The latest annual review which will lower bus and train fares from Dec 27 may find unanimous accord in one respect: the lower fares offer a modicum of welcome relief on the wallets of commuters, particularly low-income earners. By this newspaper's reckoning, lower fares may save a family of four $86 next year.
Some applaud the decision to grant the maximum allowable fare reduction of 1.9 per cent, arguing that this is the most that can be extracted to benefit commuters without being unfair to the operators. Critics believe the fare cut is too little too late, citing the plunges in oil prices which led to savings that were not earned by dint of the operators' efforts. They also point to the relative rarity of cuts, compared to rises. The last real decline was six years ago, they say. On the flip side, it must be acknowledged that energy costs have the least weightage among the fare formula's trifecta that also includes inflation and wages. Further, the fare freeze in 2012 must not be ignored as it qualifies as a saving too because commuters did not have to pay for the cost of inflation.
Smack in the middle of these contrasting views is the Public Transport Council (PTC), the independent arbiter whose purpose is to determine fair fares which will keep public transport affordable for commuters as well as help the operators remain viable. Because this act is often akin to trying to square a hole, the discharge of the council's twin responsibilities will never fully meet the expectations of all stakeholders. Users want to pay the least possible for a necessary service, while businesses want to extract the best yield possible to derive reasonable profits. Under these circumstances, the best the PTC can do is to ensure the fare review formula is practical, transparent and applied impartially.
Some have asked if account should be taken of service reliability as well. Who is to compensate for the inconvenience and costs borne by the public when frequent service disruptions occur because of inadequate maintenance? Fare refunds and free bus rides provide some relief and the million-dollar fines paid by operators to the regulator act as a deterrence. But should the fare formula reflect their maintenance duty directly? Indeed, the public's desire for low fares might be at odds with the costly investments needed by operators to ensure service reliability.
Examining the metrics and algorithm of a more complex formula might not prove worthwhile as public transport is heading towards a contracting model, under which the Government owns all assets and keeps the revenue while operators stick solely to the business of providing services. That would change the entire game; but what should remain unchanged is the principle of shared responsibility for public transport. Affordability, viability and fiscal sustainability must all ride in tandem.