Thursday, March 13, 2008

letter to Minister

i've been wanting to write this letter for months. At the SGDi, all the emails of the PTC board members were removed. Not sure why, but this doesn't reflect well of PTC being a people's transport council. So, i changed the recipient of the letter. Anyway, here it goes. Pardon the little grammar errors...

Dear Sir,

I am taking a bold step by writing this email. Nevertheless, I sincerely hope you are able to spend a couple of minutes reading on. I am a bus enthusiast and a member of “Friends of SMRT”, currently an undergraduate at the National University of Singapore.

In the public transport enthusiast circle (Singapore Buses @ SGForums), words were going round that SMRT Buses (SMRTB) is affected by a chronic bus shortage situation. Various members of the public has lent further strength of this rumour by giving feedback and even posting pictures on SPH’s Stomp.

“Peak hour crush on bus services 190 and 960” – 3 Jun 2007 - Link
“SMRT: We’re monitoring overcrowding on 960” – 11 Aug 2007 - Link
“He waited for over an hour to board his bus” – 12 Jan 2008 - Link

I believe with confidence that the SMRTB management has been working on overcrowding through innovative deployments of the bus fleet. However, remedy efforts have not changed the big picture on the whole. Certain SMRTB services such as 67, 190, 851 and 960 have been affected by the high-load factor of commuters during peak hours since last year. I would like to humbly offer my analysis.

Insufficient buses to cater to demand
The last new fleet of Mercedes buses was delivered to SMRTB in 2004. Commuter demand should have risen since then, and new buses should be injected into revenue service.

Hitherto, there were no purchases of new buses. To deal with the overcrowding situation, SMRTB has brought in a handful of existing buses from City Shuttle Services (CSS). These buses came from the withdrawn CSS route 608. Now, the ex-CSS buses are plying routes in the north-western corridor, such as route 178 and 187. Existing buses were transferred to other high-demanding routes to cope with demand.

However, this represents another problem – the ex-CSS buses frequently break down, causing untold inconveniences to commuters. I personally observed a higher breakdown rate on these old buses as I am residing in Woodlands. This has led to a question of whether the buses are still roadworthy for revenue service.

Meanwhile, while SMRTB has ordered new buses, the delivery will only start at the end of the year. The current demand from many services under its charge has overwhelmingly outstripped supply.

Severity of the situation
There are insufficient statistics to ascertain the extent of overcrowding on SMRTB’s routes. So far, enthusiasts have discussed bus deployments, but no quantitative measurements on quality of service.

In the past, events requiring mass deployments on special shuttle services, such as the Air Show 2008, and major route diversions such as NDP or Singapore Fireworks Festival, many SMRTB city routes came under great strain. Route managers attempted to assign more high capacity bendy buses from various depots to these special/city routes to alleviate overcrowding. But, such a move presents a “see-saw” effect. Other routes, such as feeder routes that still require these buses were affected to a certain extent.

For example, route 960 is frequently overcrowded on weekdays and weekends. During peak hours, additional split shifts were put on service. While my previous feedback in Aug 2007 saw the addition of 1-2 more buses to the route, some buses were swapped with non-articulated ones. In the end, the situation has remained largely the same. For a popular city route to the northern corridor, the frequency has been stagnant at 10-15 minutes for years. Comparatively, SBS Transit’s city routes has generally better frequencies. SBS Transit is also more proactive in combating congestion, such as the continuous tracking of buses on congested routes, and buffering congestion by injecting spare buses at the right bus stops when situations call for them.

Of recent, the escape of the JI fugitive has caused congestion at Woodlands Checkpoint and the surrounding main roads. SMRTB has diverted affected routes to avoid Woodlands Centre Road wherever possible. Still, the feeder route 903 that serves my residential area is badly affected. Commuters waiting at the 2nd, 3rd and 4th stops after the interchange have no chance to board buses that were filled up to the door steps, leading to extremely long waits of minimum 10-15 mins per missed bus.

I read with excitement that SMRTB have ordered new fleet of buses in the coming future. Plans in the Land Transport Review also gave northern residents a glimmer of hope in the improvement of bus transportation in 2 years time. However, in the meantime, commuters have to put up with the chronic overcrowding situation on many SMRTB routes.

Therefore, I would like to suggest 2 possible solutions:

- SMRTB enters into a leasing agreement with SBS Transit, to operate the latter’s buses on SMRTB routes, to increase frequency, especially on city routes.
- SMRTB transfers a number of high-demand routes to SBS Transit until it has the ability to provide a satisfactory quality of service. Buses on transferred routes can therefore be used to increase frequency of other SMRTB routes in the short term.

SBS Transit has introduced more than 300 wheelchair accessible double and single decked buses since last year, with at least 300-400 in order. It is almost certain SBS Transit has a surplus of buses for now, as a large number of old buses that are to be scrapped in 2008 are extended by another 2 years. In the recent SMRT disruption between Pasir Ris and Tanah Merah, SBS Transit has comfortably supplied 30 buses under SMRT’s request. In my opinion, SBS Transit is well positioned to help solve SMRTB’s overcrowding problem now.

Sir, I feel that SMRTB will not exercise these solutions unless there are strong motivations to do so. However, many commuters would be happy to see an improvement on the ground. I thank you for reading this email, and I look forward to a truly effective transportation landscape for Singapore in the years ahead.

Yours sincerely,

Ng Zhi Ming

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