Monday, October 5, 2015

May the best taxi service win

Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan would like to evaluate upstarts GrabTaxi and Uber to ensure that there is a level playing field. I suppose that means that GrabTaxi and Uber (G&U) should not have an unfair advantage over the incumbent taxi companies. In my opinion, what it really means is that the government, through regulations, wants to up the costs of G&U. That, or it wants to banish, or at least suppress, this innovative transport solution. Once this is done, the taxi companies will deem the competition to be fair.

This is ridiculous. For as long as there has been taxi companies such as ComfortDelgro, SMRT, etc. operating their fleets of taxis, there has really been no real competition. The taxi prices are really collusive, dressed up as free-market competition, never mind that the hop-on fare differs from one taxi company to another. You really don't get to choose which company's taxi you hop onto in a taxi queue. You are expected to take the next one that comes. It is expected of you. Of course you can refuse the next taxi which, in your view, charges more, but that means that you are left to rue whether you should have passed it up because it seems to take forever for the next taxi to appear, and you are beginning to run late. It is an absolutely unsatisfactory state of affairs, to say the least. Of course you can call for a cab, but you have to pay for the service. The problem is, part of the booking fee go to the taxi company (I suppose for providing the calling service). The net effect is the increase in the cost of taking a taxi. Now what if you can get a taxi to come to you by using your phone? That's the value proposition of G&U. Hop-on fee starts at S$8 and the total cost you incur may come out to lower or higher than if you had taken a conventional cab. It doesn't matter. The important thing is, G&U will estimate the price of the trip and you can either go ahead with the booking or not. That's real competition for you, not the wayang competition that the authorities are so fond of dressing up as competition. You get to choose. Sounds familiar?

I say, let things be. If G&U get a bad reputation because of reports of mis-conduct, people will hear about it and it will spell the doom of their business. I don't think you really need the government to come in to play the referee. It will be a total waste of tax-payers' money. What existing taxi companies should do is engage G&U in real competition. Offer the value proposition that has made U&G so popular, or better them with something more innovative. Not hide behind Minister Khaw's apron in the name of fairness.

You say there is a mobile apps from ComfortDelgro taxis? When I last check, it wasn't available on my Windows Phone. Uber is and has thus acquired me as a customer.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Fine who?

It is reported that the SMRT will be fined S$5.4M as penalty for the massive train breakdown on 7 July 2015. The breakdown, simultaneously, of both the East-West and North-South lines affected more than 400,000 commuters on their way home after a long day at the office. According to investigations, the breakdown could have been prevented but because of the lapse in maintenance by SMRT. In fact, according to the Land Transport Authority (LTA), the problem that eventually caused the breakdown was known two months beforehand, but SMRT did not think it was serious enough to give it its utmost attention. I suppose the LTA thought this was gross negligence of the highest order and thus imposed the huge fine.

Frankly, many commuters, myself included, wonder if they ultimately have to foot the S$5.4M bill when SMRT raises fare citing "rising costs", etc, etc. I don't think anyone is applauding this news. Fines have been imposed in the past but these did not lead to significant improvements in maintenance nor reduce instances of major breakdowns. The LTA thinks that it must now impose a penalty that will cause the maximum pain. But pain for who? The way I see it, the person in-charge of the SMRT, the CEO no less, should step up and resign. I have written previously that Mr Lui Tuck Yew shouldn't have resigned, but he did. He is an honorable man worthy of everyone's respect. The head honcho of SMRT today is still sitting behind the CEO's desk. For him, and his senior management team, it will merely be an exercise in factoring in the $5.4M into the budget for next year, and reporting a slightly less profitable year, but still probably a profitable year.

Will the S$5.4M lesson be learnt? I doubt so unless there is a change at the top. Mr Kuek famously said that he still had work to do to right the wrong, but it has been almost 3 years to the date when he assumed the position of CEO. What has he been doing all these three years that he still needs more time? How long? Another three years, or until all the trains breakdown simultaneously? Like Mr Lui (though unnecessarily), he should step up to step down. Nobody is demanding that he perform hara-kiri, though that's really up to him.

If there is no change, only time will prove that this latest exercise in moving numbers on the balance sheet will have little bearing on the integrity, or lack of it, of the operations of the SMRT system. Frankly, truly, really, I have greater trust in the bus system today. And we should thank Mr Lui for this.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Leaving the Post

3 years ago when I last blogged, I praised Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew for taking an active role in addressing the transportation problems facing the country, which was more than we can say for the highly-paid CEOs. Then, as now, Singapore's public transport system is still nowhere near as reliable as its commuters expect and demand. The latest gigantic snafu on 7 July 2015,  the North-South and East-West lines broke down at the same time must have been the straw that broke the camel's back. No, no, no, the CEO of the transport company is still in place. He claims that he still has work to do to right the wrongs plaguing our SMRT transport system. Well SMRT has been at it for more than 3 years, and the next breakdown around the corner. It  initially didn't even have clue as to what caused this last great breakdown. How pathetic.

Now Minister Lui has stepped up to take the ultimate responsibility. He announced that he will not be contesting in the next Generation Election, which may only be a month away. The public has not been told why exactly Minister Lui wants to step down. The usual "he has done well... valued... couldn't get him to stay...regret...etc." reasons have been given for public consumption. But Mr Lui has been refreshingly frank about what the reasons were NOT about - it was not to spend more time with the family, it was not about looking for new challenges, etc. etc. I appreciate Mr Lui for being frank, something that has characterised his approach to issues. That is why he shouldn't have resigned. We have one less person in the top echelons of power to champion the public cause, for daring to do the audacious in almost nationalizing the transport system and then parcelling it out for REAL competition, unlike the wayang that had been going on in transport policies and practice for the last 30 years. Yes, the public has questioned the justification of publicly-listed bus company, SBS Transit, using tax-payers' money to fund their commercial business (the BSEP). However, when seen in the context of the subsequent change in transport policy of letting private enterprise bid for the operation of public transport, it is beginning to look like a master stroke.

I think for these and more, Mr Lui has more than earned his pay. He should have stayed to ensure that these plans are executed properly. But he trusts that there are others who can do so well enough. And for these, we thank you, Mr Lui.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Unseen Hand

Well, its probably unfair, and I am sure it is coincidental. Someone observed that once Ms Saw, the ex-CEO of SMRT, spoke (blogged in this instance), the train operations stop working. The competitors are not spared. Did Ms Saw have such capabilities in the first place? If she did, she would have swallowed up SBSTransit and merged it with SMRT during her tenure as SMRT CEO. So this talk is all just mischief, I hope.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Wake up your ideas

Our Transport Minister, Mr Lui Tuck Yew, appears to be a regular public transport commuter nowadays, especially when the train breaks down. In the most recent incident, Minister Lui took the trouble to be almost everywhere to ensure that people's lives are not too inconvenienced unnecessarily. He may be the Transport Minister, but it appears that he also runs the transport operations. He may as well be the CEO of SBSTransit. Which is more than we can say about the actual CEO. Well, its unfair for me to say that. A press conference was called towards the END of the day where the actual CEO, Mr Gan Juay Kiat, apologised for the breakdown.

By his actions of late, Mr Lui has set the bar to almost impossible heights for our transport operators' senior management. The head honchos of these transport operators would probably prefer that he kept a lower profile and said less. Heck they probably wished he never took their trains. But really, the only way they can have this wish fulfilled is for the transport operators to do their jobs in the first place. Roster for thorough maintenance of both the trains and the tracks. Have zero tolerance for failure so that no apologies become necessary and the rest of us can go about our lives doing what the government tells us to do: increasing our productivity. Above all, be paranoid. Always imagine that something will go wrong. Check everything. Check them again. No, check it a third time. Sure this will cost more, but as it is, breakdowns also cost the transport operators not only monetarily, but more so its reputation and trustworthiness. Well, you say these are really not important given the fact that the transport operators are monopolies. Whether you like them or not, you have to take their trains to work. So who gets busted if we cannot bust the commercial operators? The politicians, of course!

I hope the civil servants, especially the big shots in the LTA, realise that their behinds are being shield by Chief Lui. As they say in the army, they had better 'wake up their ideas' and not have their boss run around on their behalf all the time. No shame ahh? Well you say the boss wants to run around, so what can you do? Simple, make sure these major breakdowns and disruptions don't happen! As Andy Grove famously wrote, ONLY THE PARANOID SURVIVES.

Monday, January 30, 2012

A day in the life

A day in the life of a long suffering Singapore commuter.

Trying to board a bus
Trying to hang on after boarding a bus but watch where you put your hands!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Imperfect Circle

I was late for work today. And half an hour at that, no thanks to SMRT's newly opened stretch of the Circle Line. I had been hopeful. It would be the first time I would be travelling on that newly opened stretch to make it to the office. I wanted to time the trip, to determine if it would take me less time and if so, by how much.

But as these things go, when something is new, what can go wrong went wrong. The train, starting from Serangoon station towards Dhoby Ghaut station stalled at the second stop, and again at the third stop, and the fourth, and so on. The sweet voice from the intercom said that something was wrong, but didn't explain what was wrong. 'She' apologised, again and again - what do you expect from a 'canned' announcer - sweetness notwithstanding. I was getting irritated at the repeated apologies. Please just go already. And at one stretched, when it was moving ('at last'), it came to an abrupt stop, throwing everyone off balance. This was turning out to be a really bad experience on my first trip on this new stretch of the line. It has only been the third day of its operations. I wondered why. It wasn't as if this is the first time that SMRT is operating a driver-less train. They have been doing it for some time now with the partially opened line, and I have not experience any problems during those rides. I am a regular commuter on this partially completed line.

Well, put it down to beginner's bad luck. Dare I take the train back this evening? Well, lets see what the sky says.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The official figure

The Institute of Service Excellence (ISES) at the Singapore Management University (SMU) just released the results of its annual customer satisfaction survey of the transport and logistics sector in Singapore. It was conducted between April and June of this year, and generally found improvements over last year's results. These include improvements in its scores for public bus transportation (up 5.3 points over a 100 point scale) and the MRT (up 3.7 points). 

As expected, nobody I know who take public bus and MRT transport as often as I do (which is 5 days a week commuting to and from work) can reconcile their experience with the results of this survey. In fact, there are probably more who I do not personally know (and thus cannot vouch for) who would express the same opinion. Just read the comments in response to the report in Today Online. None of these comments expressed agreement with the findings. Some questioned its survey methodology. Others didn't bother - it was just plain wrong, they said. Yet others threw scorn on ISES, saying that it has lost credibility. 

Let me say first that ISES, which is under SMU, has done this survey since 2007. It must be credible. Otherwise, it would have closed its doors. There is always the fine print - and point - in interpreting statistical figures. The news media are often at fault in giving the wrong impression. In this case, news headlines suggested that public transport service has improved overall ("Singaporeans are satisfied with public transport system" - Todayonline,  "Satisfaction over public transport has increased..." - CNA). And you know, in the age of the sound bite, that's all that anyone is interested in reading - the long suffering man in the street who will disagree, not knowing what exactly he disagrees with, and the smug corporate transport executives who will agree, again not knowing exactly what they agree with. So we are always back to square one.

Survey results are raw. Only when you begin to look closer at the results in specific contexts can you make any meaningful inferences and arrive at certain conclusions. Truth be told, the same set of survey results can be interpreted in any number of ways, depending on what you want to say, or hear. So the 'saying', or interpretation,  is important. And when you look closely at what the ISES researchers say, they agree that frequency and punctuality needs to improve further, something that everyone has been saying all along. For the man in the street, the improvement needs to be significantly more. For the transport executive, that's distilled to a number, no more nor less. And this is where they don't see eye to eye. As the ISES researchers have rightly pointed out, it is, after all, a matter of perception although this did not stop them from quantifying such an un-quantifiable attribute.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Up, up and away

It is said that there is no certainty in life except death and taxes. Well, in Singapore, you can add public transport fare increases. And that's because there is a formula that stipulates such adjustments EVERY year, no matter if the public transport operators provide good and efficient services. This includes an age-old bugbear, which is the timely arrival of buses and their frequencies. Just yesterday, a friend of mine complained of dreading travelling to work because only one bus service plies the route near where she works and she has had to board the second or even the third bus because the first/second one that comes along will simply be too packed to board.

And here, you have the Public Transport Council (PTC) deciding in favour of the transport operators, namely SBS Transit and SMRT, to increase fares across the board by 1%. You might think that 1% is not a whole lot compared to the 2.8% that was asked by the operators, but for any service which falls short frequently, 1% is a percent too much. Is it any coincidence that SMRT, the subway operator, just announced a massive increase in the number of trains that will be put into operation to address the problem of congestion? Why in the first place did the congestion come about? Some people were 'sleeping', right? Well, let's see. Don't count your chicks before they are hatched. Probably only in Singapore do you have a situation where a vendor is allowed to increase prices BEFORE any improvement can be seen and felt by its customers in its services. Yep, Singapore is really business friendly country. Customers? They are there to milk them dry. Commuters have no choice at all as they have to commute to work to earn a living.

But the operators would protest that oil prices have increased, which has eaten into their profits. Coupled with that the increase in their manpower cost, and moreover, there is the annual price adjustment formula (which always works out to an increase), all of which justify asking for the 2.8%. Cost pressures from oil prices? Come on, which business is not adversely affected by oil price increases? And when oil prices decreases, you don't hear from these same public transport operators.

Manpower cost? Every business has manpower cost issues. Apparently, SBSTransit's and SMRT's perennial solution is to charge its commuters higher fares. I wished that some independent party can audit these companies' operations to discover if there are not areas in which manpower cost can be lowered, or if there are not inefficiencies that are not being addressed. The certainly of increasing fares annually, and lack of real competition (mandated by the government, no less) provide no incentive for the operators to do anything about lowering manpower costs. To hedge their bets, they can just 'mark up' the fare increase requested for, have the PTC lower and approve it, and SBSTransit and SMRT can laugh all the way to the bank. Oh sure, they will say that they have improved one thing or another, but they would not have had to try hard enough. Why is it paying its CEO millions of dollars annually if manpower costs are so dire? To these public transport operators, I say, deal with it, and don't beg for more to pay your CEO even more every year.

The PTC claims that public transport fare prices have, on aggregate, decreased between 2008 and 2010 by 3.4%. And what do you know, services have gone from bad to worse within these same years. Sometimes I wonder if the authorities are so fixated on numbers that they miss this point - the real value or lack of it, to the commuting public, which makes it so difficult for long-suffering commuters to swallow a fare increase, however slight, or seemingly well justified. Perhaps its members who sit in judgement never take public transport often enough?

I truly look forward to the day when an increase in public transport fares will be accepted because commuters have seen the value that these operators have given them, and not the pain of the daily commute. Sadly, that day has yet to come. With things as they are, that day may very well never come. After all, I have been waiting all my life...

See also: 1 percent transport fare hike sparks debate online

Friday, July 15, 2011

Up no down

The transport companies have finally opened their corporate mouths. They want to increase their fares because of rising oil prices and manpower costs. Well, of course manpower costs have gone up. SMRT paid its CEO S$1.85m last year and ComfortDelgro CEO got more or less the same. Going by Wall Street's standards, that's a pittance. But then bench marking against those crooks in NY isn't all that great an idea anyway. In the context of this tiny island where your average Joe in the bus/train earns no more than $35,000 a year, and inflation galloping at 4-5%, S$1.8m a year is a princely sum. And she dares to asked for more? Even Oliver Twist will blush at the thought.

So what's new? Nothing, really. After blowing their trumpets about how they will increase the number of trips and frequency of their buses and trains, I, the man in the street from Mondays to Fridays, hasn't seen, much less felt, any improvements in bus/train frequencies at all. In fact rush hour intervals on the East-West line has gone up from 3 minutes to 4 minutes - I kid you not. And bus frequency? Sorry, I don't take them anymore. I am taking private buses. These buses cost more, but at least they serve me well. And that's really what commuters are looking for, really. If bus/train services provide noticeable and sustained improvements, I will not grudge a couple of more cents increase in fares. Its really when you are asked to pay more for the same lousy service that you get boiled up every time the issue is raised. The PTC is reportedly studying the proposal. Well, I hope the PTC takes their time and start taking the bus and train first before they make a decision, as a brave MP and the Transport Minister Lui has done. But just don't take it for a day, or a week. Make it a month. Then you begin to understand why hardworking people find it so very hard to go to work nowadays.