Many people have asked about the Government’s decision to spend $1.1 billion to expand public bus capacity. One of the key questions is whether this is in fact a subsidy to SBST and SMRT, the two public transport operators (PTOs) . It is in fact a subsidy for commuters, and not a subsidy for the PTOs. This note explains why.
The Government considered its investment to expand public bus capacity very carefully. It is an important step, aimed at reducing waiting times and crowdedness that Singaporeans experience as they take public transport.
First, what are the PTOs themselves responsible for? The PTOs are required to expand their bus fleets to cater to growth in passenger numbers, as well as to ensure they meet the service levels mandated under existing regulatory requirements. Therefore, in addition to operating the existing bus fleet, they will have to buy 250 additional buses to achieve this. They will fund this on their own.
Why is the Government putting $1.1 billion into the bus system? We are doing this in order to step up bus service levels well beyond the current service standards required of the PTOs.
a. It will increase bus capacity on existing heavily-utilised routes making them less crowded and giving commuters a more pleasant journey.
b. Almost all feeder buses will run every 10 minutes or less - for two hours during morning and evening peak periods, instead of a one-hour peak under current service level requirements.
c. Commuters on existing routes will thus benefit both from shorter waiting times and less crowded bus journeys.
d. A number of new bus services will also be added in order to improve connectivity, and provide commuters with more public transport choices.
e. These improvements are what commuters have been hoping for.
As a condition for the Government’s investment, the PTOs will have to deliver these service level improvements.
We cannot simply mandate that the PTOs add these 550 buses to improve service levels. First, because it goes significantly beyond the service levels under the current regulatory framework. Second, the PTO’s bus operations are already running operating losses, and the 550 additional buses in particular are projected to be a loss-making operation. The cost of acquiring and running the 550 buses are beyond what can be recovered through revenues from these buses.
a. Take the example of improving the frequency of feeder bus services. Increasing the number of buses will shorten waiting times but will add little to the revenue, since the total number of passengers taking the service will remain largely the same.
Without the Government stepping in, these significant service levels improvements would only have been achievable if fares are raised sharply. The 550 additional buses mean significantly higher costs - not only to purchase the buses, but also because more than 1000 drivers would need to be hired and paid a good wage. Fare revenues of the PTOs would have to go up by about 12% - 13% - which translates to an increase in passenger fares of about 15 cents per journey - for the PTOs to achieve this on their own. In the 5 years from 2006, fare revenues went up by only 0.3%, cumulatively. So 12% - 13% is quite a significant increase compared to the last 5 years.
Hence the reality of the matter is that the $1.1 billion Government package, or $110 million each year, is a subsidy for public transport commuters, and not a subsidy for the PTOs. It will improve service levels for commuters, not the profits of the PTOs.
The $1.1 billion package is expected to cover the losses on the 550 buses - in other words, the additional costs net of revenues. Of the $1.1 billion package, $280 million is budgeted for the purchase of the 550 buses over the next five years, and $820 million to cover the net operating costs over 10 years. This is based on best estimates currently. However, we will be monitoring and scrutinising the PTOs’ actual costs for both the purchase and running of the buses. Should their losses turn out to be lower than expected, the Government funding will be reduced correspondingly. So one way or another, there will be no profits made from the 550 buses.
The $1.1 billion for additional buses complements the $60 billion we are putting into the expansion of the rail system. It will take several years for the new rail lines to all come on stream. That is why we are stepping in now to add bus capacity and quickly improve the daily experience of commuters. It is what commuters wanted, and we have assessed that it is worth the public investment.
Despite this Government package, regular and incremental fare increases will continue to be necessary in future, as wage and operating costs rise, so that the bus industry can stay financially viable. The Government will also continue to make sure that needy commuters get adequate assistance for their transport expenses.