Public buses, private sector

From the Red Line
Published in
8 min readFeb 18


The private sector has had an evolving role in the public bus industry.

Some might argue that I am too critical towards the Bus Service Enhancement Programme of 2012–16. They might be right. But hindsight is perfect, and at the time of its introduction in response to poor ratings of public transport services and no short term relief coming for the rail network, it was a very necessary initiative. Buses are supposed to be flexible, after all.

Before the BSEP, there was the Quarterly Review of Bus Services through which the operators were directed to make certain changes to their service allocations. I must presume that rebranding happened because it was becoming clear the bus companies didn’t have the resources to spare.

The BSEP had two prongs — firstly, to improve the capabilities of the incumbent franchised bus operators; and secondly, bringing in private-sector bus companies to augment the existing capabilities of the franchised bus operators, whilst they built up their strengths under the first pillar.

But this is not the first time the private sector was called upon to render aid to incapable public bus operators. It already happened in the 1970s, and we still haven’t really formally cleaned up those ostensibly temporary measures.

It’s always the roaring 70s

During peak hours in the 1970s, the SBS was facing demand issues, even despite industry consolidation to optimize operations. In 1974, the government thus introduced three schemes to allow the private sector to alleviate demand on the SBS:

  • Scheme A, where private buses were licensed to provide transport to factory workers
  • Scheme B, where private buses were authorized to operate on designated routes
  • City Shuttle Service, providing transport between park and rides on the outskirts to the CBD

Scheme A may not be such a familiar name, if only because similar arrangements are still provided by direct liaison between employers and private bus operators. The City Shuttle Service has also largely disappeared from the public lexicon — its role of shuttling to park and rides being taken over by the MRT, drivers choosing to bite the ALS/ERP bullet anyway even before that, and other bus services crowding it out of the market and forcing CSS to take on actual bus services from the housing estates.

Scheme B apparently still exists, but if not for Land Transport Guru you would likely not have heard of them, with not much operating information out there. Scheme B buses were notorious for apparently waiting around until they had a full bus load before departing; congesting roads in the CBD area. This was in the 1980s but I would not be surprised if similar practices were still happening in 2023.

These services have largely ceased to exist, but their ghosts still remain in a sense, especially for the few Scheme B services that still hang around somehow. If their private operators can remain solvent good for them, but it’s worth asking if they still have a place in today’s public transport scene and whether the overall regulatory framework can be more streamlined with today’s services.

I would also think it fair to say that the ultimate reason why these services were not needed was not solely improved bus services, but rail development and the expansion of the MRT network. 4 CSS routes were shut down in the wake of the MRT opening. What remained was largely hollowed out during SARS and its aftereffects with three services shut down at the time, and the last service was eventually shut down by TIBS in 2007.

To the lifeboats

Back to 2012. Fresh out of SMRT’s mismanagement of ageing rail assets and the consequent structural shocks dealt to the rail system, the BSEP was introduced as a means to shift some passengers to bus services and provide some breathing room for SMRT and the LTA to put in place rail renewal efforts. Likewise, headroom was also needed in the northeast to cope with demand before the arrival of the C751C trains which would allow a sharp increase in capacity.

The most headline-grabbing part was that government money would be used to buy the incumbent bus operators new vehicles, and government money would also go to paying for extra service over what the operator had, in order to bring down waiting times. But vehicles need time to be built and delivered and drivers need time to be trained. So in the meantime, private bus operators were brought in to do two things:

  • Peak Period Short Services, essentially additional short trips of current feeder bus routes, but operated by private companies
  • City Direct Services, direct commuter-oriented bus services for passengers heading to the CBD; providing a door to door option to entice passengers away from the NSL, EWL, and NEL.

The Peak Period Short Services are all gone today, with expanded capabilities under both BSEP money and the Bus Contracting Model allowing public bus operators to integrate them into their existing feeder bus route operations. This was done relatively quietly, where the public bus operator simply added additional trips.

City Direct Services, on the other hand, largely still remain. But just like in the 1980s, some of them were starved out by rail development. Five City Direct bus services were withdrawn in 2018–19. That their catchment areas at both source and destination mostly directly corresponded to areas around the then newly opened DTL, especially in the vicinity of Stage 3, should not be a coincidence.

Privatize profits, socialize losses

There are also things going the other way, where private initiatives by the public bus companies, introduced before the BSEP period, were transferred to the private sector. This was because under the Bus Contracting Model, all public bus resources were government resources, and it was likely deemed improper to continue using government resources for private gain.

What this meant was that Premium bus services, originally introduced by SBST (and a minority by SMRT) charging significantly higher fares than even small-e express buses, had to be transferred to private bus operators. This might have been an improvement in the level of service for the fare paid, as hard public bus seats were replaced with more comfortable private buses.

In exchange, City Direct bus services were transferred to the public bus operators to be run under the BCM. These were government-ordered services, after all, and it only seems fair to have government resources used to provide such services. The concept of City Direct services being run by public bus operators may have come from another BSEP/Quarterly Review initiative — Services 850E, 868E, 951E, 982E, and the former 971E, where public buses are used to run direct expressway services from the northern new towns to the CBD.

I personally suspect the higher fares of Premium routes may have helped the operators remain solvent and operating costs to be managed. In contrast, City Direct services charged distance-based Express fares, which is still a considerable discount compared to premium services. Since the LTA contracted them out, it was thus the LTA on the hook for cost management, and supposedly it was high bid prices which led to the LTA opting to discontinue the contracts with the private bus operators. Likewise, 4 of the 5 withdrawn City Direct services were replaced by almost identical Premium routes.

But this also meant that there were cases of intra-modal competition between public operator-run Premium services and government-contracted City Direct services. There may be more, but the most relevant case I can find is the example of Premium 550 and City Direct 654, both competing for passengers along Rivervale Drive wanting an alternative to the NEL. Eventually, Service 654 prevailed due to a much cheaper fare; and when a private operator took over Service 550, the route was shortened to Sengkang East Avenue. Today, it goes to Punggol instead.

There’s probably something that can also be said about Premium 722, competing against big-E 971E and its subsequent trunk-service incarnation following the death of Service 700. Service 722 was eventually withdrawn too, having lost the battle against Service 971. But in an ironic twist of fate, it was reinstated three short months later when Service 971 became no more.

We can’t keep trying

I like to think I’m making positive changes on the blog when MPs are asking questions in Parliament that are similar to what I’m asking. Perhaps they or their grassroots might be readers (hello!). But there’s no running away from this debate in any case.

Especially with rail expansion as a factor, is it a wise idea to continue to subsidise paradigms that are at best unnecessary and at worst taking away valuable resources from growing first and last mile connections to serve new developments and old? At best, the government continues to plough more money into transport subsidies out of the goodness of its heart, over and above the $1 billion spent yearly. At worst, this means a significant fare increase. But what I think can be said for sure though is that the LTA has been retreating away from some kinds of bus service.

In this vein it’s a bit strange at first that the recently announced LCS1/2 services from Tampines and Punggol are charging premium-service fares instead of distance-based Express fares, but yet SBST is operating them — instead of say, Comfortdelgro as a private charter company. While some form of added public transport service is necessary to mitigate traffic impacts of the closure of Loyang Avenue, perhaps the fares charged might help explain their thinking; that it’s high time to stop heavily subsidizing many of these commuter buses.

Secondly, poor service quality and poor awareness of night bus services resulted in a 13% load factor on night buses. In other words, that means an average of 11–12 passengers on a single decker bus. Everyone would have gotten a pair of seats of their own. Eventually, of course, they had to pull the plug, but A&S Transit has stepped in to fill the gap.

I must say that the A&S routes are much more straightforward than their old counterparts, and with no detours around half the town, travel times may be decreased. Providing more direct routes is the way things should have been done, even if fares and frequencies still remain roughly similar to what was offered by government-run services. A&S may also be working in a more favorable environment, where private-hire surge pricing is getting from bad to worse and so passengers are pushed towards night bus services.

Still, these precedents are worth looking at, provided the LTA asks itself the right questions. They may find that less people are taking buses in general, and public transport demand towards the CBD has dropped. But in context, this likely means certain paradigms are here to stay. What, though? The LTA may find that trips to the central area by public transport remain only around 70%. If this means people take less buses, are they asking themselves why?

The secondary benefit of ceding car replacement commuter bus services — let’s call a spade a spade — to the private sector is that private operators, if they’re starting from the area, may also find school contracts more lucrative if they are able to chain school bus trips with operating commuter bus departures from nearby housing estates. Perhaps St. Stephen’s School would be in less of a bind if this could happen there.



From the Red Line

Sometimes I am who I am, but sometimes I am not who I am not.