SINGAPORE - Taxi drivers displaced by the developing coronavirus outbreak will be deployed to lessen crowding on trains, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said on Monday (March 23).
Speaking during a visit to Bright Hill station on Stage 2 of the Thomson-East Coast line (TEL), Mr Khaw said having "temporary transport ambassadors to help commuters keep safe distances" was an idea mooted by Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean.
"These are temporary positions to support higher manpower needs at our stations during this special period," Mr Khaw said. "These ambassadors can also help to sanitise our train cabins, seats, poles more frequently."
During pre-outbreak times, MRT trains could pack as many as four commuters per square metre during peak hours. Although crowding has reduced since the coronavirus forced many to work from home, public transport commuters are still placed well within the 1m distance recommended by the Government for entertainment venues, restaurants, hawker centres and cinemas.
Mr Khaw said: "I would very much like to do the same for buses and trains. Unfortunately, as public transport has to accommodate large numbers of people at the same time, this is very challenging. Almost impossible, unless we can substantially reduce peak-hour demand. I say: Let's try."
He said the transport ambassadors could be employed on three or six-month contracts, "depending on how long the pandemic lasts".
Cabbies who have seen their earnings hit by the Covid-19 pandemic can fill these roles. "The extra cash allowance may also come in handy... to supplement their reduced income," Mr Khaw said. He noted that transport operators have seen some of their taxi drivers suffering due to reduced income.
"They are keen to try out the transport ambassador idea, for their taxi drivers," the minister said, adding that the Land Transport Authority will work with them to get the scheme running "in the coming weeks".
"This is our attempt to help one another, within the public transport sector, cope with the pandemic," he said. "Regulator, transport operators and unions working together, fighting a common enemy. We will emerge stronger as one transport family."
He also suggested that displaced cabbies can train to be bus captains.
Taxi drivers and private-hire drivers say their earnings have dropped by as much as 60 per cent since the outbreak hit Singapore in January. Many have given up driving as a result, despite financial aid handed out by the Government and operators.
While no operator would divulge its unhired rate, industry observers reckon it could be as high as 30 per cent. If so, more than 20,000 drivers have given up their vehicles.