Merger must not take Hong Kong passengers for a ride
- Loss-making Citybus and New World First Bus will operate as one company under latest franchise, and its performance will have to be closely monitored
The renewal of bus franchises is a good opportunity to push for service improvements. In the case of the merger of two money-losing companies under a new franchise, it is a matter of survival, though.
Whether the operator will get a new lease of life as a result remains to be seen. But expectations for better services remain.
Taken over by Bravo Transport in late 2020, Citybus and New World First Bus will operate as one company called Citybus Limited, under a new 10-year franchise in July 2023. The government said the service areas of the two companies on Hong Kong Island were largely overlapping.
It said the merger would facilitate improvement and rationalisation of the bus network, adding that it would not result in higher fares for existing routes. Citybus said drivers or back-office staff would not lose their jobs.
There are also plans to recruit and expand services into the New Territories.
Time will tell whether some positive changes will follow. The merger is said to be a necessary step to maintain the existing bus services.
The dominance of the urban railway system makes the operation of other public transport difficult. The coronavirus has made the environment more challenging.
The two firms have suffered losses of HK$25 million (US$3.18 million) a month during the pandemic and recorded losses of more than HK$260 million by the end of last year.
It is good to hear that the parent company will invest more than HK$3.5 billion in the next decade to provide better facilities for customers and employees as well as the construction and upgrade of bus depots. Passengers are understandably concerned whether they will have to pay more.
Despite the undertaking that existing bus fares will be the same, the new franchise has left open the door for reorganised and new bus routes to charge more. The merger also means reduced competition and fewer choices for passengers.
When the bus franchises were last extended 10 years ago, hopes were high that there would be more fare concessions and better services, such as cleaner fleets, more interchange discounts and reduced fares for different sections. The government must closely monitor the performance of bus companies and ensure passengers will not become worse off.