Transport planning is an unenviable task of balancing the needs of commuters with the efficient use of resources. While unprofitable and underutilized bus routes have been curtained in the past, the recent move to withdraw Services 700/700A and amend Service 171 and 972 has struck discord with residents of Bukit Panjang, with members of the public calling for a stop to these arrangements.
Since 2009, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) had took on the role of being a centralised bus planning agency; a role which was further strengthened in 2016 with the advent of the Bus Contracting Model, allowing it to take control over service levels. LTA’s role as a centralised bus planning agency ‘allows it greater flexibility to respond to changes in bus service levels’.
Mitigation measures are being worked out between MPs and LTA to minimise the additional travelling time due to service diversions and continue to offer residents at Petir Road a direct bus service to town during peak hours. (8 August 2020)
As announced on 3 August 2020, Bus Service 700/700A would be withdrawn, and Service 972 would be amended to cover lost sectors of Service 700 between Whitley Road and Scotts Road. In addition, Service 171 would be shortened to Bukit Panjang, removing its Bukit Panjang – Marina Centre sector.
Prior to the opening of the Downtown Line, residents of Bukit Panjang Town have long relied on bus services to travel to and from the city, with full-day bus connections such as Service 190 (Choa Chu Kang – Kampong Bahru), Service 700/700A (Bukit Panjang Temporary Bus Park – Shenton Way / Temasek Avenue), and 972 (Bukit Panjang – Orchard Road) with express sectors via the Bukit Timah Expressway (BKE) and Pan-Island Expressway (PIE).
It is understood that these amendments were planned to take place in 2015 or 2016, in tandem with or shortly after the opening of the Downtown Line Stage 2.
3 August – Public Reactions
These amendments were first announced in a press release by SMRT on Monday, 3 August 2020, two weeks ahead of the bus service withdrawal. Public reactions to these bus route withdrawals were overwhelmingly negative, as seen from reactions to its Facebook post. Most discontent was directed to the withdrawal of Service 700/700A over the amendments to Service 171 and 972.
Several Bukit Panjang residents wrote to their Member of Parliament (MP) regarding their feedback for these route changes shortly after. Responses from MP for Bukit Panjang Mr Liang Eng Hwa, as well as MP for Holland-Bukit Timah Mr Edward Chia Bing Hui were shared on their respective Facebook pages within 24 hours of the press release for the bus service changes. They expressed their disappointment towards LTA for pushing ahead with these amendments, a fairly rare occurrence.
Minister of Transport’s Response
Netizen Khairul Haziq shared a response he received from Minister of Transport Ong Ye Kung regarding the controversy on Facebook, in which the changes were necessary to prevent the Downtown Line and Bus Services to be “over capacity and under used, costing millions every year”.
4 August – Authorities’ Statements
LTA responded to the ‘public concern’ over the controversy on the next day, 4 August 2020, justifying the decision to withdraw Service 700 / 700A as well as shortening Service 171.
We are aware that there is some public concern arising from the withdrawal of Bus Service 700/700A and the route changes…
LTA highlighted that ridership fell over 30% and 50% respectively for Bus Services 171 & 700/700A respectively in 2016 after the Downtown Line Phase 2 opened in December 2015.
With LTA collecting fare revenue and paying operators a service fee to operate bus services as part of the Bus Contracting Model, these services have been subsidised through public funds due to low ridership. In its statement, LTA revealed that the subsidy to maintain Service 700 comes up to $5 million a year. The subsidy could be justified if the bus service is the “only transport option in the area”. However, with the Downtown Line as an alternative transport option, adjustments to the bus services in the area had to be done to “exercise prudence in the use of public funds”.
A follow-up post by Chee Hong Tat, Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Transport:
In the post, Chee highlights that the subsidy to maintain Service 171 and 700/700A comes up to $14 million a year. This implies that Service 171 is subsidized to the tune of S$9 million a year. He adds that LTA had been engaging the local grassroots advisers on this matter since 2016.
In addition, it was disclosed that the Downtown Line is subsidized $60 million a year, for the stretch between Bukit Panjang and the city. However, rail lines are financed under the New Rail Financing Framework and will not be a subject of focus in this article.
8 August – Meetings among MPs and LTA
A further update came on 8 August following a meeting between Chee Hong Tat, Land Transport Authority officials, and MPs of Bukit Panjang (Liang Eng Hwa and Edward Chia).
In these posts, the concerns relating to Bus Service 700 and 972 were acknowledged:
- Service 700: Residents along Petir Road still prefer to have a direct bus service from Petir Road to town, especially during peak hours.
- Service 972: Route amendment will increase travelling time, but there was also a need to cater to the commuting requirements of other residents staying in Bukit Timah and Dunearn Road
- The LTA has outlined financial prudence as its primary consideration for the withdrawal of Service 700/700A
- Service 171 subsidized by $9 million a year
- Service 700/700A subsidized by $5 million a year
- Ridership of Service 171, 700 declined after the opening of the Downtown Line Stage 2
- Service 171 declined by 30%
- Service 700/700A declined by 50%
- Alternative public transport routes exist for all affected sectors
- MP’s discussions with LTA were focused on:
- minimising the additional travelling time due to service diversions
- continuing to offer residents at Petir Road a direct bus service to town during peak hours
Continued on Page 2:
- Our thoughts on each route amendment
- Advantages and Disadvantages of each move