Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Inadequate Public Transportation II

In my previous article, I showed how SMRT has been unable to keep pace with population growth from 2003 to 2008 in providing corresponding growth in their services. This has been made worse by SMRT trying to make a fast buck (profit increase from $72.1 mil to $149.9 mil). Most probably the LTA under the Minister of Transport was closing both eyes throughout these years.

Predictably, the analysis has been criticized as being “simplistic”. However, in Singapore’s context, statistics and data are very hard to come by when the whole establishment mindset is to provide as little information as possible to the people. Even academia has problem in getting proper and relevant data or statistical breakdown. However simplistic data does not mean that it will necessarily give false conclusions. In fact, it gives more powerful demonstration of the relevant correlations between the data sets, backed by daily observations in reality.

Besides, SMRT publishes strange and confusing performance statistics. For example, in its earlier annual reports, it included important data that states the cost and profit of providing service to each passenger. Intriguingly, such statistics are missing now. Maybe it is the fear of people like us to use such statistics to show how SMRT has been profiting from its demand on fare increases.

On the other hand, often the statistics provided by them can lead to strange conclusions. For example one commentator in Lucky’s blog came to the very strange conclusion that on average, our MRT is half empty. I have done my sampling recently, taking the train OFF peak hour and I did a count on the number of people in the carriages. There are 50 seats in a carriage (6 rows of 7 seats plus 4 rows of 2 seats at the corners). All seats were taken and there are definitely more than 70 or 80 people standing. That will be about at least 120 people in the carriage. It is not "very cramp" but it sure feels crowded.

This would seem to be very strange to the thousands of less fortunate Singaporeans who have to endure a cramped and uncomfortable MRT ride every day. For those who are interested to look at SMRT’s kinky KPIs, please check out here.

I believe that from now on, SMRT will do away with certain data (i.e. occupancy rate) or even the whole segment of these data in its future reports so that people like us will not use these “against” it. As long as there is no regulation or law to demand public transport companies to provide certain crucial data for analysis to safe guard public interests, such blatant abuse of statistics and data will carry on. They will just show you things that will make them look good.

Anyway, after having examined SMRT, the next obvious focus of attention would be SBS Transit and the Singapore bus system. Unlike SMRT which publishes strange and confusing statistics, SBS Transit has a policy being economical with their numbers and telling people as little as possible. The following is the url link to their latest performance KPI . Instead of providing meaningful numbers, they present a PASS/FAIL table whose sole objective appears to be to drive home the message that they overwhelmingly PASS.

Fortunately with a little bit of effort by my researcher, it is possible to produce a table that is similar to the previous SMRT table.

YearNumber of busAnnual RidershipProfit Total PopulationResident Population
20042,418 24,810,622 49,169 4166.73413.3
2005**2,708 24,556,804 51,536 4265.83467.8
20062,794 25,093,678 56,133 4401.43525.9
20072,830 26,163,764 50,022 4588.63583.1
20082,885 27,575,502 40,580 4839.43642.7

Total Population and Resident Population from Table 3.1 Yearbook of Statistics 2009
SBS Transit Statistics from SBS Transit Annual Report 2004 to 2008

** Fare Adjustment
Bus Fleet change (2005 to 2008) 6.5%
Increase in ridership (2005 to 2008)12.3%

When I first saw the table, I was somewhat puzzled. From 2004 to 2005, there was a huge surge in the size of the SBS bus fleet (12.5%). This is as compared to 2005 to 2008 when the SBS bus fleet increased by only 6.5%. Further research revealed why. For those who remember, SBS Transit pushed through a very huge and unpopular bus fare increase in 2004/2005. The SBS Chairman was so pleased that the Transport Minister sided with SBS rather than Singaporean bus commuters (who voted for him !) that he gave the following self-serving speech at the 2005 SBS Transit AGM.

As there have been no major fare increases since 2005, the SBS bus fleet has therefore grown by only 6.5%. For the same period, ridership on SBS buses increased by 12.3%. This increase in SBS ridership is very closely linked to population growth. From 2005 to 2008, Total Population grew by 13.4%.

It would appear that unless SBS Transit is allowed another major fare increase, the SBS bus fleet will NOT be increased to keep pace with ridership and population growth. We can therefore expect SBS buses to become increasingly more crowded until SBS presents their next demand for more money.

Looking at the earnings after tax, it can be seen that the SBS Transit senior management team has not been as good as driving profit as SMRT. Unlike SMRT whose profit increased from $72.1 mil to $149.9 mil (by cramming as many people as possible into their trains), SBS Transit’s profit after tax has remained fairly constant from 2004 to 2008.

It would be good if SBS Transit can provide more details for why SBS Transit’s profit numbers are so poor as compared to SMRT. I have not been able to discern the reason from their annual general reports.

One possibility is that SBS Transit has been involved in a number of high profile projects which failed. For example, we have TV Mobile which ceased as of 31 Dec 2009. It is unknown how much SBS Transit lost as a result of that unsuccessful program. If the money had not been spent on this project, how many more buses could SBS Transit have operated to improve the public transport system? Of course, the most common excuse will be blamed on “high oil price” which is not very convincing for the drop of almost 20% of profit from 2007 to 2008.

Aside from failed projects, SBS Transit also likes to invest in expensive high tech toys. A good example of this is the IRIS system which was highlighted prominently as a success in the 2008 Annual General Report. It is unknown how much SBS Transit spent on IRIS and how much is spent annually to maintain the system. However instead of spending millions to tell people when the next bus will be coming, wouldn’t it make more sense to spend those millions to increase the bus fleet so that the next bus comes faster?

Goh Meng Seng


MM SZ said...

Thanks Goh. Linked under, 'Social'.

cy said...

As a bus operator has to run unprofitable routes,plus running even at sub-optimal occupancy, it is natural that buses is less profitable than MRTs. Note that SMRT's bus operations are also not making much profit due to above reason and lower scale.

it is not fair to penalise SBS for poorer profit performance than SMRT. If they are on par with SMRT, we should be worried abt their "greed".

Anonymous said...

I tend to agree that SBS Transit is not as profit oriented as SMRT.

SBS Transit has however invested in a number of failed projects as well as projects of doubtful value to their core business of providing cheap and effective public transport.

The call is therefore NOT for SBS to ape SMRT in making mountains of money. Rather SBS Transit should stop wasting money and invest in more buses to provide better public transport

cy said...

another possible reason for the lacklustre growth in profits as compared to SMRT - SBS transit has started operating NE line during that period, it incurred a loss in start-up operations for some years,only turned in profit recently.

maybe,you should consider separating the bus and mrt operations to get a truer picture

Anonymous said...


That would be ideal. Unfortunately SBS is very "economical" with their numbers and dun provide a breakdown on profit contribution.

Anonymous said...

Dear Goh Meng Seng,

Thanks very much for your interesting blog. It's always nice to see how people on the other side of the globe live, how they share the same joys and sorrows, what they do in their free time, etc.

I actually have a question about your blog. Would you mind helping us with a linguistic research project? We're compiling data from various Singaporean weblogs. All it requires is checking a few boxes. If you want to take part and/or have more questions, drop me a note ( RE: Question ) so that I can then send you the 'official' project eMail. We'd really appreciate your help.

Thanks very much in advance!
Best regards,
- Fran

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I just saw that I had already contacted you. Please excuse the mini-spamming. We'd be really happy if you decided to help us with the project :)

weilun said...


Just to clarify a statement that you made in the post:

>> "However simplistic data does not mean that it will necessarily give false conclusions. In fact, it gives more powerful demonstration of the relevant correlations between the data sets, backed by daily observations in reality." <<

Correlation does not imply at causation. Read up more on the theory behind correlation before making such statements.


Florets said...

It is easy to criticize on hindsight, but I applaud their efforts in trying out new platforms to improve the travelling experience of people. Yes, some of these ideas did not take off, but are we going to criticize them for trying?

And IRIS has definitely convenienced the life of mine n many of my friends who are regular commuters. I do believe that this value added service would become integrated into the lifestyle of the tech savvy commuters in the near future.