School bus fares rise, may not be enough to save many smaller companies

Cash-strapped bus operators have raised school bus fares by between $5 and $20 a month for the new school year as they look to survive amid rising costs. -- ST FILE PHOTO: CAROLINE CHIA
Cash-strapped bus operators have raised school bus fares by between $5 and $20 a month for the new school year as they look to survive amid rising costs. -- ST FILE PHOTO: CAROLINE CHIA

Small operators are finding the going tough amid rising operational costs

Cash-strapped bus operators have raised school bus fares by between $5 and $20 a month for the new school year as they look to survive amid rising costs.

But Singapore School Transport Association (SSTA) chairman Wong Ann Lin, 65, told The Straits Times that the new fare hikes - which are similar to those last January - may not be enough to save many smaller companies that have long been charging unsustainably low fares.

He warned that they will struggle to stay afloat if they do not diversify their businesses, such as by transporting workers.

"They should be asking for $120 to $150 per child," said the industry veteran of four decades, adding that he knows of one company charging just $60 a month.

"Many are still charging below cost because of intense competition. But every time they raise fares, parents will complain."

There are about 1,300 school bus operators in the SSTA.

Small operators said the usual cost pressures of insurance, fuel and spare parts gave them little choice but to raise fares. The perennial shortage of drivers only worsens the problem.

Sin Koon Seng Transport, which serves two primary schools in the west, raised its fares by $15, to between $50 and $100.

Manager Vivian Tan, 38, said the main factor was insurance costs, which have risen from $3,000 in 2010 to $5,000 today. In contrast, passenger volume from one school has fallen by 20 per cent.

"Nowadays, some parents are more protective, so they choose to send the children to school by themselves," she said. "If we don't raise prices, it means we don't earn anything. I might switch business if it gets really bad."

Tampines-based Chen Kai Bus Transport Service has raised fares by $10 to between $80 and $140 based on distance. Its 60-year-old owner, who did not want to be named, said it could still turn a small profit, but times are tough.

"If I have to, I will slowly wind down the business," she said.

Sales manager Jasie Fon, 41, drives her seven-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter from Bedok to Pei Chun Public School in Toa Payoh. But she will opt for the school bus once the family moves closer to the school, and understands if fares go up.

"It is convenient, especially when both parents are working," she said. "And they get to make friends on the school bus."

Mr Sean Sim, 43, a sales manager and a father of two, said: "These days, many parents with cars do drive their kids to school. But there is still a need for school buses, especially for those who are very busy."

davidee@sph.com.sg