Updated 7 Nov 2016.
Also check out: SBS Transit and SMRT Bus Captains on Go-Ahead routes
Due to a shortage of Bus Captains, Go-Ahead Singapore has resorted to borrowing Bus Captains from SBS Transit and SMRT Buses with effect from Wednesday, 21st September 2016. In an abrupt revelation made known to the public only the day before, the two existing Public Transport Operators (PTOs) would be contributing a total of 40 Bus Captains to Go-Ahead, as part of a short-term sub-contracting arrangement to ease the labour crunch during this period.
30 Bus Captains from SBS Transit and 10 from SMRT Buses will join Go-Ahead for a period of two months. The SBS Transit drivers are reportedly to be deployed on Services 358 and 359, which existing drivers would already be familiar with. The SMRT drivers are likely to undergo route familiarization to prepare them for deployment on Go-Ahead route 85. More, including pictures, at our article on SBS Transit and SMRT Bus Captains on Go-Ahead Routes.
The urgent arrangement to ease the ongoing labor shortage comes just after the Loyang Bus Package operator resorted to outsourcing its Employee Bus Routes to Tower Transit with effect from last Sunday, 18th September 2016, to save itself a handful of Bus Captains normally deployed on these routes. More details at our dedicated article here.
The incident is also not the first time in recent history that bus operators had to resort to borrowing Bus Captains from another operator in times of exigencies. In 2012, in the aftermath of a labour strike that terminated the employment of many bus drivers recruited from China, SMRT Buses borrowed Bus Captains from SBS Transit and Private Bus Operators for months as it recruited more drivers.
Go-Ahead has a troubling history of mismanaging Bus Captains, leading to mass resignations. Hiring practices for Bus Captains at Go-Ahead are known to be very strict, and these front-line staff are made to learn many bus routes (up to 10 routes for a newbie) just to accommodate Go-Ahead’s flexible bus scheduling (also known as ‘interlining’) which sees drivers deployed on number of different routes during the week, instead of one single route (on some occasions, different routes on the same day). This is a stark contrast to SBS Transit and SMRT Buses, which start new drivers on just two or three bus routes.
On the first day of revenue service (4th September 2016), a disaster unfolded at Punggol Interchange that left Bus Captains struggling to get to grips with a confusing scheduling system which left many bus drivers working for extended hours without breaks. As a result, there was a mass resignation by Go-Ahead Bus Captains unhappy with their working conditions, with many ex-SBS Transit drivers on the ground lamenting that their lives were better under their previous employer. Such was the result of Bus Captain’s difficulties in adjusting to the operator’s “interlining” model, which requires bus captains to drive a number of different routes during the week, instead of one single route.
Things played out similarly when the second tranche of bus services were launched (18th September 2016), as Go-Ahead’s remaining pool of Bus Captains were put under greater pressure to meet service standards. As a result, many drivers were again forced into working long shifts with less breaks in between. The most prominent example is Service 358 and 359, where a driver’s shift was packed with continuous East and West loops without breaks at Pasir Ris Interchange for up to 5 hours. Another mass resignation ensued as many drivers were unhappy with Go-Ahead’s mode of operations.
Bus Captains are not the only employees in shortage. A quick search online also reveals that Go-Ahead has not filled up many of its managerial positions, with urgent vacancies available on job seeking websites. While most offices at bus interchanges are open throughout bus operating hours as front-line support for bus operations and to address commuter inquiries, Go-Ahead offices at Pasir Ris and Punggol were observed to be open only during office hours and closed after 8pm in the evening, possibly due to a shortage of staff.
However, not all can be blamed on Go-Ahead. We can only speculate why Bus Captains, who could seek redress with the National Transport Workers’ Union (NTWU), have chose instead to resign en masse.
20 September 2016 – Go-Ahead Singapore today announced that it has entered into short-term sub-contracting arrangements with SBS Transit and SMRT Buses. As a result, 30 SBS Transit Bus Captains will be deployed at Loyang Depot from tomorrow (Wednesday 21 September 2016) for approximately two months to drive Services 358 and 359. In addition, SMRT is sending 10 BCs to assist GAS.
GAS requested this arrangement as it is temporarily short of Bus Captains. This is predominantly due to higher than expected staff attrition and the fine tuning of its schedules. The company added that it currently has 38 Bus Captains due to enter service over the coming weeks and that it is actively sourcing for and recruiting more Bus Captains.
David Cutts, GAS Deputy Chairman, said: “This move is about ensuring commuters continue to receive a service they can rely on. I am grateful to SBS Transit and SMRT Buses for their support and we will work towards recruiting and training more Bus Captains so as to take care of the journeys of commuters.”
In Go-Ahead’s defence, an amended schedule is slowly being introduced to Punggol aiming to cut down the number of ‘interlining’, which are Bus Captains operating between different bus services. This arrangement would, in turn, require more bus drivers.
Media Response & Mis-representation
The media response has generally been neutral, sticking to facts presented by Go-Ahead. The bus operator stated that only seventeen of its newly-hired bus drivers have resigned, a carefully-chosen figure that does not include their more-experienced drivers that were previously from SBS Transit and were driving similar routes in better working conditions. The scale of the Bus Captain sub-contracting also holds a key — A total of 40 Bus Captains from SBS Transit / SMRT Buses (on revenue service) plus another 16 from Tower Transit (on Employee bus services) makes a total of 56 Bus Captains – a shortage far more than reported.
Part of the sudden demand for Bus Captains is Go-Ahead’s current attempts to cut down the number of ‘interlining’ involved in its scheduling, hence requiring more bus drivers.
Is the Bus Contracting Model flawed?
Go-Ahead’s low-ball strategy in bidding for the Loyang Bus Package may have came back to bite them as it offered a substantially lower bid than other competing companies. Such a low bid would have been a result of aggressive resource-saving measures to push its operations ‘to the limit’ – i.e. with little leeway for operational delays surely to happen. Combined with the money spent on hosting the Loyang Bus Depot Carnival and shipping the New Bus for London to Singapore earlier this year, Go-Ahead’s local operations are bring financially stretched.
The LTA has clarified that Go-Ahead did not breach its contract terms, but it expects the London-based operator fulfill its contractual obligations. Otherwise, “appropriate actions” would be taken, the LTA warned, although it did not specify what the requirements are.
Under the Bus Contracting Model, recruitment matters are under the purview of individual bus operators, however in light of this incident, the LTA may be paying closer attention to this matter down the road, as more packages are contracted out.
In a press release on 5 Nov 2016, Go-Ahead Singapore announced that their “sub-contracting of Bus Captains” on Bus Service 359 as well as Bus Service 85 (operated by some SMRT Bus Captains) will end on 20 November 2016. Bus Services 85 and 359 will be fully driven by Go-Ahead Bus Captains from 21 November 2016.
However, in order to “optimise its existing pool of Bus Captains”, Go-Ahead Singapore has extended the sub-contracting period for Bus Service 358 to SBS Transit until an estimated date of 1 Jan 2017.
Loyang Bus Package bids:
- SBS Transit Ltd – $545.9 million for 5 Years
- SMRT Buses Ltd – $598.1 million for 5 Years
- Woodlands Transport – $532.5 million for 5 Years
Foreign Companies & Joint Bids
- Busways Group (Australia) – $631.4 million for 5 Years
- Go Ahead Group (United Kingdom) – $497.7 million for 5 Years
RATP Dev Transdev Asia (France) – $603.7 million for 5 Years
- Keolis SA (France) – $535.2 million for 5 Years
- Travel GSH Pte Ltd (Singapore) & Qingdao Jiaoyun Group (China)
- Kok Tong Transport and Engineering Works (Singapore) & Jinan Public Transportation Corp (China)
- Tian San Shipping (Singapore) and Kumho Construction and Engineering (South Korea) – $569.9 million for 5 Years