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Key lessons from London’s bus services

Key lessons from London’s bus services

Two weeks ago, I headed to London for a trip sponsored by the Land Transport Authority (LTA) to learn about the bus system there, armed with a sceptical attitude.

BY JOY FANG –

JUNE 23

Two weeks ago, I headed to London for a trip sponsored by the Land Transport Authority (LTA) to learn about the bus system there, armed with a sceptical attitude.

London’s bus system has often made the news for the wrong reasons. Fare hikes, choking traffic and bus driver strikes — the most recent was in 2012, which was over demands for a £500 (S$1,060) Olympics bonus and brought services to a halt — often make the headlines there.

But what I saw surprised me. Despite heavy traffic, the bus system is efficient (most of the time) and seemingly runs like clockwork.

In Aldwych, in the heart of London, bus service 11 — which cuts through some of the city’s most famous landmarks such as Westminster Abbey and Trafalgar Square — shows up every three to four minutes.

A check with the live bus arrival board at the bus stop showed that other buses arrived as frequently and were as punctual.

LESSONS FOR SINGAPORE

The Government has pushed hard to improve the bus system here, launching the S$1.1 billion Bus Service Enhancement Programme in 2012 to increase bus capacity and the recent bus contracting model to improve services.

There are promising signs. The LTA’s public transport satisfaction survey released in March indicated that the proportion of those who were satisfied with buses went up to 88.3 per cent, from 86.4 per cent in 2012. Bus ridership climbed 3.4 per cent last year to 3.6 million a day.

Still, Singapore can do well to learn a few things from the English.

My take — keep routes short, look after the welfare of drivers, enforce bus lane rules strictly and keep bus performances tight.

Over here, lengthy waits and complicated routes are common grouses.

Many analysts have pointed to more simplified routes as a more effective measure to reduce bunching or bus gaps and this is true in London’s system.

Routes that ply London’s city centre are generally around 9km to 14km long, with some hitting 16km to 19km. Service 11’s, for example, is 11km long.

There is also some duplication, with a few services plying the same stretch, giving commuters more options.

In comparison, many bus routes here span long distances. SBS Transit’s service 51 travels 38km from Hougang Central to Jurong East, passing through Geylang, Chinatown, Commonwealth Avenue and West Coast. Service 30 traverses a similar distance, plying between Bedok and Boon Lay and passing through Old Airport, Pasir Panjang and Teban Gardens Roads.

SMRT’s service 858 travels from Woodlands Regional Interchange and loops at Changi Airport, covering a distance of about 73km.

Dr Alex Erath, a Future Cities Laboratory senior researcher, found in recent studies on bus systems in Singapore that splitting a long bus route into two parts can potentially increase reliability by 35 per cent. To me, it seems almost common sense that a long route means it is subjected to more unpredictable traffic conditions and unreliable service.

Culture also makes a difference. Londoners are a more laid-back bunch. Disruptions from strikes or curtailment — London’s solution to delays which involves ending a service midway, letting commuters alight and sending the bus to skirt the congested areas and serve those further down the route — are taken with nary a protest. These are seen as par for the course. Londoners simply get on with it and find other ways, like what one commuter told me.

Curtailment will be impossible here, until Singaporeans learn a more forgiving attitude and treat hiccups with more magnanimity.

The system, too, has to make it much easier for commuters here. There are too few alternatives should commuters have to alight from their bus midway through.

Another issue Singapore faces is unprofitable routes. The authorities here are working around this problem under the new model by grouping routes and tendering them out in packages.

But this was never a problem in London, which tenders out routes individually and has seven major operators. The question of non-profitable routes does not come into play, because there is no loss if you price the contract right, explained Mr John Trayner, managing director of Go-Ahead London, which has 6,000 drivers for its 2,200 bus fleet. Most operators can earn a profit just from the contract value, if they keep to their estimated costs, he added.

PITFALLS TO AVOID

The London system, of course, is not without flaws. Issues with drivers’ welfare, the huge passenger load and vehicular traffic could introduce snags into the well-oiled system.

In a way, London is a victim of its own success. About 6.5 million passengers travel by bus a day and ridership has increased to a record 2.4 billion passenger boardings in the financial year of 2013, up 69 per cent from 1999. Huge passenger numbers have led to gripes about crowded buses, especially during peak hours.

Mr Trayner said everything from buses to depots are at full capacity and one glitch could lead to a gridlock in the system.

But passenger satisfaction remains high because of extensive bus priority lanes and strict timelines.

London bus fares are much higher than Singapore’s too. At a flat fee of £1.45, those who are travelling shorter distances are disadvantaged. Bus fares have been increasing the past six years at rates higher than inflation.

Furthermore, with their Quality Incentive Contracts regime in place, which awards incentives or penalties based on the quality of service, drivers are on a tight schedule, plying routes like a race against time.

Mr Trayner told reporters that the bus operators maintain headway — or gaps between buses — almost like a religion.

The obsession with timings has implications. At an Aldwych bus station, where drivers can park their vehicles for a short break, drivers seem to have little time for themselves. They stay in their vehicles and within minutes they are off. When I approached one who came out for a smoke break, he tersely told me: “I have no time, I only have three minutes.”

A driver there works an average of 36 hours for a five-day week, but that could stretch to more than 40 hours with overtime.

Fatigue can be a issue for drivers put through such a relentless pace. Their welfare and the safety of passengers have to take priority over the pursuit of excellence.

Singapore has found it hard to recruit Singaporeans to be bus drivers. If the demands of the job go up, this task would become even harder.

To be fair, London’s success did not occur overnight. It took more than a decade to reduce excess waiting times by more than a minute.

So it behooves us to be patient and to know that these things, ultimately, take time, even with the strongest Government commitment.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Joy Fang is a senior reporter at TODAY.

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About bambooinnovator
KB Kee is the Managing Editor of the Moat Report Asia (www.moatreport.com), a research service focused exclusively on highlighting undervalued wide-moat businesses in Asia; subscribers from North America, Europe, the Oceania and Asia include professional value investors with over $20 billion in asset under management in equities, some of the world’s biggest secretive global hedge fund giants, and savvy private individual investors who are lifelong learners in the art of value investing. KB has been rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as an analyst in Asian capital markets. He was head of research and fund manager at a Singapore-based value investment firm. As a member of the investment committee, he helped the firm’s Asia-focused equity funds significantly outperform the benchmark index. He was previously the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. KB has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy, value investing, macroeconomic and industry trends, and detecting accounting frauds in Singapore, HK and China. KB was a faculty (accounting) at SMU teaching accounting courses. KB is currently the Chief Investment Officer at an ASX-listed investment holdings company since September 2015, helping to manage the listed Asian equities investments in the Hidden Champions Fund. Disclaimer: This article is for discussion purposes only and does not constitute an offer, recommendation or solicitation to buy or sell any investments, securities, futures or options. All articles in the website reflect the personal opinions of the writer.

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