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So our favourite paradoxical printed publication reported that there were 14 major breakdowns on the MRT network in 2015 (an increase of 40% from 2014), and an increase in major disruptions across all the lines (except the Downtown Line because it’s, urm, new?), but despite the increase in breakdowns, the rail system “was more reliable than it has been since 2011”.

Confused?

Don’t worry you are not alone. It’s confusing because the statement is an oxymoron.

After a series of serious breakdowns in 2011, a public inquiry and the start of a multibillion-dollar asset renewal programme (apparently still 2++ years shy of delivery) later, our train operators are still facing problems, although there have been some improvements.

If that’s not bad enough for our public transport operators, the recent completely preventable deaths of two SMRT trainees are still fresh in the minds of the people. Following the incident, SMRT was ordered by the Manpower Ministry (MOM) and Land Transport Authority (LTA) to put in place interim safety measures for carrying out work on railway tracks.

Over at public bus operations, the Land Transport Authority announced last week that it was commissioning a S$50,000 video to make bus driving sexy. According to the report, there was a growing demand for bus drivers or bus captains, and LTA’s role is in “professionalising the industry”. This comes as we see more incidents of abuse suffered by bus captains at the hands of commuters, and a string of accidents involving bus drivers within the last 3 months(either on the Internet or as reported by mainstream media).

These incidents have given the industry a bit of a bad reputation.

Yet with the new bus-contracting model and the government’s promise of improving our public transport services, public transport operators are in need of local workers more than ever. We are all for hiring Singaporeans but who will join an industry that guarantees long hours, low pay, little respect and endangerment to one’s safety?

An encouraging sign is that the wages of bus captains across the industry would likely increase after new new entrants to the industry (Go Ahead and Tower Transit), in consultation with the National Transport Workers’ Union (NTWU), decided to offer higher pay to attract workers. At least one of the local operators have also announced that they will launch some new initiatives to attract recruits and retain existing staff. These offerings might pique some interest.

Operators have been trying to recruit workers through placement programmes like the Employment and Employability Institute’s Place-and-Train. There have been a number of retrenchments in our workforce as our economy goes through some restructuring, so there are workers who are available for the job. There’s also a possibility that when SMRT renews their rail assets, train drivers might no longer be required. SMRT can consider re-skilling these displaced workers to become bus captains.

Coincidentally, the Executive Secretary of the NTWU and Member of Parliament Melvin Yong also reiterated during his Budget speech that the government and employers work with the NTUC to provide better support for workers who are affected by the economy’s restructuring. Yong, who seems to be the up-and-coming poster boy for public transport, had previously spoke about the Public Transport Tripartite Committee guidelines to protect bus drivers’ welfare under the new Government contracting model for public buses.

 

While these initiatives signal hope for the industry, there are still fundamental problems, including the image that a bus captain is an unskilled worker and is at the mercy of commuters’ wrath. Until more protection and recognition is given to bus captains, I’m afraid a $50,000 video telling you how awesome and sexy being a bus driver is just won’t cut it.