Feeder buses the weak link

CONGRATULATIONS are in order to MRT Corp for the operation of the second phase of the 51km Sungai Buloh-Kajang mass rail transit (MRT) system set to open tomorrow (July 17).

This opening indeed represents a quantum leap in building up the rail-based infrastructure in the urban areas of the country which previously had not been given the attention it deserves. Touted as one of the most modern MRT lines in the world by our prime minister, he said that MRT line will benefit about 500,000 commuters daily.

Yes, the initiative represents the government's firm commitment to improving public transport in general and rail-based network in particular as well as increasing connectivity to ensure commuters can be assured of a truly reliable transport system at affordable prices.

I understand that the ultra-modern stations (especially the underground ones) are a sight to behold. Great pains and effort had been made to give it a Malaysian identity. And that's not all. Based on my experience riding the MRT during phase one, once I arrive at the station, I feel so welcome.

The trained staff greet passengers with warm and friendly smiles. They are courteous and make themselves approachable. The overall demure and professionalism displayed by the station staff is as good as it can get. Indeed MRT Corp has done an excellent job in training these staff.

I'm afraid the same cannot be said as to what happens if one were to take a feeder bus to the station. To my mind, one of the weakest links in the MRT system is the efficiency of the feeder bus system.

Based on my three months experience where I was without a car and relied heavily on the MRT services, I can safely say that the core problems that need to be addressed urgently are the negative attitude of bus drivers and the reliability and frequency of the feeder bus service.

The bus drivers tend to adopt a "tidak apa" attitude; to them "my job is merely to drive safely". Anything else is not important and beyond me. So much so the majority of the drivers act indifferently; are unfriendly and unapproachable. Many lack common courtesy. They don't seem to know how to greet commuters (by saying "selamat pagi" or good morning) and leaving a favourable impression. Most are very serious and haven't learnt how to smile.

In summary, MRT Corp should ensure that drivers do everything possible to make passengers' ride as pleasant and comfortable as possible. The drivers should learn to be professionals in their own right!

MRT Corp should emulate Pos Malaysia counter staff where a smile is a "must". Infuse this new culture of treating commuters with respect and a smile so that they feel welcome. Basic training on engaging the passengers should be a must for these bus drivers.

I understand that the bus drivers are now designated as the captain of the bus. This is welcome news. Could they be given another designation to reflect their new role as the front-personnel who are also ambassadors-cum-public-relations-officers?

MRT Corp has set a high unrealistic goal or KPI of bus availability every 10-15 minutes. The expectations of customers have been raised but then feel disappointed and frustrated when promises are not fulfilled.

Bus schedule information is not available at the stations. It must at least provide information that indicates the time the next bus will be leaving the station to specific destinations.

In overall terms, the reliability, dependability and punctuality of the feeder bus service needs to be improved significantly. If the feeder bus service is good, by word of mouth, commuters will surely disseminate the message around to their friends, office colleagues and family that the service can be relied upon especially in terms of the waiting time at the station or at bus stops (they don't want to be late to work or their appointment).

Until and unless the residents of the areas served by the feeder bus service are convinced of a reliable and on time feeder bus service – (length of wait at the bus stops are also important), they will be reluctant to use the feeder bus system and MRT. (This explains the near-empty feeder buses).

There may not be passengers at the train station to justify the bus to move but many commuters are waiting at the various bus stops to take them to the station. It is important that buses depart the station as scheduled and passengers must be made aware of this schedule.

The MRT operations and its efficiency are as strong as its weakest link (feeder bus service). At this early stage of its operations, it would be much easier to rectify the "wrongs" (or arrest the problem at its bud before it becomes embedded into the system) so that the "negatives" namely the attitude and behaviour of the bus drivers do not spread and become a corporate culture.

Dr Pola Singh
Former Secretary General
Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport, Malaysia