CMB wins its battle

THE renewal of the franchise of China Motor Bus (CMB) sets a worrying precedent by showing how easy it is for a public transport operator to hold the Government to ransom and get away with it. Only four months ago after the company defiantly sold its Wong Chuk Hang depot, despite repeatedly being told not to do so, CMB has secured a deal which leaves the bulk of its routes intact - and effectively amounts to Government endorsement of the sale.

The company has not escaped entirely unpunished. The withdrawal of 14 routes is four more than had originally been planned. But most were run out of the Wong Chuk Hang depot, and their loss will be a small price to pay for the $382 million reaped from its sale.

The Government now says there is nothing it can do about the sale and that CMB deserves a new franchise because it has made efforts to improve its services. That is an assertion with which few passengers would agree. Timetables may be adhered to better than in the past but that is at the price of break-neck driving. The real reason is that CMB - more interested in property development than running buses - has called the Government's bluff, by threatening to shut down operations overnight, if the terms for a new franchise were too unfavourable. A new law, designed to deal with such a situation, is not yet in force. Even if it was, the short-term cost of such a change, in terms of disruption to services, would probably be too high.

That is why the Government has opted for the easier option of gradually scaling-down CMB's network. This avoids any immediate pain, but only at the cost of forcing most of Hong Kong Island to continue to suffer CMB's boneshakers for at least another three years. Nor should anyone expect any improvements. Having found it so easy to defy the Government, even in the midst of franchise negotiations, the company will now have even less incentive to respond to pressure to offer better services.

Worse still, the ease with which CMB has won its way may encourage other transport operators to believe they can do likewise. Public franchise holders have been given a lesson in just how simple it is to wrong-foot the Government. That can only be bad for the consumer.