LTA gets greater control over bus services

Singapore's transport regulator will get more powers to manage public bus operators and ensure that they meet standards, under a Bill passed by Parliament yesterday .

The new law is part of the shift in the way the bus sector will be run from next year, and it provides the framework for the Land Transport Authority (LTA) to contract out public bus services.

The buses will be owned by the Government, which also decides the standard of service to be provided.

This means the Government can respond "more expeditiously" to changes in travel demand, said Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew when presenting the Bus Services Industry Bill for debate yesterday.

Currently, regulating and licensing bus operators is undertaken by the Public Transport Council (PTC).

Mr Lui also pointed out another advantage of the new bus contracting model. Competitive tendering, he said, means "operators have to compete for the right to run bus services, which will raise bus service quality in a cost competitive manner, thereby benefiting commuters".

The first such tender was awarded in May to London's Tower Transit, and the second closed last week, with 10 bidders.

The Bill also lets the LTA set performance standards on reliability, with an incentive-penalty system.

It will get operators to "actively manage en route bus arrivals, to minimise bus bunching or long gaps", Mr Lui said.

The Bill also ensures smooth bus services because when a bus operator's licence is revoked or suspended, for example, a step-in order will allow the LTA to take over or appoint a stand-in operator.

While MPs welcomed the Bill, they worry that the contracting model bringing in new players could worsen the shortage of bus captains.

Mr Ang Wei Neng (Jurong GRC), a senior vice-president at SBS Transit, said whimsically that he had a "dream" of long lines of people seeking to be bus captains.

The dream came true, he added, but it was mainly Malaysians, not Singaporeans, who wanted the job, owing to the weak ringgit.

He said more Singaporeans need to be attracted to the profession.

Mr Lui replied that the contracting model is expected to improve the situation, as operators will, among other things, have to make attractive employment offers.

Pay is one part of the equation, he said, adding that the national SkillsFuture movement will help to enhance the profession's standing.

To improve welfare, better rest facilities and lounges are also being built at new interchanges or retrofitted in existing ones, Mr Lui said.

As the PTC relinquishes its regulatory and licensing tasks, it will take on a new advisory role to the Transport Minister.

The council can conduct surveys to get public feedback or do research on global best practices and put up recommendations.

"The new role will complement PTC's existing mission of regulating public transport ticket services and fares, where it has to balance the interests of the public with the long-term viability of the public transport operators," said Mr Lui.

The Public Transport Council (Amendment) Bill for this change was also passed by Parliament yesterday.

Along with it, several recommendations of the Fare Review Mechanism Committee, such as the flexibility to carry over fare adjustments, were formalised. The Bill also gives the PTC powers to standardise the structure of taxi fares.

Adrian Lim

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 19, 2015, with the headline 'LTA gets greater control over bus services'. Print Edition | Subscribe