Continued from Page 1:
- Overview of route amendments
- Public sentiment & reactions
Our take on Service 700/700A
Note: these thoughts were written ahead of revised plans announced on 13 August 2020.
As the main talking point revolves around the withdrawal of Service 700/A, we present the following for and against the withdrawal of Service 700/A, along with potential outcomes.
Reasons for retaining Service 700/700A
1. Complement loading on Bus Service 190/960/972
With many Bukit Panjang residents relying on Service 190, 960 and 972 between Bukit Panjang and the City, Service 700/700A serves to distribute out the crowds on these trunk routes. Service 700 serves the Shenton Way area and Service 700A serves the Suntec City and Marina Centre areas, which are regions not served by Service 190 or 972. (Service 960 serves Marina Centre)
2. Loss of bus connectivity along Petir Road
Residents living along Petir Road (between Pending Road and Dairy Farm Road) only have Service 700/700A, 966 and 973 to rely on. The loss of Service 700/700A will mean the loss of a direct bus service to the City areas, and lower bus frequencies to and from Bukit Panjang MRT and nearby amenities given the present low frequency of Bus Service 973 of about 10 – 15 minutes.
3. Increased travel time and hassle
For Petir Road residents, alternatives offered to Service 700/700A involve taking a bus (973) to Hillview MRT Station and transferring to the Downtown Line, or taking any bus to Pending Rd (Opp Pending Stn) (for services 966 & 973) / Bukit Panjang Rd (Blk 270) (for service 966) for transfers to other City-bound services (such as Service 190, 960 and 972) via the expressway.
However, the need to transfer between multiple bus routes or between bus/train is an added inconvenience to Petir Road residents. This also increases travel time to destinations in the City. Additionally, residents have pointed out that the Downtown Line is already crowded during the peak hours.
4. Car-lite nation
In recent years, the LTA has pursued the long-term strategy of cultivating a car-lite nation, in part by improving the speed and connectivity of public transport. In its Land Transport Master Plan (LTMP) 2040, it also envisions a ‘45-minute city’, where most commuters would spend no more than 45 minutes to complete journeys between their home and workplace.
It would seem like the move by LTA to withdraw bus routes contradicts its long-term strategy for promoting a car-lite society. The move to withdraw 700/700A reducing the attractiveness of public transport to Petir Road residents, especially given the key connections Service 700/700A bring to the area.
Reasons for withdrawing Service 700/700A
1. Availability of existing public transport connections
The Bukit Panjang estate already benefits from strong public transport connections. Apart from strong rail connections via the DTL and BPLRT, several full-day bus services like Service 190, 960 and 972 offer direct connections with the City areas, such as Orchard, Dhoby Ghaut, City Hall, Bugis, Clarke Quay, Chinatown and Outram Park.
Currently, LTA’s approach to building up the public transport network revolves around the hub and spoke model, where the rail network forms the backbone of the public transport network, and feeder bus services connecting these transport nodes with residential estates. This concept allows more origin and destination pairs to be served, by transferring between different modes of public transport (bus or train) that can be maintained at high frequencies.
Based on the hub and spoke model, Bukit Panjang’s present connectivity is an exception among residential estates mature and new, with such strong bus connections to the City.
2. Duplicity of existing bus routes
Service 700/700A is fully duplicated by other bus routes along key sectors of its route, such as:
- Service 973: between Bukit Panjang Road and Petir Road
- Service 190: between Bukit Panjang Road and Orchard / Dhoby Ghaut
- Service 36, 106, 111, 162M, 502, 518: between Orchard / Dhoby Ghaut and Marina Centre
- Service 162, 167: between Orchard / Dhoby Ghaut and Shenton Way
By using the Downtown Line or other Bukit Panjang bus services plying the expressway to the City, destinations served by Bus Service 700/700A can be reached from Bukit Panjang Road with 1 transfer, or from Petir Road with two transfers at most.
3. Ridership decline post-DTL2
After the Downtown Line (DTL) Phase 2 opened on December 2015, there was a sharp decline in ridership for bus services that run parallel to the MRT line. For Service 700/700A, the drop is more than 50%, according to the LTA.
The low ridership is evident from ground observations, with only small numbers of passengers taking Service 700/700A along the PIE/BKE express sector. Furthermore, some of these passengers do not alight at Petir Road, and are thus travelling along sectors duplicated by Service 190 or 972. The LTA would have access to accurate ridership data through farecard information when passengers tap in and tap out on the card readers when boarding and alighting.
On the other hand, Service 190 and 972 both remain well patronised after the opening of the Downtown Line despite the presence of connecting feeder bus and LRT routes to and from Bukit Panjang MRT station, and thus were not earmarked for rationalisation.
4. Unprofitability of Service 700/700A
Under the Bus Contracting Model, the Government plans bus routes and sets the service levels which each bus route must be operated at. It also spends large amounts of public funds to keep public buses running – far exceeding present bus fare revenues. In FY18/19, government grants of S$1.024 billion was spent on the public bus industry, an increase over the S$875 million in FY17/18. Record losses are expected in FY19/20 given the impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and significant decline in bus fare revenues.
For Service 700, LTA says that it spends $5 million of subsidy a year, which is not justifiable given the presence of existing bus services and the Downtown Line as travel alternatives.
5. The exception rather than the norm
Expanding on the hub-and-spoke model elaborated earlier on, residents of Petir Road are fortunate to have nearby MRT / LRT stations (Bukit Panjang, Hillview and Pending) within several bus stops away from their area. Many heartland residents rely on a lengthy feeder bus journey to and from their nearest MRT station, and in the case of Petir Road, Service 973 connects residents to these 3 nearby stations. The presence of Service 700/700A as a full-day bus route to the City is an exception rather than the norm.
Furthermore, given the unprofitability of Service 700/700A, it is also unfair to have other commuters and taxpayers ‘subsidize’ Petir Road residents for Service 700/700A. Residents of other residential estates could also point to Service 700/700A as justification for requesting full-day express routes from their estates to the City regardless of farebox recovery ratio.
6. In line with bus rationalization efforts over the years
The rationalization of Bus Service 700 is in line with LTA’s past efforts to rationalize bus routes following the opening of new rail lines. For example, many bus services along the Serangoon Road corridor were curtailed or withdrawn following the opening of the North East Line in 2003.
However, rationalization efforts in recent years have been far less aggressive, with measures limited to reducing the number of high-capacity buses on MRT-duplicating bus routes, as was the case for the Downtown Line Stage 2 and 3.
Main Article: Rationalisation of Bus Service Operations (2019/2020)
7. Setting a precedent for future bus routes
The rationalization of bus services is never a popular move, particularly for Bukit Panjang residents long accustomed to having convenient bus access to the City. However, public discontent this time is more significant than in previous occasions, with Members of Parliament publicly expressing disappointment in LTA’s rationalization efforts.
While the LTA has presented arguably valid reasons for withdrawing Service 700/700A, backtracking on the withdrawal in the face of public criticism might set off a precedent for commuters to resist future bus rationalization efforts. One cannot be certain if grassroots will leverage on inciting public opinion to strongarm LTA into abandoning any sort of amendment of rationalization of bus routes in the future.
One recent case of LTA backtracking on route amendments after they are announced to the public was in February 2015, when it intended to reorganize the bus service network in Choa Chu Kang, involving bidirectional service on Service 300 (numbered 300G/300W) and the introduction of two new bus routes (Service 301 and 983). These plans were shelved following negative feedback, and a modified amendment was later implemented in April 2015.
Counterarguments to reasons supporting withdrawal:
1. Downtown Line as an ineffective alternative
Despite planning public transport around the hub and spoke model, there still leaves room for key point-to-point express services that can be justified by passenger demand. The continued success of Bus Service 190 and 972 even after the opening of the Downtown Line shows that forcing commuters to use the Downtown Line is a less effective means of getting to the City.
2. Other forms of wastage
While LTA is right to exercise prudence in the use of public funds, the agency also fell short in managing other costs involved in Bus Contracting. In recent years, it has over-procured buses in the desire to reinforce critical stretches of the rail network with buses in the event of rail disruption as highlighted in the Committee of Supply Debate 2018. However, with largely successful rail renewal efforts, these duplicating services have been largely withdrawn, and as of August 2020, LTA is keeping over a hundred registered buses in storage due to lack of use for these buses.
What can LTA do:
For the planned withdrawal of Service 700/700A, there are several courses of action that LTA can take:
1. Do nothing
This is the most likely option. Based on past experiences, online sentiment will blow over, and the general public will acquiesce to its planning decisions. Affected commuters will adopt alternative travel routes after the withdrawal of Service 700/700A.
2. Throw in the towel
As it had done previously in 2015, the LTA could choose to defer or cancel the proposed withdrawal of Service 700/700A. This would buy it some time to re-evaluate alternatives, and placate negative public sentiment towards the withdrawal.
3. Amend Service 700/700A to expand its catchment area
One of many suggestions offered to avoid outright cancellation of Service 700/700A. Amending the route (particularly between Bukit Panjang ITH and Petir Road) to expand its catchment area would likely increase passenger demand for Service 700/700A. For example, it could be routed into the northern part of Bukit Panjang to reduce the presently circuitous nature of Bus Service 972.
This move is rather feasible owing to the existence of other bus routes (Bus Service 920, 922 and 976) and the Bukit Panjang LRT supporting intra-town travel within the northern part of Bukit Panjang.
4. Amend other bus services to Petir Road
To continue offering direct Petir Road – City connections, another city-bound expressway bus route like Service 972 could be amended into Petir Road. However, the amendment of any service into Petir Road would inconvenience existing commuters with longer journey time, and loss of bus connections by not calling at the important transfer bus stop before the expressway (Bt Panjang Rd: Blk 270 / Blk 223).
As a compromise, a peak-hour connection like Bus Service 971E could be amended into Petir Road, in place of other full-day bus services.
What LTA eventually did:
In the wake of discussions between LTA, MOT and MPs representing Bukit Panjang residents, it appears that Option 4 was selected. To offer peak-hour connectivity between Petir Road and the City areas of Orchard Road, Bras Basah and Shenton Way, Express Bus Service 971E was amended to serve Petir Road.
In its new form, Service 971E was renumbered as Service 971, converted to a trunk service and charge basic fares. At the same time, it was made to call at bus stops along Stevens Road and Bras Basah Road that it previously skipped. The operating hours during weekday peak periods was also extended.
Route amendment to Service 972
The route amendment to Service 972 is necessary to bridge lost bus connections between Whitley Road and Scotts Road with the withdrawal of Service 700/700A.
However, this move has also been criticized by commuters for the increased travel time incurred between Bukit Panjang and Orchard Road. Some have raised the concern that this route amendment would increase congestion at the already-crowded Newton Circus given the high frequency of Service 972. In addition, Bukit Timah Road encounters heavy traffic in the morning from students of Singapore Chinese Girls’ School and Anglo-Chinese School (Primary) arriving by car.
The longer route and journey time would also likely necessitate the addition of more buses to Service 972.
One alternative is to not amend any route to cover the Whitley Road – Scotts Road sector, and have commuters transfer to the North South Line at Newton. However, this decision might not be popular, especially if many commuters along the affected stretch of Dunearn Rd / Bt Timah Rd commute to and from the Orchard Road area.
Another alternative is to amend one of three existing services (Service 105, 132 or 190) to cover this sector, of which Service 105 and 132 operate at lower frequencies as compared to Service 972. However, this would inconvenience existing commuters on these routes.
What LTA eventually did:
In the wake of discussions between LTA, MOT and MPs representing Bukit Panjang residents, the LTA decided to introduce a route variant, Service 972M, to serve Newton.
This achieved two main goals highlighted by Bukit Panjang MPs:
- Preserve connectivity between Whitley Road and Scotts Road via Dunearn Rd / Bt Timah Rd and Newton MRT, replacing lost sectors of Service 171 and 700
- Retains Service 972’s routing via Stevens Road, which is a shorter and faster route between Bukit Panjang and Orchard Road
An added benefit to this arrangement is minimizing the overall increase in mileage for Service 972 by having only a portion of Service 972 trips ply the extended route via Newton (as Service 972M).
Route amendment to Service 171
The last amendment involves curtailing Service 171 from Yishun to loop at Bukit Panjang, removing the Bukit Panjang – Marina Centre sector. This route amendment is most easily justified given its duplication of the current Downtown Line and other bus services along the Upper Bukit Timah Road and Dunearn Road / Bukit Timah Road corridor. The amended Service 171 calls at Bus stop 44029 (Bt Panjang Stn Exit A/LRT) for easy transfers to southbound bus services.
One criticism of this move is the reduction of connectivity between Bukit Panjang estate and Beauty World, but this sector is also covered by Services 75 and 184.
Alternative bus routes are:
- Service 67, 170: Between Bukit Panjang and Newton
- Service 75, 184: Between Bukit Panjang and Beauty World
- Service 66: Between Beauty World and Newton
- Service 77, 174: Between Beauty World and Orchard / Dhoby Ghaut (via alternative roads)
- Service 963: Between Bukit Panjang estate sectors and Hillview
- Service 972: Between Newton and Orchard / Dhoby Ghaut
- Service 36, 106, 111, 162M, 502, 518, 857: between Orchard / Dhoby Ghaut and Marina Centre
- 2020 (3 Aug): Withdrawal of Service 700/700A and amendment to Service 171 and 972 published. Members of Parliament react negatively to the news.
- 2020 (4 Aug): LTA explains that the withdrawal of Service 700/700A was undertaken out of financial consideration
- 2020 (7 Aug): Chee Hong Tat explains LTA’s stance, held meeting with Members of Parliament the following day
- 2020 (13 Aug): Announcement of amended plans
- Bukit Panjang bus service changes: Ong Ye Kung reveals $60m subsidy for Downtown Line as he calls for balance