As the No. 11 double-decker bus trundles through heavy noon-time traffic on the Strand, two harried passengers hop on at the Royal Courts of Justice, anxious to get to Charing Cross station just 1.6km away. To their dismay, the bus pulls into the Aldwych stop a few minutes later and stays there. The driver announces over the intercom: "Ladies and gentlemen, the bus will be held at this stop for two minutes to regulate the service."
This London scenario may soon become commonplace for bus users in Singapore. The No. 11 route is operated by Go-Ahead Group, which recently won one of two bus contracts tendered out by Singapore's Land Transport Authority (LTA). From the third quarter of next year, Go-Ahead will operate 25 bus routes from the Loyang Depot for five years, at a total cost of $498 million.
In London, Go-Ahead has a market share of 24 per cent, running 2,300 buses on over 100 routes. It's the capital's largest bus operator with 17 depots and 26 years' experience. "We'll be using our experience in London and matching it with the best of the experience and expertise in Singapore," says Go-Ahead in a written reply.
That means keeping the buses regular. According to Mr Martin Bilham, Go-Ahead's performance manager, the No. 11 bus driver did the right thing, agitated passengers notwithstanding. "About three-quarters of our routes in London are high-frequency (five or more buses per hour), which means the contracts are based on headways," he explains.
Headways - time gaps between buses - are monitored and managed in real-time by London's bus companies, using iBus, a GPS and radio communications system introduced in 2009. Every day, some 8,000 buses across the city are tracked and directed by controllers charting their progress on multiple screens from dozens of bus garages.
ON TOP OF THINGS
We have data on kilometres covered, reliability, waiting times, driver performance, including braking, acceleration, missing signals, customer surveys, vehicle condition, cause of disruption.
MR MARK O'DONOVAN, head of bus contracts at Transport for London
Maintaining headways is not just about addressing that old gripe of London commuters: how you wait ages for a bus and then three come at once. It's also about meeting the strict targets set by TfL, (Transport for London), which manages and regulates the capital's public transport. Missed targets could mean penalty deductions and a low ranking in the bus operator leagues. Met targets could bring bonus payments and contract extensions.
TfL has tracked headways for the last 30 years, and it is only one of the many criteria used to evaluate the 19 bus companies in London as they ferry 6.5 million passengers on the city's busy streets every day. "We have data on kilometres covered, reliability, waiting times, driver performance, including braking, acceleration, missing signals, customer surveys, vehicle condition, cause of disruption," says Mr Mark O'Donovan, head of bus contracts at TfL. "We're all over it."
This level and detail of quality control may well be seen in Singapore from the second quarter of next year, when Australian firm Tower Transit-which won the first bus tender in May with a bid of $556 million-begins running 26 bus routes from the Bulim depot.
Tower Transit has 20 years' experience running buses in Perth, Sydney and Adelaide, and has been operating in London since April 2013.
Mr O'Donovan explains that TfL's contracting system places quality of service - how reliable it is that a journey from A to B will take x minutes - before cost. "LTA has replicated that system," he says.
Introducing bus operators like Go-Ahead and Tower Transit,which are familiar with London's systems and standards, may well speed up the Government's planned overhaul of Singapore's bus industry.
LTA has promised peak-hour passengers a maximum wait time of 15 minutes, with at least half of all buses arriving within 10 minutes. And it will be tracking excess waiting time, that is, how long passengers have to wait for a bus above the average scheduled waiting time. Can the newcomers deliver?
In the round-up by TfL for high-frequency routes from June to September, Go-Ahead's buses gave a fair performance on excess waiting time. Most of its buses met their minimum targets, with passengers waiting between 59 seconds and 71 seconds longer than expected for their bus. Tower Transit ranked 15th out of the 19 bus companies tracked; its passengers waited an additional 79 seconds, instead of the minimum target of 75 seconds.
Still, both companies are confident they have planned well for Singapore traffic. "The same arrangements will be in place in Singapore, so we feel reassured that modelling and forecasting in this area is something that Go-Ahead is experienced in," says Go-Ahead.
All these statistics mean little without buy-in from the drivers, who spend up to 10 hours a day on the road and are the frontline between customers and management. "Our drivers are self-policing to a large extent; it's empowering, they feel they are the manager of that bus," says Ms Hannah Self, general manager at Go-Ahead's Stockwell garage, which houses 250 buses and some 600 drivers and conductors.
Operators also rely heavily on their drivers to flag snags on the ground, especially if they result in lost mileage, another key statistic monitored by TfL. "We're not penalised if the disruption is caused, for example, by heavy traffic, a fare dispute or a passenger taken ill. But it's our fault if the service disruption is caused by an engineering issue or if a driver falls sick," explains Ms Sharon Hawkins, mileage clerk at Stockwell. Little wonder then that all buses undergo complete checks every 28 days and are taken off London routes after eight years.
In addition to their driving duties, drivers check their buses and highlight any faults with engineering and maintenance daily, before taking the buses out. And when they return their buses to the depot, they sweep them for sleepers - homeless people who try to spend the night on the bus - drunk passengers who have fallen asleep and lost items or suspicious packages.
All drivers are assigned mentors in their first few weeks on a new route and trained to keep headways, drive defensively, deal with emergencies and handle unruly passengers. Morale appears high at Stockwell, no doubt boosted by the facilities: a canteen at subsidised prices, two pool tables, a TV room and a notice board displaying driver commendations from passengers.
Time will tell if these practices can be transported to Singapore to attract more people to the profession. And provide a better bus service for Singapore's commuters.