【明報專訊】Last year, the five franchised bus companies submitted their respective fare increase proposals and applications to the government. In documents submitted to the Legislative Council the other day, the government disclosed the details for the first time.
Citybus and New World First Bus will raise the fares of their urban lines uniformly by $2 in the first proposal of a similar kind. As for the Citybus airport services, the suggested hike is 50%, while for overnight lines and daytime North Lantau lines, it is 23%. Kowloon Motor Bus and Long Win Bus applied for 9.5% and 8.5% increases respectively. New Lantao Bus sought a 9.8% increase.
The Legislative Council Panel on Transport is to discuss the applications on Friday (17 March). Some lawmakers have described the increase as "crazy" and "a rip-off". Arguing that passenger numbers have improved after the borders reopened, they have asked the Executive Council to play the gatekeeper role and curb the hikes.
The three-year COVID pandemic has shrunk all businesses in Hong Kong. True, the five bus operators have been struggling over the past few years. However, the hikes they proposed this time easily reach 20% to 30% for some lines, and even the height of 50% for some others. While the bus companies argue they have been facing the scourge of high oil prices these two years, the general public has also been feeling the pressure of the rising cost of living. The fare increases by the five bus companies are steep. The backlash they have triggered in society is hardly surprising.
Many franchised bus companies have looked back in time and emphasised that there were not many fare increases over the past 10 years, and now the relatively higher increase is to "recoup past losses". From a public policy perspective, it is hardly reasonable to suggest "catching up" at once with the unrealised fare increases of so many years without any regard to the public's livelihood and whether people can afford the hikes.
A member of Legco has suggested that bus fares rise annually in line with inflation. This could be playing into the hands of bus operators.
Currently, the government scrutinises bus fare adjustment proposals with consideration to multiple factors, such as how much operational costs and revenues have changed since the last hike, and to what degree citizens will approve of and be able to cope with the new fares. A member of the management at a bus company has criticised the arrangement as "lacking in transparency", and recommended adopting a formula with reference to the MTR's "two-way" mechanism that directly produces an annual fare adjustment rate.
The problem is that the formula in the MTR "two-way" mechanism is obviously biased towards the operator. Unless there is a major recession similar to that in the past few years, the fare is basically going "one-way": upwards. It also means that the government is handing over its authority to act as the gatekeeper for the public interest. Many in society believe this mechanism is in need of reform. The government and lawmakers must deliberate on the matter, and not repeat that mistake.
The fact that franchised bus operations are going downhill is directly related to the current public transport policy. Tilted in favour of the MTR, it is squeezing out bus companies. They also compete with minibuses, so bus routes are designed to "go round and round" in communities to take more passengers. Bus journeys are longer as a result, and this makes them even less competitive against the MTR or minibuses.
In foreign countries, the development of a "Bus Rapid Transit" (BRT) system is a solution. This, however, requires the freeing up of road surfaces to make way for bus lanes. The SAR government does not dare to follow the example of Singapore and other cities in restricting the continuous growth of private cars. As roads are insufficient, BRT is a difficult path to go down. Piecemeal repairs will not solve the problem, but only cause a nuisance to the public. The predicament of franchised buses is exactly one example.
■ Glossary 生字 /
rip-off : sth that is unreasonably expensive
recoup : to get back an amount of money that you have spent or lost
piecemeal : done or happening gradually at different times and often in different ways, rather than carefully planned at the beginning