Chartered bus operators to get more help to go digital

With many chartered buses, real-time tracking can put parents' minds at ease. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

SINGAPORE - Chartered bus operators, typically owners of small fleets of about five vehicles, will now receive more help from the Government to automate their processes, accelerating a transition already sharpened by the coronavirus pandemic.

In a new thrust towards digitalisation headed by the Land Transport Authority and Enterprise Singapore, it was announced on Wednesday (Nov 25) that operators will receive financial subsidies, free consultancy advice and training to help with the change in what remains a stubbornly traditional industry.

Improvements could include having buses' whereabouts tracked on a digital map, in-built cameras that monitor drivers' behaviour, and integrated systems for online payment and route planning.

With many chartered buses used as school buses that deal with large numbers of students, real-time tracking can put parents' minds at ease, while online processes can lessen the administrative burden on chartered bus companies which still often take attendance physically and collect payment in cash, bus operators said.

Senior Minister of State for Transport and Foreign Affairs Chee Hong Tat, speaking at the event announcing the launch of the digital plan for chartered bus services, noted that the sector has already received about $30 million worth of support this year.

It comprises schemes such as season parking waivers at carparks and other grants to cushion the impact of the pandemic.

But it was now a "matter of survival" that chartered bus operators take the opportunity to modernise, he said, during a time when tour buses have been quiet with no tourists and fewer school buses are plying the roads due to many school activities being suspended.

"The crisis has provided an added impetus for the sector to rethink its business processes, and prepare for a new operating environment.

"Many of the solutions we see today, such as shared and on-demand transport services, are made possible due to digitalisation, as it allows companies to process large volumes of data efficiently.

"Adoption of digital solutions will benefit both drivers and operators," he said.

The chartered bus services sector is currently made up of 10,600 buses owned by 3,500 individuals and companies.

Unlike the public transport giants like SMRT and SBS Transit, many of these are family operators who have in the business for generations.

Some are one-man operators who multi-task by taking on different duties, including driving, managing operations, administration and finance, sometimes requiring them to take calls while driving, which is a safety hazard.

An integrated digital system would help make significant savings in manpower and time while allowing them to pay full attention to the road.

Mr Philip Peh, president of the Singapore School and Private Hire Bus Owners' Association, said the help extended by the Government will allow those in the sector to take "baby steps" towards digitalisation.

The association worked with Enterprise Singapore to develop a cloud-based smart fleet management system, which integrates digital payment, route planning and driver roster scheduling functions, among others, into one platform.

It will cost between $6,000 and $7,000 per bus to use this system, Mr Peh said, so the 70 per cent onboarding cost subsidies given by Enterprise Singapore is a great help.

Mrs Ellen Lau, a bus driver with Silveray Transport, which provides transport services for wheelchair users and which has adopted the cloud-based smart fleet management system, said she finds the in-vehicle recording devices most useful.

"In the event of a dispute, a half-a-minute to one-minute video can make the causes of the incident clear and show who is responsible. This lets us solve the problem amicably and relieves the pressure on us drivers," she said.

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