RESULTS of the 2013 Public Transport Customer Satisfaction Survey reveal a rare phenomenon: Commuters are becoming less enchanted with the megabucks MRT system and are warming up to humble buses.
For the first time since the survey started in 2006, the percentage of respondents satisfied with the MRT fell below 90 per cent.
At 88.9 per cent, it was 3.2 points lower than the results of the 2012 survey. If the survey of 4,200-plus commuters is statistically representative of the estimated 1.5 million MRT users here, that potentially translates to nearly 50,000 who shifted from "satisfied" to "not satisfied" within 12 months.
At the same time, satisfaction with buses rose by 1.9 points to a three-year high of 88.3 per cent, which means the gap between those who are satisfied with the MRT and those contented with buses is at its narrowest.
Ridership figures reflect the shifting sentiment. Last year, MRT ridership grew at its slowest pace in a decade, according to Land Transport Authority (LTA) data. It inched upwards by 3.9 per cent to 2.62 million a day - less than half the annual average growth rate in the last 10 years.
At the same time, bus ridership climbed 3.4 per cent last year to 3.6 million a day - nearly three times its average growth rate since 2003.
Again, the difference between the two growth rates is at its narrowest in a decade. Possibly the narrowest since the first MRT trains started running more than 25 years ago.
Although it is too early to say if this is the start of a trend, it is, on its own, a stark contrast with generally shrinking bus ridership elsewhere.
In the United States, for instance, public transport ridership hit 10.7 billion trips last year - its highest in six decades. But the growth was fuelled solely by rail, reported Reuters. Bus ridership on the whole actually shrank.
In Singapore, reasons for the changing fortunes of the two modes of transport are quite apparent. The service level of trains took a dip after the two massive breakdowns of December 2011.
On top of increasingly packed carriages, train speeds have fallen as operators carry out infrastructural improvement works to raise reliability.
Along some stretches, trains sometimes crawl at monorail speeds, resulting in delayed arrivals that are equivalent to those caused by minor mechanical breakdowns.
And while the number of short disruptions has fallen since 2011, the number of major breakdowns has not. On average, disruptions lasting more than an hour averaged one every 2.4 months last year, versus every three months in 2012 and every two months in 2011.
In January this year, there were already two such incidents.
Buses, on the other hand, became more attractive to commuters since a state-funded fleet expansion plan started injecting more buses in late-2012.
The $1.1 billion plan finances the purchase and operation of 550 buses over 10 years. More than 300 have been put on the road, with the remainder joining them by the end of this year.
This week, Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew announced that another 450 such buses will come onstream by 2017. By then, the entire public bus fleet would have grown by 35 per cent to 5,400 - all in just five years.
Bus riders are likely to experience less crowding and shorter waiting times. The latter has already improved enough to be captured by the public transport satisfaction survey.
"Waiting time saw the biggest jump in satisfaction from 54.2 per cent to 61.5 per cent," the LTA said of the poll.
If last year's shift in ridership patterns is anything to go by, it would not be inconceivable for growth in bus trips to overtake MRT trips - at least until Downtown Line 2 starts running in 2017.
All this attention on buses contrasts with the controversial "bus rationalisation exercises" Singapore used to undertake whenever new MRT lines were built in the past.
From 1991 to 1994, some 140 bus services were either scrapped or heavily amended to avoid duplicating the young MRT system.
In 2003, no fewer than a dozen routes were removed when the North East Line opened, upsetting thousands of Hougang and Serangoon residents.
Besides SBS Transit and SMRT services, supplementary Scheme B buses - run by private operators - were also "rationalised".
In hindsight, the policy to avoid duplication of resources was probably carried too far.
With the spike in Singapore's population from 2004, and the slowdown of its rail expansion plans following the Nicoll Highway collapse the same year, the MRT system soon filled to the brim. And so did buses.
When Mr Lui took over as Transport Minister in 2011, the first major announcement he made was on ramping up bus capacity "significantly".
He said this was a priority, as new rail lines took several years to build. In 2012, the $1.1 billion Bus Service Enhancement Programme was announced. It was the first government subsidy of its kind for buses.
Today, Mr Lui is doing more to reinstate the role of buses in the land transport ecosystem, even as plans are underway to double Singapore's rail network to 360km by 2030.
Recognising that the bus fleet size is just one part of an equation to improve service, he is introducing contestability into the industry to keep operators on their toes.
In Parliament this week, he gave the clearest sign yet that this fundamental change will come.
He said the LTA is already using competitive tenders to choose operators of several special city and peak-hour services. "We are using these tenders to help us better understand the feasibility of extending bus tendering to the rest of the bus network, which we are committed to do," he said.
Such a model - where a company runs a parcel of services for a fixed sum and the state owns all assets - will also allow bus operators to focus on meeting service standards without having to worry about managing profit margins.
In the current set-up, Singapore's train and bus operators assume revenue risks, manage fluctuating costs such as fuel, and strike a delicate balance between pleasing shareholders and setting aside enough capital to keep operating assets in good condition.
As recent history has amply shown, it is hard to focus on so many - often opposing - interests.
Mr Lui has also made baby steps to coax buses to arrive at every bus stop within a minute of the scheduled timing. An operator that fails consistently will face fines, while one that meets targets will receive monetary incentives. If successfully carried out, this will lead to buses eventually becoming as predictable as the better train systems in the world.
And even though rail will eventually be the backbone of our transport system, the role of buses should not be downgraded.
After all, buses are more accessible (average 400m walk to a bus stop, versus 500m to 800m to an MRT station), generally more comfortable (more chances of seats, stronger air-conditioning), and they offer a better view than trains.
And if one breaks down, another will come along shortly.
This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 14, 2014
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