Who wants to drive a bus?

From the Red Line
Published in
9 min readApr 27, 2024

The first thing you see on SBS Transit’s website is a recruitment ad.

It may be a greater question of whether Singaporeans truly treasure the skilled trades. And while significantly pushing up salaries may help in the short to medium term, it raises questions on public transport affordability in the long run. SBS Transit had 5,863 bus captains at the end of 2023; paying a $4500 salary to each (on average) means a ~$26 million payroll every month.

That’s even before considering their 4000 other employees who work in other operational, engineering, and management roles, and/or on SBST’s rail lines. Or the three other bus operators, where I can’t find published statistics on their employees, unlike the publicly traded SBST.

That is not to say that the private sector has not tried.

But even once they get hired, and even if we do hire from “non-traditional” sources, do they actually stay in the public bus industry? For example, former SMRT bus captain Naz has gone to the private sector, which offered him better pay and job prospects. After all, a public bus company has only so many management and operational positions.

They’re not alone. Tower Transit has a recruitment centre at a shoplot in Jurong East bus interchange.

Photo by me

This is what modal competition looks like

Taipei is a possible future for us. While Taipei has a bus network with very impressive hardware, as I saw when I visited last year — median bus lanes, separated priority infrastructure, next bus arrival displays literally everywhere — it has its own problems. Yes, there are a variety of services, you can go literally anywhere by one-seat bus ride thanks to long routes with many stops, and Google Maps constantly offers bus options when searching.

Jiannan Road metro station bus stop (photo by me)
median bus stop along Xinyi Road (photo by me)

Unfortunately, bus ridership across Taipei City and New Taipei City peaked in 2008 and has been on a downward spiral since. Increased public transport usage in Taipei since then has almost definitely been due to the expansion of the Taipei Metro.

data source Taipei City DOT

Between 2009 and 2014, the Taipei Metro expanded rapidly, opening a new line nearly every year, and with it came a 25% drop in bus ridership as former bus users switched to the Metro.

  • 2009: Neihu Line
  • 2010: Luzhou Line
  • 2012: Xinzhuang Line
  • 2013: Xinyi Line
  • 2014: Songshan Line

You’ll now find plenty of bus routes in Taipei that run at every 30 minutes or worse in off peak hours, using fixed schedules. Bus companies have gone as far as to sell or reassign buses to other cities. The amount of buses operating in Taipei in 2019 was far lesser than in 2009; it has only fallen since. And even despite all this, and offering very attractive salaries over the median wage in Taiwan, Taiwanese bus companies are still experiencing labour shortages.

But that’s not the only story. Taiwanese bus drivers are notorious for poor drivingthough that may not be entirely their fault. And Taiwanese mini metros aren’t exactly pork barrel projects to win votes either; people want those mini metros, and people actually use them. The Taichung Metro uses 2-car trains, each about the same size as an MTR train car. In Taichung, it can even be said that while public transport usage dropped overall between 2019 and 2023, bus ridership in Taichung dropped far more than the riders gained by the Metro, likely as people chose to buy and use cars.

In contrast to these, and the Taiwan Railways being more preoccupied with selling bentos than running a dependable rail service, the Taipei Metro is a shining beacon of safety, reliability, and competence. They don’t reach 8 million train-km between failures, but 1 million MKBF is still better than fearing for your life on a bus with a drunk bus driver.

Hong Kong, too, has a similar story. Franchised bus ridership peaked in 2002, also shortly before a significant expansion of railways, and public transport usage growth since has largely been due to more people using the MTR and green minibuses — many of which connect to MTR services. Since then, franchised bus usage has remained stagnant, with bus companies constantly sweating about how new MTR openings take passengers from them and thus affect their bottom line.

The writing on the wall

Will Singapore go the same way? With these examples, one might have thought so, with bus ridership remaining largely static, and increased public transport usage due to the MRT. We, too, opened a new MRT line every year between 2009 and 2014. But at the same time, Singapore buses received a shot in the arm with government oversight and investment to increase service and improve reliability. Thus, things here are very different after 2012.

data source LTA

Contracting means it’s up to the LTA to enforce service standards. If a public bus driver can fail a breathalyzer test, too many checks and balances would have failed — not just in transport. On the contrary, some might argue that our service standards in punctuality are too tight.

SBST’s ability to retain its bus captains may tell us about the state of the problem in general.

  • 2021: 5811 bus captains, of which 414 new hires
  • 2022: 5839 bus captains, of which 733 new hires
  • 2023: 5863 bus captains, of which 758 new hires

They have not lost significant territory since 2021, but it appears they have only managed to replace departing staff; this does not bode well for increasing frequencies on current routes, or to open new ones. This pales also in comparison to the 6,443 bus captains they employed in 2019 — again without a significant change in its market share.

And the numbers speak for themselves, with SBST only operating around 30k bus trips every year. While the LTA has control over service levels, I find it hard not to believe that SBST doesn’t have input in the process. If they simply cannot find the staff, then we will all be forced to tolerate trip cancellations, a less reliable schedule, or drivers tanking more overtime with the appropriate health hazards.

What has happened to our lofty goals of hiring 1200 Singaporeans public bus drivers?

Even after staff are hired, training is important. KMB’s reliance on part time bus drivers was criticized in 2018 after a fatal Tai Po bus crash, where the bus driver was a part-timer who only received the bare minimum of training. Taipei’s bus driver shortage also forces them to put new drivers on less forgiving routes, where they make mistakes due to inexperience, and there is likely a constant churn of drivers due to firing and hiring.

In fact, more immediately in Singapore, if bus drivers do not stay long enough in the company or even the industry, to build the experience necessary to qualify to drive high capacity vehicles, then even if we did buy articulated vehicles, we will have problems staffing them. In Jakarta, articulated bus drivers are paid more than standard bus drivers, recognizing their experience and the higher difficulty of their work, but also erasing some of the economies of scale that using a bigger bus provides.

It also remains to be seen on the quality of drivers we’ve managed to attract. After all, should we continue to hire from the pool of taxi and private hire drivers, there are already issues with the way these drivers drive — just ask Lando Norris.

Have telematics and other monitoring and incentive schemes succeeded in getting these drivers to change deeply ingrained habits? Or could constant monitoring along with the awkwardness of shift hours, the loss of freedom to set their own work timings, or perhaps performance issues raised by these monitoring systems, driving more resignations?

The music has stopped

Efforts to raise salaries for public bus drivers may only end up attracting private bus drivers to jump ship. It solves one problem while aggravating another — that schools and the tourism industry among others still need private hire buses; or that there is now even less bandwidth to encourage a shift away from transporting workers on lorries. After all, private bus companies are also experiencing shortages too.

Almost every new public bus depot these days is built with an attached foreign workers’ dormitory to facilitate the mass import of foreign bus drivers. And the strong Singapore dollar means that even a relatively low salary in Singapore — especially with employer-provided lodging — can go very far back home in Malaysia or something.

Private bus companies do not have this luxury, unless they decide to pay for space in the large dormitories — and even still, their drivers will need to travel to the heavy vehicle parks where their buses are stored. The Education Ministry allows school bus operators to hire more foreign workers, but will that be enough?

I can’t help but think that the only way to solve the industry-wide bus driver shortage must be significant, systematic, demand-side cooling measures — a significant reorganization of how we provide transport.

By pushing public bus users to rail as rail projects deliver, private bus arrangements can be converted into public bus patronage, and private buses can then be used for other purposes instead of competing with the public transport system — not only for passengers, but also for resources. The LTA has allowed privately-hired shuttle buses to proliferate — a far cry from Hong Kong’s Transport Department, whom require hirers to justify why scheduled public transport service is not enough to serve their locations; giving them reasons to improve scheduled public transport.

This may be a much more sustainable approach than the status quo, especially in a time where shortages are clear and adversity must breed innovation. If we view public buses as a public good worthy of subsidies, these are the groups we must serve. But we’ve done nothing about legacy cruft like Scheme B, instead of integrating them into today’s Premium or City Direct service structures to augment the public transport system.

We continue to spread ourselves thin, with no effort taken to rein in overlapping, competing modes of transit. As the Public Transport Satisfaction Survey has shown, such moves may only end up driving people away from bus services. Is this what we want?

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From the Red Line

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