There are two sides to the reactions of many bus commuters who did not notice any difference when Tower Transit took over services previously run by SMRT in May. Disruptive change that draws attention would be a bane as more routes come under the government contracting model for public buses, to be phased in over several years. The smoother the transition, the better. Yet, if there is no difference over the long term, one might question the benefit of an exercise which could prove costly for taxpayers.
Incremental improvement remains the raison d'etre of an essentially technocratic remedy for the persistent ills that have dogged public transport over decades. These relate to affordability, reliability and convenience, the main concerns of commuters. Private operators tend to focus on business viability, but governments necessarily adopt a much wider perspective. People and goods must be kept moving efficiently and economically, of course. But public transport systems should not overwhelm a city - for example, in dominating land use, making many places unliveable, costing an arm and a leg to maintain and renew, or tying up stakeholders in red tape.
Market failure - represented strikingly by rail operator SMRT's shortcomings in recent years - has made state intervention a sine qua non of acceptable urban transport provision. As nationalisation is no panacea, the approach here is to seek better outcomes via a contestable franchising of services. Essentially, the benefits sought are improvements resulting from better practices, as well as cost savings - compared to the price to be paid if the system was entirely in the hands of the state or a profit-oriented monopoly.
One way to help centre the gaze on larger objectives is to offer the public a handy overview of the progress being made under the State's plan to take ownership of all operating assets, keep fare revenue and farm out service contracts to industry players. Australia's Tower Transit won the first contract for $556 million to run services out of Jurong West over a five-year period. Britain's Go-Ahead took the second contract for a little under $500 million to operate out of Loyang. And 11 bus packages will be in the hands of SBS Transit and SMRT Buses under contracts valued at $5.3 billion and $1.9 billion respectively, as announced a fortnight ago.
The new bargain calls for a stable environment to encourage private operators to invest in building capabilities. There must be sufficient incentives for all to manage transitions smoothly as these can potentially affect both commuters and transport workers. It might take several years to realise such outcomes. Hence the importance of ensuring that public transport operations are always kept on an even keel, so change can take place unobtrusively but surely.