TD's response to Ombudsman's direct investigation report

     Regarding a report released by the Ombudsman today (March 9) on its direct investigation into government regulation of special transport services, a spokesman for the Transport Department (TD) said the department agreed there is a need to strengthen the special transport services for persons with mobility difficulties, and the publicity and education should also be promoted proactively so as to enhance public understanding of the "Transport for All" concept.

     Nevertheless, the TD would like to reiterate that the department has done a lot of work in the past years to monitor and strengthen Rehabus services, resulting in improvement of operation of Rehabus year by year. The department thanks the Office of the Ombudsman for giving a number of constructive suggestions.

     Unlike a general public transport service operated in a commercial mode and led by economic benefits, the main concept of operation of Rehabus services is to provide a social welfare service to persons with disabilities and thus over 80 per cent of the operational cost of Rehabus is directly subsidised by the Government. The services are operated by the Hong Kong Society for Rehabilitation (HKSR), which is a social welfare organisation. The TD's responsibility is to process and monitor whether the subsidy to the HKSR is effectively used.

     The spokesman said, "The Government has all along closely monitored the demand and supply of Rehabus services so as to strengthen and provide new services. Meanwhile, the TD is very concerned about the operational efficiency of Rehabus and has been reviewing the services and implementing various measures through routine monitoring to enhance Rehabus services."

     The Office of the Ombudsman noted that although the TD was responsible for monitoring Rehabus services, it was not proactive in assisting in enhancement of the services and improvement was not made until the Office of the Ombudsman stepped in to investigate. The TD spokesman expressed disagreement and disappointment with the above comments from the Ombudsman, adding that since the takeover of Rehabus services from the Social Welfare Department on April 1, 1987, the TD employed consultants in 1989, 2003, 2007 and 2015 to conduct comprehensive reviews and surveys to improve Rehabus services. The TD in 2012-13 observed that there was a trend of increased idling time for Rehabuses and the resources were not fully utilised. Hence, the TD assisted the HKSR in reviewing its driver manpower establishment and was successful in allocating funds for the HKSR to employ extra drivers and relief drivers in the system in 2014-15. Moreover, the TD in 2012 noticed that the users of Rehabus had a need for shared use, and more than half of the persons with disabilities who were not allocated Rehabus services needed to go to public hospitals for treatment. Therefore, in June 2014, i.e. before the Ombudsman commenced investigation, the TD had already requested the HKSR to launch a trial of pre-booked shared use service to and from public hospitals. Though the effectiveness of these measures would need time to show, they proved that the TD had already implemented measures to enhance the operational efficiency of Rehabus services before the Ombudsman stepped in in November 2014. In fact, with the assistance of the TD, there were marked improvements in the number of persons using Rehabus, the number of persons waiting for the scheduled route service and the number of unsuccessful Dial-a-Ride bookings in 2016.
     In fact, continued improvements have been made on Rehabus services in the past five years:

(1) The number of Rehabuses has increased from 123 at the end of 2012 to 156 in 2016;

(2) The annual passenger trips of Rehabus have increased from about 760 000 persons in 2012 to about 900 000 persons in 2016;

(3) The annual passenger trips of the scheduled route services have increased from 982 persons in 2012 to 1 148 persons in 2016, while the number of persons waiting for the scheduled route services has dropped from 62 persons to 30 persons during the same period; and

(4) The number of unsuccessful Dial-a-Ride bookings has sharply dropped from 15 105 cases in 2012 to about 7 320 cases in 2016.

     In regard to the TD holding the view that an increase in the supply of special transport services would lead to more demand, the Ombudsman considered that the TD's view meant that the assessment of demand would not be meaningful. In this regard, the TD believes that the Ombudsman does not fully understand the department's original view. In fact, what the TD wanted to point out originally is that regardless of any increase in the number of Rehabuses, it cannot reduce the waiting time, the number of users waiting for the services and the number of unsuccessful bookings to zero. Forecasting demand for Rehabus services is different from that of daily public transport services. The TD can make advance planning for the latter according to the community and the latest infrastructure developments with ongoing adjustment to meet the actual demand. For Rehabus services, the department is unable to estimate the geographical demand and nature of such demand and hence encounters difficulties in allocating resources accurately. The department fully agreed with the Ombudsman's suggestion that increasing the supply of special transport services can encourage persons with disabilities to make more trips, which would be beneficial to them, and the department sincerely hopes that more persons with disabilities can benefit. Therefore, the TD makes assessments on the trend of demand growth and bids for resources every year. The TD is committed to meeting the needs of the service users by shortening the waiting time. However, it is impossible to reduce the waiting time to zero unless unoccupied vehicles and manpower are always made available.

     The TD agrees that there is room for improvement on Rehabus services and will study the Ombudsman's suggestions in detail and suggest feasible measures to further improve the services. In fact, the Labour and Welfare Bureau and the TD have steered the HKSR to fully review the operation efficiency of Rehabus services and will introduce a series of measures in four aspects progressively, including:
(1) Setting up priority for services:
     (i) Increasing shuttle service for hospitals;
     (ii) Increasing recreational routes during holidays; and
     (iii) Promoting the shared use concept among Rehabus service users.

(2) Strategy for deployment of vehicles and drivers:
     (iv) Re-organising the current scheduled routes via computer programmes;
     (v) Purchasing extra vehicle parts and suitably re-organising the timetable for vehicle examinations and maintenance; and
     (vi) Purchasing vehicles with more spaces for wheelchairs.
(3) Use of information and communication technology:
     (vii) Simplifying telephone booking procedures, increasing means for making bookings, and monitoring the location of Rehabuses via GPS;
     (viii) Using information technology to reduce the clerical work of Rehabus drivers and assist in route planning and booking services; and
     (ix) Setting up an information management system for storage of statistics and to make use of computer analysis to assist the management in better understanding Rehabus service performance.

(4) Development strategy of garages and parking facilities:
     (x) Setting up garages and parking facilities in Kowloon East and Sha Tin.

     On the other hand, some suggestions in the Ombudsman's report basically covered the TD's routine work or measures that have already been implemented by the department, including studying the feasibility of introducing low-floor public light bus models, requesting taxi operators to introduce more wheelchair accessible taxis, considering the drawing up of safety guidelines for drivers operating vehicles conveying wheelchair users and urging the HKSR to finish its consultancy study as soon as possible, in order to enhance Rehabus services and better use the resources to meet the demand. The TD will continue the work.

     The TD is very concerned about illegal conveyance services for persons with disabilities and will continue to co-operate with the Police to combat those illegal activities. The Road Traffic Ordinance and the Road Traffic (Public Service Vehicles) Regulations stipulate clearly the regulation of vehicles receiving rewards by carrying passengers with disabilities. Drivers, upon conviction, are subject to a fine and imprisonment, and the licences of the vehicles involved may also be suspended.

Ends/Thursday, March 9, 2017
Issued at HKT 13:59