New World buses
The Government is taking a gamble in awarding the task of running most bus routes on Hong Kong Island to New World, a company with no experience of public transport in Hong Kong. But while that may pose some risk of disruption, when the new operator takes over on September 1, this has to be set against the benefits of greater competition and New World's pledge to retain all CMB staff. Had these 88 routes been given to KMB or the Citybus-led consortium, there would have been a danger of a monopoly-like situation.
Instead, by giving the franchise to New World the Government has created an opportunity for passengers to reap the benefits of greater competition. New World's $2 billion package of improvements should transform the local bus market.
For years, Citybus has been able to make all the running, with CMB refusing to spend a dollar more than necessary and KMB mainly concerned with running routes on its side of the harbour. But increasing complaints about Citybus have been highlighted by the recent spate of bus accidents which has brought into focus a growing perception that its formerly excellent standards have started to slip.
Now it will have to shape up to face a rival with a younger fleet, with air-conditioned and Octopus-card-ready buses which are likely to be more than a match for Citybus. Concerns about the new operator's lack of transport experience are understandable. Nor will their British partner's experience of bus operations necessarily be of much relevance to the very different conditions of Hong Kong.
But some risks have to be taken to bring outsiders in to shake up a market in desperate need of re-invigoration. In this case, New World's pledge to retain all CMB employees was clearly a decisive factor. No one will shed any tears over the long-overdue disappearance of CMB. But it would be grossly unfair for its staff, who have suffered the company's antiquated management for so many years, to be the ones to pay the price for a change of franchise.
However, Secretary for Transport Nicholas Ng Wing-fui's confidence that CMB will lease its buses to New World on reasonable terms - until the new fleet arrives - is not justified by CMB's appalling track record. Fortunately, the Government now has the power to force the company to do so, in order to maintain public transport services. The administration must make it clear it will not hesitate to invoke these powers should they become necessary in the coming months. Having forced Hong Kong passengers to ride in misery for so many years, CMB must not now be allowed to disrupt the transfer to a better future.