mollymeek (mollymeek) wrote,

Quote Molly if you are Truly Non-partisan: Issue 8

The issue of public transport has made it to the news once again, this time in a Straits Times article, "Top Panel to look at SBS service standards" (The Straits Times, 16 December 2005). Yes, look. Molly heard there is a sort of power in looking. If I don't remember wrongly, it is usually called Eye Power.

As a footnote, do you know what do inefficient people do? No action, talk only. What about the really efficient ones? No action, no talk, Just see.

For once As usual, the ST is probably right when it says that, in response to the findings of a recent commuter satisfaction survey, ComfortDelgro group chairman Mr. Lim Jit Poh "sought the understanding of commuters but did not mince his words about what he thought were some unrealistic expectations." Molly thinks the "I seek your understanding" phrase is the best cliché tried-and-tested customer service punch line from our transport companies. As Molly is really, really meek, she is always mincing her words. Thus, today Molly invites an old friend/enemy Saft Raining to pen the eighth issue of the weekly simulated letters to the ST. Please be forewarned that Saft the brutish dog also does not mince him words regarding what he thought were unreasonable accusations against commuters.

Saft's views are, admittedly, totally balderdash. But Molly doesn't want to keep on praising local public transport lest she loses 90% of her readers to more candid and honest bloggers like Xiaxue. Here's Saft's simulated letter. As per other letters in this series, the ST is welcome to quote Saft's letter in its entirety.

Hey ST editors and readers!

Molly has invited me to pen a letter on her behalf, probably because she is too bimbotic to do it herself.

You reported that SBS Transit is going to establish a "high-level committee, led by its board of directors . . . to look into service standards provided by SBS Transit . . . which made $200 million in net profit last year." Hey, I really love the way you seem to have lost your so-called non-partisan edge! Fancy reporting how much profit SBS Transit earned last year in an article related to its service quality. No wonder Molly the pro-establishment one has decided to keep quiet!

One of the things the board will look at is the "service standards for bus and rail services, communication with external parties and handling of feedback and quieries." Great, man! I have been barking telling my grouses to a customer service department that deserves to win awards such as "Best use of reply templates to handle feedback," "Longest Time taken to use Templates," and "Best Circumvention Award." Gosh, does anyone know how irritating it is when you painstakingly pen your complaints (yes, I shall not call them feedback) only to receive replies that come from templates? And only Divine Beings know how anyone takes such a long time to fill in the blanks in a template!" Yes, "We seek your understanding" is also in one of the various templates, I suspect.

In fact, if you will allow me to voice my suspicions (by which I mean I am not making any claims), maybe the templates are there to prevent the customer relations department from getting out of hand and blurting out stuff that they are not supposed to. And I also suspect that the existence of templates shows that there is an awareness of the problems coupled with either a refusal or an inability to solve them. (How else could you possibly make templates?) Or maybe I'm just paranoid and the templates don't exist. Who knows? I don't own a bus company!

Admittedly, many customer service departments around do not exist to improve service but to deflect complaints so that things can carry on the way some people want them to be carried. I am not too sure if the public transport companies' customer service departments are like that too, but I certainly hope not.

Whatever it is, I hope to address what Mr. Lim says are unrealistic expectations of the commuters. With all due respect to the group chairman is is emphasizing service quality to SBS Transit, I think some of his ideas are unfair to commuters like Saft Raining.

According to the ST report, "Buses, he [Mr. Lim] said, had to compete with thousands of vehicles for space on the roads." The report quotes Mr. Lim: "Lapses, sometimes, are beyond us as we are not the sole monopoly user of the roads."

This, in case you don't know, is the age-old traffic conditions argument. But I have never encountered anyone in my life who demanded that buses have to be able to pass through the thousands of vehicles on the roads. Perhaps Molly Meek the ghost might be able to pass through solid substances as ghosts do in movies, but buses are not ghosts. No one in his right mind thinks that they can pass through solid vehicles. The lapses that people are complaining about are not real "lapses" (which are unintended occurrences) but are what they perceive to be intended, premeditated (or whatever synonym you can think of) actions that result in the lowering of service standards. Such as frequency reductions. Reductions in the number of feeder services are another example. These issues are related to the bus companies' schedules, not to what they cannot change on the roads.

Furthermore, the unpredictability of traffic conditions is overly exaggerated. We know what peak hours are. We know which areas are bound to be congested during peak hours. They are usually more or less the same from day to day unless traffic accidents happen. Unless traffic accidents take place daily, all around the island, and around the clock, "unpredictability" can be rather poor excuse. And what explains off-peak hour over-crowding that I have encountered many a time then? And what explains the crowds in MRT trains (perhaps not the NEL that SBS controls as of now, but SMRT's lines)? Unpredictable traffic conditions on the MRT tracks?

Why is it that, as far as I know, no authority has addressed the issue of frequency. And should I say falling frequencies that result in increased crowding for some buses?

The ST article also reports that (Mr Lim added that) "Bus drivers [aren't they called captains now?] are expected to be "supermen", . . . having to drive safely, ensure fares are paid correctly and show concern for the disabled and the elderly and the young." So that's what supermen do? I don't see how far they have to ensure correct fares are being paid, especially when the EZ Link system has been implemented. And one is tempted to add--implemented in such a way that people have been complaining of wrong fares being deducted. (So what are Supermen doing?) Actually, I do think Supermen bus captains do not have an easy time, but it seems that it is the bus companies that are using them as excuses rather than the public expecting too much of them. The bus captains, as far as I know, follow schedules well most of the time. But what could they do when the schedule stipulates that the frequency of a service is slower?

Speaking of bus captains, I once encountered an SBS bus captain that threatened to stop driving if the passengers do not move to the back. "Ok, you don't move, never mind. I wait here. Wait until the rain come." His rudeness notwithstanding, in my opinion, the bus was already so hellishly crowded that it wouldn't have helped to squeeze people further in. Am I expecting him to be Superman if I expect him to at least (pretend to) be polite and apologetic on behalf of the company he represents when the company is failing to meet the demand?

In the end, I did not even write a complaint letter to SBS because I did not wish to jeopardize his job. Who says that commuters are unreasonable?

The ST also reports that "[Mr. Lim] asked if people have "matured as a society or are we [sic.] just being selfish demanding [sic.] services for ourselves only or have we simply taken things for granted."

What has this got to do with maturity? Is a mature society one that loves to squeeze in overcrowded buses? Perhaps I should retort: "Have the bus companies matured as companies or are they just being selfish, demanding for fare hikes for their profits or have they simply taken commuters for granted (since many do not have a choice but to take public transport)?"

Who's going to answer my question, if it were a reasonable question in the first place?

I am most disappointed by the bit in which Mr. Lim says that commuters should have the "habit of knowing when the buses are expected to arrive." And how are they supposed to know? By daily observations even when they are taking a particular service for the first time? Or who could they ask? The templated customer relations department?I think mrsbudak (I am too lazy to dig out the article) once asked the customer service people for the expected/scheduled time of arrival for buses only to be rejected. I, too, had once asked for the same thing and received nothing. If I don't remember wrongly, mrsbudak was told something like that it is hard to predict the time of arrival. This sounds like appropriate material for Agagooga's journal (in consideration of its title). Note:

(i) I believe, and I don't think I'm wrong that there is a rather detailed schedule of the timing each bus is supposed to arrive at each bus stop. Why does SBS not provide it to commuters. Why not simply offer it online for people to download. After all, for buses with really slow frequencies, this has already been done. No one demands that the buses must arrive on schedule regardless of unforseen circumstances. This, in Mr. Lim's words, is the time the bus is expected to arrive. From Mr. Lim's words, we can infer that such a timing exists.

(ii) Why is the burden then left to the commuter to find out and not on the service provider to tell?

(iii) How does knowing the expected time of arrival help when the bus has poor frequency and is crowded--sometimes so crowded that you have to wait for the next one anyway. Knowing makes it worse--for you know how long you wait.

Why, one also wonders, is SBS reluctant to release the estimated arrival times of buses to the public? Perhaps because frequencies might be adjusted? And the worry is that, when people have the schedules, people might go: "Yucks! I used to only have to wait 9 minutes for this bus. Now i have to wait 12 minutes. And I'm paying more fares than ever" when frequencies are reduced. Well, I am not claiming that this is how SBS works. This is only a hypothesis.

In any case, I think there is a concerted effort to squeeze more and more people into buses and trains instead of reducing crowds. Just look at the designs of some buses and trains. Some seat areas are actually transformed into standing areas in the hope that there is the "advantage" that, within that same space, more passengers can be stored. (I'm using the word "stored" because I can't think of a better word.) The bonus irony is that the spaces seem to me to actually accommodate fewer people than before because people do not want to stand that closely to one another; what we have are more people standing through their journeys.

What seems to Saft Raining to be the current solution to the high demand for buses? Think of ways to put more people into buses instead of having more buses. Stick "No Standing on Steps" stickers up, but make no effort to enforce the rule. (Hands up those who regularly see people standing on those steps on have stood on those steps before.) Are these all unavoidable daily?

One final thing I wish to find out. (Note again that this something I wish to ask, not a claim I am making.) Is there some re-balancing act involved when bus companies attempt to cope with demands? The idea is this "If Service XYZ needs 10 more trips to be made during 5 to 7 p.m., then let's make 10 less trips from 10a.m. to 4p.m.. In the end, if the total number of trips for that service makes per day remain unchanged, we don't increase our operating costs." I ask if such a measure exists because, from my subjective perception, over the years, I seem to be waiting longer for buses during the day.

Goodness! I have written so much. I thank Molly for giving me the chance to pen a simulated letter to the ST. I'm beginning to detest her a little less now!

Yours sincerely,
Saft Raining
Tags: bus services, public transport, simulated letters to the st, singapore

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