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Saturday, January 19, 2008

Overhaul of bus system for smooth, fast trips

Overhaul of bus system for smooth, fast trips
Govt to control planning of routes, bus market to be open to competition
By Goh Chin Lian

BUS travel here will undergo an overhaul to give commuters a faster, smoother and more pleasant ride.
This will happen in two stages over the next few years. First, the Government will take back control of the planning of routes from the two public transport companies.

The aim: to find the fastest and best route for commuters by bus and MRT - not how to make more money.

Then, it will open up the bus market to more competition. The idea is that contest could lead to better ways of doing things, and maybe, even lower costs.

More immediately, transfers will become easier and cheaper, and commuters will get more information on the go, to plan how best to make their journey.

Transport Minister Raymond Lim gave the details yesterday in the first of three key policy speeches he will make this month on how travel by bus, rail and car will change.

This shake-up of the land transport landscape foresees that by 2020, 14.3 million journeys will be made every day on this small island, up from 8.9 million now.

The future will be gridlock and pollution if many more people take to cars, he said.

The thing to do now is to move more people to public transport: Mr Lim's target is 70 per cent for all journeys in the morning peak by 2020, up from 63 per cent now.

But what will it take, he asked, for the majority to choose the bus or MRT over the car?

His ministry's solution for buses combines radical strokes with fine tweaking.

It is the fruit of a year-long study to take stock of a 1996 road-map on land transport and lay out a new one, good for the next 10 to 15 years.

The planners turned to consultants who assessed what worked for such cities as London, Hong Kong and Melbourne, and sought public views.

The 'new philosophy', as Mr Lim calls it, is to plan transport through the eyes of the commuter - from the time he thinks about making his journey to the time he reaches his destination.

'Our land transport system must be planned and built for people, not vehicles,' he said.

'Can people get to a train station or bus stop quickly and comfortably? Are the connections good? How long is the total journey time and waiting time between transfers? How crowded are the buses and trains? Can people get timely and user-friendly travel information?'

The Government will consider such concerns when it plans the bus routes and opens them up to the best bidder to run them, possibly as early as 2010.

It will specify standards for what commuters, in a 2007 official poll released yesterday, see as still lacking in the current system - less overcrowding, shorter waiting times.

If the consultants are right, the market has room for a few more bus operators.

These major changes aside, the planners are also tweaking the system to make transfers seamless.

The fare system will be changed so that commuters do not have to pay when making transfers. They will be charged just for the total distance travelled.

They will get a new season pass for use on all trains and buses, regardless of operator.

And the wait for the connection will be shorter. Buses will be given more priority on the roads later this year.

Some commuters, in welcoming the changes, say they are overdue.

Tampines GRC MP and deputy chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Transport Ong Kian Min expects complaints from commuters whose routes get re-drawn by the Land Transport Authority, but thinks they should not sidetrack people from the overall good the changes bring.

'I hope the minister will have the political will and the support from the people to see this through,' said Mr Ong.

It is not clear yet if bidding for the bus routes will eventually push fares up or down. Mr Lim said new gains by operators as a result of opening the market to competition could be reflected in the formula that caps fare rises.

The two bus operators were optimistic about their prospects when the bus routes are carved up for bidders.

SBS Transit, which has a bigger share, saw the share price of its parent ComfortDelGro fall five cents to $1.61, while its own stayed unchanged at $2.83. SMRT's rose one cent to $1.73.

All eyes are now on the coming announcements. Mr Lim said there will be a need to reduce the vehicle growth rate and raise Electronic Road Pricing charges.

Motorists and aspiring car owners can do their sums then, on whether it makes sense to make their other car the bus or the MRT.

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