It comes as no surprise that the public is unimpressed by the government's decision to extend the franchise for three bus companies. Under the deal, New World First Bus, Citybus and Long Win have been given the right to operate for another 10 years. In return they have pledged more service commitments and fare concessions on some routes.
The public can be excused for questioning whether this is the best deal the government could get. The concessions appear to be substantial at first glance. These include replacing 700 polluting vehicles by 2016. There will be more inter-change discounts and reduced fares for different sections.
These are certainly welcome changes. But they do not go far enough. For instance, the fare concessions will only benefit some 8,000 passengers, out of millions carried by the fleet every day. The move to take polluting buses off the road appears to be a cosmetic gesture, since many vehicles, according to activists, are due to retire by 2018 anyway. The deal falls short of public expectations.
The government could have pushed the companies to do more when negotiating the franchise renewal. It is disappointing that issues like buses running behind schedules, overlapped routes and the perception of the fare adjustments mechanism being unfair have not been resolved. Now that the franchise has been renewed, pushing for more would be difficult. Passengers will have to live with the service in the next 10 years. The opportunity to tackle the problems has been missed.
Renewing franchises of passenger service companies and utilities can only be justified for as long as the operator is committed to providing a good service. The termination of the franchise for China Motor Bus and Yau Ma Tei ferry in 1998 is a case in point. There is no evidence to suggest that the three bus companies do not deserve renewal. But franchises give companies the exclusive right to operate and make money. It is only fair that they strive to do more to satisfy public needs.