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.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Horrific Transport

Where were you all these many years? An MP, from the ruling People's Action Party, Mr Lim Biow Chuan, has finally done the right thing, but after prodding from the just concluded GE 2011. He has actually gone down to the street, literally, to witness for himself residents' complaints about the poor bus service. The new MP for Mountbatten said he was "...'horrified' at the bus service standards in his ward..." (Yahoo News, 21 May) after an on-the-ground check of the bus service level in his ward. I leave you to read what he found out. We must give credit to Mr Lim for walking the talk. Taking that simple but important step to see for yourself your residents' complaints and not assuming that it is a lot of hot air blown by some disgruntled commuters is showing your sincerity in doing your job right. I wonder how often former Transport Minister Raymond Lim bothered to check things out himself, or did he just rely on a team of 'yes' men and women who 'sugar-coat' their assessments for his consumption. Maybe that is why he is the former Transport Minister.

But this problem is not particular to Mountbatten. And it is not new either. In fact, it is endemic to Singapore. I wrote as far back as 2007 my horrendous wait for a bus 27 in Tampines (yeah, that Constituency still helmed by Mr Mah Bow Tan), and pointed out that the problem of poor bus service goes back umpteen years. In all those years, nothing much has changed and with rising transport fares through the years, you get pretty genuinely disgruntled commuters. That is why transport fare increases has never been welcomed, even though it is only a few cents every time. People just cannot associate paying even a cent more for a service which never improves.

Hopefully, Mr Lim's horrific experience will lead to some permanent changes. But you know, I doubt if there will be change. I have become a Singapore public transport cynic after years of bad experience taking public transport. But lets give it a chance. Let's see if any permanent change can come out of this.