DEC 15 — A crisis is not the best time to try to implement change. Sadly, many people, when faced with a problem, ignore or avoid it until they have no choice but to face it. The typical result is that a small problem will thus be allowed to grow into a large one. Just like an untreated wound can fester, a problem that is not attended to when small will grow to create more and more problems later on.
Such is the case with the crisis in the Malaysian bus industry, which has really been festering for years and years, but has not received the necessary treatment and solutions that would have controlled the problem when it was small. In many cases, some of the “solutions” were found were not there to effect real change, but to give people a chance to enrich and benefit themselves at the expense of the people.
Bus service shutdowns may have caught the attention of the public over the past month, but the problems in the industry have been there for years. TRANSIT, the Pan-Malaysian Bus Operators Association and other stakeholders have been doing our best to raise awareness but there has been little interest in tackling the fundamental problems within the industry.
Over the past two years the issues have been bubbling up, but the shutdown of service by CityLiner, the stage bus arm of Konsortium Transnasional Berhad (KTB, Malaysia’s largest public transport conglomerate), has made it clear that the industry is in total crisis and solutions must be found now.
Unfortunately, it seems that few of the stakeholders are prepared with effective, holistic solutions that will solve the problem.
SPAD, the Land Public Transport Commission, became a legal organisation in 2010, and received its actual authority in January 2011. Since 2010, SPAD has been struggling, trying to find its footing in the public transport industry, while attempting to resolve the mess left behind by the Commercial Vehicles Licensing Board and facilitate the controversial MRT project. At the same time, it also has to facilitate transformation of public transport in the Klang Valley and manage the huge public relations mess that it will inevitably bring.
This is a tall order for any organisation, and it seems like an impossible challenge for an organisation that is only one year old, without much experience in holistically transforming public transport. SPAD COO Azhar Ahmad, formerly CEO of RapidPenang, brings enthusiasm and experience to the table, but SPAD simply cannot do everything alone … and it should not be trying to do so either.
Before the shutdowns, KTB head Tengku Hasmadi sent letters to various state governments asking for subsidies, but state governments (and local governments) have traditionally held themselves aloof from public transport, and regularly claim that it is a federal responsibility. Actually, the federal government is only responsible for regulation, not management or operations (which is anyone’s game), but the damage has already been done. Most state governments (with the exception of Penang and Malacca) are either unable or unwilling to step in to help solve the problem. Even Penang and Malacca have been able to accomplish little, probably because they lack experience but most likely because they are looking for direction from SPAD. But SPAD has basically told all state governments to find whatever short-term solution they can to resolve the crisis.
In other words, SPAD is buying time wherever it can so that the government can read and approve the Bus Transformation Plan. That plan is part of the Greater KL/Klang Valley public transport master plan but may have to be rushed ahead as the crisis in the bus industry has spread farther and faster than anyone could expect.
There is another stakeholder in the mix — the national infrastructure company, Prasarana. Last week, managing director Shahril Mokhtar mentioned that Prasarana was in talks with some private bus operators to seek co-operation on certain routes, using a system similar to airline code sharing. On the surface this sounds like a good idea, but it only focuses on the needs of the operators, rather than providing a holistic solution that includes and supports all stakeholders. One also has to wonder why the proposal only appeared in the midst of this crisis. If it was a good idea, why did it not appear years ago when Prasarana subsidiary company RapidKL (which was a sister company until 2008) entered the public transport industry?
Indeed, the position of RapidKL (which is now thoroughly controlled by Prasarana), as a government-owned company with capital and operating expenses paid for by the government, has not sat well with the owners of private bus companies which receive no capital or operations subsidy (with the exception of fleet discounts on diesel fuel). Indeed, many operators have blamed RapidKL for making the problems in the industry worse. Metrobus owners even sued the CVLB for allowing RapidKL to charge fares that were lower than the other bus operators.
In the Bus Transformation Plan, SPAD has said that it wants to establish the model used in London for public transport in the Klang Valley. Transport for London owns the assets of the London Underground, Docklands Light Railway and Overground. It also owns the company responsible for the Oyster card fare collection system and collects all fares paid by passengers. All bus services in London are provided by private companies, contracted to Transport for London.
We can implement a similar model in the Klang Valley and other major cities and economic regions in Malaysia.
First, Prasarana has to restore the trust of the private bus operators. The best way that it could do this is to sell off its interests in RapidKL and RapidPenang. Converting Prasarana’s bus operations into publicly-listed companies would mollify concerns about unfair competition. More importantly, Prasarana could focus on owning major public transport assets — the LRT lines, KL Monorail and the future MRT — rather than buses which are better handled by private companies.
SPAD and Prasarana would then co-operate with local or state governments to create local public transport organising authorities in the Klang Valley, Penang, Iskandar-JB and the Kinta Valley, all of which could use the “Rapid” brand to signify a common goal of improving public transport throughout Malaysia.
In this way, all stakeholders see benefits. SPAD and Prasarana have better focus, local and state governments find a way to participate in public transport, private bus operators are assured of fair and reasonable competition, and the public benefits from reliable, frequent public transport without having fear of shutdowns.
The tools and the plans already exist. It is time to get all the stakeholders to work together to hammer out the action plan and then make it happen.
* Moaz Yusuf Ahmad is the adviser to the Association for the Improvement of Mass Transit (TRANSIT).