Distance fares or transfer fares?
I was intrigued when I came across this post by TOC highlighting a press release by the National Solidarity Party (NSP) on how the new fares system, allegedly based on distance travelled would charge commuters. Goh Meng Seng of the NSP presented the following table where some MRT fares for selected routes, old and new are compared and in every case, it appears the new ones are more expensive compared to the old one:
From the above it is apparent that in every case shown above, the new fare is more expensive compared to the old one. But a friend of mine cautioned that Goh might have selectively picked those transport routes which are more expensive compared to the others. Moreover, there was no attempt to analyze bus fares, probably because of the much more numerous bus stops scattered throughout the island. Is this really a fare hike in disguise? I decided to look into the matter. In the following, I assume Goh Meng Seng has been intellectually honest in providing the above data, so I will not attempt to verify the fares quoted. Readers interested may attempt to do so themselves.
Now, because the respective SMRT and SBS websites have probably been updated to factor in new Distance fares, there was no way I could use those sites to calculate the old fares for comparison. However, gothere.sg, a Singapore street directory website which helps commuters plan their travel in Singapore as well as suggest possible routes of transports appeared to still retain both the old and estimated new fares for every journey analysed.
Given that the entire purpose of the fare revision was to take into account distance travelled, I decided to test it out as follows.
Case 1: Extremely long travel distances
What do we notice from the above? In both cases, the new fare was actually more expensive despite the fact that the distance travelled for both are the among the longest possible geographically on the island. In the first scenario of the Marina Bay-Sembawang shopping centre, gothere.sg assumed that the commuter would alight at Yishun and take a bus service to get to Sembawang shopping centre. What is going on? Next let’s look at very short travelling distances by bus.
Case 2: Extremely short travelling distances.
In both cases above (destination and source randomly chosen), one can see that the new fares are still more expensive. Why should this be the case? Isn’t distance fares supposed to charge commuters by distance travelled? Also note that in both cases, no transfers between transport services was done.
The best way to understand the nature of the latest fare system revision is to look at whether transfers between bus/MRT services are done. This is illustrated in the next case:
Case 3: More transfers => Cheaper fares?
It is only when we look at the number of transfers done per journey that it becomes evident where the discounted fares are. In all four cases (as again, chosen randomly) there were at least 2 transfers done (whether it be bus-bus transfers or bus-MRT), there was a noticeable fare reduction.
From the Public Transport@SG FAQ on Distance fares, we find the following which appears to affirm the above:
A transfer fare penalty is the additional fare which commuters end up paying when making transfers, even if the distance travelled and the type of service used is the same as a direct journey. Under the current fare structure, where each leg of a transfer journey is charged as a separate trip, commuters will incur a fresh boarding charge for every transfer made (i.e. transfer penalty) as well as a higher fare per km due to the resetting of the trip distance with every transfer. Although a transfer rebate is given, it does not fully offset the transfer penalty. With the new Distance Fares, this transfer fare penalty will be completely removed as fares will now be charged based on the entire journey and a single boarding charge will apply.
But how does the FAQ explain the apparent fare hikes of the first two scenarios? It doesn’t. So after digging around for some time, I came across the following news article:
However some commuters may end up paying more for transport because a three percent transport rebate that kept fares at 2008 levels will be removed on Saturday as well.
To minimise the impact of the cessation of the three per cent rebate, the Public Transport Council has decided to decrease fares by 2.5 per cent allowed by the fare formula this year.
It appears at first sight that the net increase in fares should be 0.5%. However, that’s not the case, from examining cases 1 & 2 above. In both cases, where no or at most one transfer is done, fares have gone up more than 1%. So we do have an unexplained fare hike on single trips. And like many things, there’s an apparent caveat in the transfer rebates:
The number of transfers allowed will be increased from three to five. However there is a transfer time limit of 45 minutes. All journeys must be within two hours of the first boarding as well.
In short, it appears that distance fares have had the effect of raising fares for all single-service journeys with zero transfers. To test this claim out, I took one of the journeys from case 3 and evaluated the fares for each individual stage in between transfer. Results are not shown here. As expected, single trips for each journey cost more under Distance Fares. Indeed, Goh Meng Seng in his original post appeared to have recognised this:
On the other hand, it is impractical to expect bus commuters to waste time changing buses during peak hours just to “enjoy” any lower fares. Such “lower fares” may only be lower in comparison with the new long haul trunk services.
So to conclude, I think one could say that distance fares would benefit the commuters only if they make transfers, and penalize them otherwise. I have also not found evidence that shorter traveling distances (judged by travelling time in case 3), would result in cheaper fares. Readers may attempt to verify this themselves. And there doesn’t appear to be any correlation in distance from getting from point A to B and fares as well.
For MRT rides, it appears that there have been no transfer rebates given unless one also takes a bus service. Just for reference, here’s another case of a seemingly inexplicable puzzle where a trip to an MRT station further away costs less than one which is closer. Even in cases of MRT transfers, such as from Joo Koon on the EW Line to Punggol on NEL, the result is a net increase in fares rather than a reduction ($2.06 to $2.16)
What are the possible implications of such a fare revision? I can think of a few possibilities.
Firstly, websites like gothere.sg and other similar online street directories now become a lot more useful for planning journeys, since it’s cheaper to embark on journeys with transfers rather than single trips. Secondly, this may help ease congestion on MRTs since MRT fares appear to have been raised without any rebate unless one also takes a bus service, although it’s not evident that such behaviour would result if transport fares are inelastic. Lastly, distance fares may spell the end of concession passes, since folks most likely to purchases passes are those whom do multiple transfers, where the respective penalties have been eliminated.