Taking its toll
When the Cross-Harbour Tunnel opened in 1972, the $15 one-way toll for a double-decker bus was considered so high that a senior China Motor Bus official warned the tunnel bus routes, which charged a $1 fare, had a gloomy future.
The fare was indeed prohibitive, because the monthly wage for the average worker then was only a few hundred dollars, a ferry trip across the harbour cost just 20 to 30 cents and fares for most bus routes terminating at the ferry piers were at similar levels.
Yet, there was a logic behind the toll and fare-setting mechanisms. The $15 toll was set on the assumption that the average occupancy of a double-decker bus was 50 and that each passenger should be levied a 30 cents surcharge for crossing the harbour by bus. The level of tunnel premium factored into the $1 bus fare was unknown, but was likely to be higher than 30 cents as crossing the harbour by bus was considered more convenient than doing so by bus and ferry.
The prediction that cross-harbour tunnel bus routes would not last has since been proven wrong. On the contrary, there are now many more buses plying through three tunnels underneath Victoria Harbour. Meanwhile, the number of routes going through land tunnels has also grown.
More importantly, the tunnel routes have become major sources of revenue for the bus companies, apparently because fares for such a route have been allowed to include a tunnel premium.
As buses have to pay tolls when they go through a tunnel, it is only fair that the tolls should be reflected in the fares. But as a Post study has shown, bus fares for tunnel routes, especially cross-harbour ones, are disproportionately higher than non-tunnel routes even after the tolls are taken into consideration.
This suggests that the bus companies have been allowed to set fares for tunnel routes that include a premium which bears little relationship to the actual toll.
The Post has found that the fares per kilometre of non-tunnel routes are in the range of between 30 and 40 cents, but those for cross-harbour routes are considerably higher, with the lowest at 42 cents and the highest at 77 cents.
The bus companies seem to have been allowed to set fares based on the assumption that passengers, if they opt not to take a cross-harbour tunnel bus, would have to take a bus, then a ferry, and then a bus to reach their destinations.
But surely the more pertinent consideration is that the theoretical costs to the passengers of having to use both bus and ferry to cross the harbour have absolutely no bearing on how much it costs the bus companies to operate their tunnel bus services.
In fact, the only additional cost of operating a cross-harbour tunnel route is the toll. It follows that the toll should be the only other consideration that the bus companies should be allowed to take into account when setting fares for such routes.
And as the toll constitutes only a minute proportion of operational costs, a strong case exists for the bus companies to lower their fares for cross-harbour routes.