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Financial pragmatism? Questioning the motives behind bus service 167’s cancellation

In examining the initial cancellation of Singapore’s Bus Service 167, questions arise: Was it a move for financial pragmatism or a strategic shift towards new transport systems like the Thomson-East Coast Line Stage 3 (TEL3)?

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The cancellation and subsequent reinstatement of Bus Service 167 in Singapore raises critical questions about public transportation policies.

Was this decision driven by financial considerations, or is there a more profound intent to nudge commuters towards alternative transport modes?

The figures and justification Acting Transport Minister Chee Hong Tat provided this week for the reasons behind the initial cancellation of the bus service offer some insight.

According to Mr Chee, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) decided to retain the service at a reduced frequency as a compromise to allow commuters time to adjust to new travel arrangements. (Note: The U-turn came due to negative feedback from the general public affected by the cancelled bus service.)

However, at the same time, Mr Chee also cautions against the financial unsustainability of continually adding transit services without adjusting existing ones as ridership patterns evolve.

Mr Chee revealed that operating the original Service 167 required an annual subsidy of S$6.2 million and the reduced frequency of the bus service to every 30 minutes slashes this figure to S$3.6 million.

While this reasoning seems pragmatic, considering the cost of maintaining underutilized services is a burden on taxpayers, this explanation is not entirely satisfying.

Service 167, a crucial link from Sembawang to Tanjong Pagar, is more than just a part of the transit system; it is a lifeline for many. Its convenience and the extensive coverage it provides to the city are likely to attract enough riders to justify its existence, especially for residents in Sembawang.

It’s unclear whether the figures provided by Mr Chee actually factor in the fare collected from passengers.

Why do I question this? If we consider the number of total trips per day for Service 167 before the reduced interval, it was around 159 trips per day on both sides, while after the reduction to 30-minute intervals, the bus service operates with just 74 trips from both sides.

This would suggest that the buses cost less to subsidize at around S$106 per trip pre-reduction, compared to around S$133 post-reduction. This is counterintuitive, as fewer trips with the same number of commuters would mean a lower subsidy per trip. Therefore, it seems more likely that Mr. Chee’s figures did not include the fares collected.

Assuming Mr Chee’s figures do not factor in the fares collected, this means that each bus only needs to carry approximately 122 adults over its 30-kilometre route, paying the minimum fare of S$1.09 to break even (S$3.6 million/365 days/74 trips).

Comments on the Land Transport Guru regarding the bus service suggest poor planning in deploying double-decker buses on the 167 route instead of the much heavier 980 service. This might contribute to inefficient resource use and increased costs.

We should also note that while LTA collects the fare for the bus service, the bus companies managing the buses run advertisements on the vehicles. Based on what has been said in Parliament, it would appear that the transport companies keep the advertisement fees to themselves instead of passing them on to LTA.

Advertisement on Bus Service 167 (landtransportguru)

Several Members of Parliament raised this point of holding onto profits by transport companies, particularly Mr Gerald Giam, Workers’ Party MP for Aljunied GRC, where he points to the WP 2006 proposal to establish a National Transport Corporation (NTC).

Mr Giam envisions the NTC as a “publicly-owned, non-profit, multi-modal land transport entity,” which he argues could redirect profits currently going to Public Transport Operations (PTOs) to benefit commuters instead.

Regardless, the removal of bus services by the People’s Action Party government to achieve greater cost efficiency is not uncommon.

Back in August 2020, former Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung stated that approximately S$60 million a year in public funds is used to subsidize the MRT Downtown Line (DTL) stretch from Bukit Panjang to the city.

This statement was made in response to a petition from a Bukit Panjang resident, supported by over 2,000 signatures, protesting the Land Transport Authority’s (LTA) plan to remove and reroute some bus services in the area.

Mr Ong informed that the DTL, extending from Bukit Panjang to Expo in the east, was constructed at a cost of S$21 billion but is not profitable. As a result, the government subsidizes its operation. Concurrently, he noted a significant decline in ridership on bus services, paralleling the DTL. Specifically, service 171 experienced over a 30% drop, and service 700 saw more than a 50% reduction from 2015 to 2019. These bus services also receive subsidies, amounting to S$14 million annually.

He explained that while LTA can justify the expenses for bus services as the sole public transport option, the availability of the DTL necessitates more prudent public spending, leading to the proposed changes. Mr Ong acknowledged the concerns about the potential increase in stops for service 972 and overcrowding in service 190 post-changes, assuring that LTA would consider adding more buses if needed.

As expected, despite the petition, bus service 700 remains out of service to this day. Let’s not forget the changes to feeder bus services for Bukit Panjang residents following the introduction of the Light Rail System in 2000.

The LTA’s U-turn, prompted by a heartfelt outcry from the public, including seniors and persons with disabilities, reflects the essential role this service plays in the lives of many.

A comment on LTA’s Facebook post encapsulates this sentiment perfectly: “For the senior who walks slowly or has a disability, the 10 or 15 minutes will be no difference. Rather a direct service than change bus train. Bus should be complementing the train service and not force people to take the train.”

This statement underscores the necessity of having a holistic and inclusive approach to public transportation, where convenience and accessibility for all users are paramount.

Considering the financial justifications for the initial removal of Bus Service 167, as stated by Mr Chee, and the simple calculations above based on available information, we are left pondering: Was the original decision to cancel Service 167 truly about financial viability, or was it a subtle attempt to shift riders to alternative transport forms, like the newly introduced Thomson-East Coast Line Stage 3 (TEL3)?

Although financial sustainability is essential for the transit system, it should not overshadow the convenience and needs of commuters — seniors and the needy, especially in a public transport system that should have their best interest in mind rather than the money spent.

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No Financial Literacy No Shift: Plain Crazy.
Hahaha.

PAP forgot who they are serving.

I found many a times, and most, whenever PAP Administration try to put A GOOD SPIN in their arguments when public raise negative issues, they DO NOT speak ON PRODUCTIVITY and VALUE, value CREATION.
To Sheeps always they accepted as NORMAL, their thinking and BELIEF in PAP doing a good job which is exactly HOW SHEEPS are CONDITIONED
As can be seen, because of it, they ARE naturally CLAMOURING to PAP for help in recovering Million$ of scam losses which they think is PAP’s responsibility to recover since ‘PAP is so good’.

You mean illogical and trying to fit into their profess cult practices … Trying to burden next generation with a burden mindset.

Remember what pinky said, ‘More buses better service!’

So where is the better service when you pulled out 167?

Thank your Mr Xu. Logically deduced and based on facts available. Thank you for keeping track of what PAP says. They always make statements that shifts away from the topics at hand. In many instances of changes in policies, practices, my observations and anecdotal experiences, one single person’s view of the situation is usually the deciding factor. And sometimes it is illogical and based on pure ego. Back in the late 60’s, PUB’s electrical division could not lay cables along and around Orchard road near Oxely. The PM did not like seeing coolies pulling, huffing 22KV electric cables. PUB had… Read more »

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