a Government department, it doesn’t inherently guarantee improved outcomes for commuters.
“I hope Mr Giam can agree with me that nationalising is not an assurance or guarantee that outcomes would be better.”
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