'We have been making progress in the discussion and it is expected that the implementation details will be ready within this year' Sarah Liao Sau-tung, Transport Secretary, June 8 I WOULD LIKE to see someone institute a regular quarterly award for the least achievement by any government minister over the past year but I know it is pointless. Sarah Liao would take full honours every time. On this occasion, her standard postpone, delay and wait pronouncement was in answer to a Legco question as to why we still do not have the bus fare adjustment mechanism that promised as far back as August 2003. Let me set the background here. Our franchised bus companies at one time operated under a scheme of profit control with features similar to the one governing our power companies but this was abandoned in favour of a system given the name 'modified basket of factors approach'. If this sounds to you like no system at all, you are right. Essentially it amounts to civil servants first sitting down to endure lobbying harangues from the bus companies and then making the decision (flip-of-the-coin style more than anything else, I suspect) on whether bus fares should go up or down. With our government always proclaiming itself in favour of fare reductions, you might have thought there would be more down than up but the fact is that consumer prices overall have come down by 15 per cent since their peak in May 1998 while bus fares have fallen by less than 2 per cent. There may be good reasons for this, foreign currency denominated fuel and equipment costs, for instance, but even our government now recognises that its modified basket of factors is unsatisfactory and something more rigorous needs to be put in its place. So what should it be? Well, we have had 'making progress' and 'expected implementation details', and other such favoured phrases from Ms Liao since August 2003. Don't hold your breath for an end of the year decision. That would definitely constitute a break with her way of doing things. More hangs on this than just fare structures for buses. Any decision has big implications for other modes of transport, particularly our two railways, which have been told to merge but are also finding this process slow under the Secretary for Postpone, Delay and Wait. Critical to the merger will be a decision on how their own fares can be structured afterwards and that decision cannot really be made until it is decided what sort of regulatory structure will govern the fares of their direct competitors, the big three franchised bus companies. Thus we now have the chairman of the Kowloon-Canton Railway Corp, Michael Tien Puk-sun, pushing for a decision at an early date and suggesting that less time be spent on 'arguing over unimportant things and more time spent on dealing with the real issues'. He is absolutely right. But things are also changing for the bus companies. New rail lines have eaten into their patronage. The first chart shows you the trend. The number of passenger journeys taken on franchised buses was already down more than 6 per cent in the first quarter from the same period the previous year. The buses are also emptying out because of the large numbers of them brought onto the road in recent years. As the second chart shows, the average number of monthly passenger journeys per licensed bus is now less than 60 per cent of what it was 20 years ago and let us remember that these buses are now larger ones. The bus operators are clearly beginning to feel the strain. Perhaps it is a strain we want them to feel. Official policy calls for favouring rail over road in public transport and this may be a squeeze we want continued. But then let us hear it officially said. What we need is a definitive regulatory mechanism and time is now pressing. Unfortunately, we have to rely for it on one of the most indecisive people in government. Come on, Donald. Get her moving.