London expertise in Singapore

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Go-Ahead Singapore was keen to get its fleet painted in the lush green livery, which will soon be uniform across the whole network. BUSINTERCHANGE.NET

Go-Ahead Singapore recently celebrated its one year anniversary after commencing operations on September 4 2016. Eugene Clarke, Executive Support Officer for Go-Ahead London and Chief of Staff for Go-Ahead Singapore spoke to Jade Smith about the business

Since launching in September last year, Go-Ahead Singapore now operates 26 routes with 404 buses and around 800 bus drivers, or bus captains as they are known. Around 70% of its routes are trunk services (long distance) and the remaining 30% are feeders (short distance).

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Eugene Clarke is Go-Ahead London’s Executive Support Officer, as well as being Chief of Staff for Go-Ahead Singapore. He works remotely from London when not in Singapore.

During our meeting at the Waterloo depot in London, a place I am very familiar with by this point, Eugene laid out two separate smartphones on the table – one of which is dedicated to the Singapore operations. He said: “I can be contacted at any time, as there’s a seven or eight hour time difference where they’re ahead of us. Most aspects can now be managed from Loyang depot, but if a fresh set of eyes or final sign-off is needed I’m always there and happy to help at all hours.”

Eugene went on to detail his recent visits to Singapore and what has been going on over the past year.

Singapore operations

“Our Singapore operations are doing really well,” Eugene began. “It has been a very fruitful and worthwhile experience so far. Although it’s our first contract in Singapore, we want to be there for the long-term, as there are plenty of aspects about the place that attracts us, such as political stability, buses being a very popular mode of transport and real investment being made in public transport as a whole by the Government and transport authority.

“Personally, I’ve taken some feeder routes in the areas we serve and the trunk services. One of my favourites is service 2 from Changi Village towards Clarke Quay and Chinatown which is around 25km long and an 80 minute journey. One of the longer trunk services is route 518 which is around 60km in length.

“A great aspect about Loyang is there are some experienced London people who are part of the business, like David Cutts who’s Singapore’s Managing Director or Andrew Edwards who’s the Chief Operating Officer, but it is primarily the local management talent working there. Most of the other directors are locals, as are the general manager, operating manager, engineering manager and technicians. The bus captains are mostly Singaporeans and make up the majority, but we also employ Malaysians, as that’s just across the border, and Chinese.”

Personal involvement

Eugene was asked to work with the Singapore operations by John Trayner, Singapore Chairman and Managing Director of Go-Ahead London, in June last year, leading on the marketing and communications side. He took up the story: “We had a 10-week period before our services went live during which we were keen to get a narrative out that there was change coming: a new operator was hitting town and we were, to use our marketing strapline, in the business of taking care of people’s journeys.

“It’s easy to say that, but what does it mean? Commuters, which is what bus passengers are called in Singapore, waiting at a bus stop primarily want the vehicle to turn up on time, but there are a lot of things we do to make that happen: training our people, ensuring our bus captains are engaging with commuters and informing them of any delays, and for our technicians who work on the vehicles behind the scenes to use all the latest kit such as Equinox, our vehicle diagnostic system to ensure we have full service availability of all vehicles. Most of this the average person doesn’t see, but there are multiple ways we take care of people’s journeys.

“An example would be we’ve implemented GreenRoad, a telematics system that gives feedback to bus captains on their driving style, encouraging safer and more fuel efficient driving, thus leading to even smoother journeys. There are smartphone apps so employees can track their own driving behaviour. This is an example of something we don’t have to do but we chose to, all of which I believe are helping us to achieve some very solid results.”

When I spoke to him, Eugene had just come back from his seventh journey to Singapore in the space of just under a year. He said his first trip there was planned to be the only one, but he’s glad it wasn’t and that he now has ongoing involvement.

“I am Chief of Staff which means my core responsibilities are in the field of marketing, communications and stakeholder engagement,” said Eugene. “I also have an overview role across all departments. I don’t stand over the PR team and prescribe – they picked up the baton really quickly and ran with it, which is very rewarding to see. Communications covers engagement with internal staff and external relations with transport correspondents and the trade media, which is smaller and more specialist in Singapore than in the UK. There is one paid-for newspaper on the island called The Straits Times which is very influential and has been around for a long time. A lot of people will pick their news up from that in print, online or from Channel News Asia which is the main broadcaster in Singapore.

“If anyone is running a story on us we need to have a clear message when we get a call or if we’re going to them with a story. They really dig into the issues and ask questions, not just run the press release – which I personally enjoy and respect.

“My team has built a very good rapport with key journalists in Singapore: there are six that we are in regular dialogue with. If I was a journalist I’d always be asking myself ‘what is this person trying to sell me?’ That’s what companies do, they want to tell the world how amazing their business is, so I don’t blame people for being a bit cynical at times. We have gone about our communications in a very measured and thoughtful way; if we put a story out we do so because we think there is legitimacy to it.

“Some of our recent proactive engagements have been on GreenRoad – there’s a good news story to it as it’s making an already safe system safer still. A driver telematics system is not new to the UK, it’s not massively new to Singapore either, but it’s new to our 800 bus captains that work at our Loyang bus depot.

“Part of the story involved how we communicated the message to our staff, which we did by issuing a printed guide explaining the rationale behind it and what they needed to do with the kit. It had to be a holistic approach that covers the various angles. There’s nothing worse if you’re an employee of an operator and you read about something affecting your garage, company or industry and the first you know about it is along with everyone else. It’s always better to engage with staff, which we do in a number of ways. It may be a monthly newsletter which incentivises employees with quizzes, the ability to win prizes and encouraging people for feedback.

“We’ve just finished a Health and Safety week where we identified best practice. In Loyang depot we had over 400 bus captains actively engage, participate and feed back their thoughts in a few specific areas, which is an incredible take-up. We want to maintain that momentum.”

Apps can be used to plan journeys in real-time, reducing the time spent waiting at bus stops. A commuter is seen here at Pasir Ris bus stop in the East Region of Singapore. BUSINTERCHANGE.NET

London similarities

Eugene explained how at the start of the Singapore operations London expertise was utilised to demonstrate how services are regulated and how to react to live issues. A year later and the London expertise has predominantly returned home and the locals are running everything using London-style methods to regulate the service.

Other similarities with London include the network livery which will eventually see all identically liveried lush green buses. Only the company logos will differentiate between them, similar to the Transport for London (TfL) system in the capital.

“We were keen to get our vehicle fleet painted up quickly,” Eugene enthused. “We inherited the SBS Transit livery because the vehicles were theirs previously and we set about repainting around 400 buses. Even now, the chances are that the lush green buses you see are ours. The other operators, SMRT, SBS Transit and Tower Transit, now have a number, but for a while we were distinct.

“The Singapore bus contracting model is London-esque but it has some distinct differences. In Singapore the operators don’t own the depot and the vehicles: they are owned by the Government or the Land Transport Authority (LTA) who procure a fleet of vehicles from a manufacturer and will then allocate them to the operators.

“The contracts are five years long with two-year extensions, so if an operator performs well they have the ability to be there for at least seven years and we would like to be around a lot longer with a larger market share. The Singapore contracts are similar to London, there are incentives for good performance and there are equally penalties if you don’t perform.

“Unlike London, which is managed on a route by route basis, in Singapore the network’s being tendered over 14 packages, where the companies are required to manage the bus interchanges and terminals. There’s also auditing across a wide range of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), such as vehicle maintenance, with the potential for heavy penalties if targets aren’t achieved. Put simply, it’s a quality first operation.

“The taxi trade in Singapore is healthy and competitive – there is an abundance of them, not just outside airports but in the street plying for business and in service.”

Variations to London

“There are some aspects that Singapore does brilliantly that are completely different to London,” Eugene continued. “For example, social media is used to gauge customer feedback, to respond to queries and to pick up trends. If a service is delayed or is perceived to not be performing well, that feeds into the real data such as timing points. The LTA measures our performance based on our real data, but consumer feedback is just as important to us.

“We proactively manage social media by responding to comments, both good and bad, and use it as an opportunity to send out news messages. We have around 5,500 followers and a lot of people interact with us. Short films and stories are uploaded to Facebook which have received a good amount of interaction.

“I’m used to working on press releases in an office that in the past were sent by post – it goes to show how the world moves on.

“We populate social media at least once a week to keep people engaged. We are working on a number of ideas, such as a day in the life of a driver and to follow a bus does in 24 hours. That sort of content works well if it’s creatively condensed on social media.”

Singapore buses are wrapped in adverts, like in London and other UK cities, but they don’t cover the full vehicle. Typically two-thirds of the bus is covered with the first third retaining the corporate colours. Eugene explained:

“The LTA believes this is more attractive and an obvious visual impact for passengers to know that a service is approaching, as they can still see the lush green at the front of the vehicle. Certain corridors have more vehicles wrapped than others – the advertisers naturally prefer the routes that service the more prestigious streets such as Orchard Road which is known for its high-end shops.

“There also isn’t traffic congestion in the way we experience it in London. The roads are quite generous towards buses from my experience: there is a painted box around the bus stop so that vehicles keep that area clear so the bus can pull away easily. It’s well respected by other road users.

“The use of smartphones seems higher in Singapore than in London, from what I have personally witnessed. The whole world is obsessed with smartphones, but Singapore especially. Everything is instant.

“People use their phone to plan their journeys – why go to the bus stop early if you can check your phone to see exactly when the bus will get there? One of the apps I use even tells you if the vehicle will be a single or double-decker, which is a nice feature. Technology just keeps getting better – if we think it’s good now, just imagine what it will be like in five years’ time.

“The aim was for me to help bring over the London expertise to Singapore, but equally I have brought some ideas from Singapore back with me to London.”

Media and marketing

“In Singapore if it moves the media are onto it, especially when something goes wrong,” Eugene said. “Everyone now has a phone with a camera, so before you know it there can be photographs out there of an incident and the story is running away from you if you’re not careful. It’s at times like that where the links you have with the journalists are very important. We’re always accessible and it’s important someone like the Transport Correspondent for The Straits Times, knows that. On rare occasions he will contact me directly, which I’m happy about.

“Having recruited two talented local people, Jessica Cheang and Michelle Ng, we’ve moved from the phase where a question would come in and I would be asked for my opinion. Jess and Michelle are now drafting a response to the question and passing it by me to ensure it’s ready to send out. They’ve picked up the baton really quickly.

“I’ve been in the bus industry for 30 years having started as a teenager at Cricklewood Garage and was lucky enough to secure a place on the London Transport Bus Operations Management Training Scheme in the 1980s, which was a solid base that has never left me. If a young marketing or communications person walks into the bus industry, there’s naturally a learning curve. The PR team at Loyang know social media to a level I never will. From my perspective, I ensure the content is what it should be and that we’re responding to people’s queries quickly and honestly. The same criteria applies when we’re taking a message to the media.

“In terms of service diversions, our operations control centre will liaise with the LTA during regular review meetings over planned events, such as the National Day Parade. They work out which services will be on the diversion. It’s our job, not the LTA’s, to produce the publicity, which is unlike London. In London, TfL’s responsible for marketing information that’s consistent wherever you travel. In Singapore our public information is displayed and presented in a way that is different to the other operators. We use images of the Singapore skyline to make ours a little more attractive, in my view.”

Vehicle wraps cover two-thirds of the vehicle, with the first third retaining the corporate colours. The example seen here is Go-Ahead Singapore’s anniversary wrap. GO-AHEAD SINGAPORE

Fleet and bus captains

Go-Ahead Singapore has two types of vehicle in its fleet: tri-axle double-deck Volvos and single-deck Mercedes-Benz Citaros. Some of the other operators, the incumbents, run more varied fleets. The maximum age of a bus that can be run in Singapore is 17, so there are a few single-decks in service that aren’t low-floor.

“The digital blinds on our Singapore vehicles are superb,” Eugene said. “They are really clear whatever the weather and have the ability to display additional information if needed. For example, Singapore celebrated its 52nd birthday on August 9, known as National Day, so we had the ability to have a birthday message on our bus displays with an image of a cake. That’s standard technology across all the operators’ fleets in Singapore.”

Eugene said that anti-social behaviour doesn’t happen very often in Singapore: “Crime is generally low. All the bus operators in Singapore are able to run their vehicles without assault screens, which allows commuters to talk freely to the bus driver and vice versa.

“The vehicles are full of CCTV and there are messages on-board saying that staff are expected to be able to work without fear of injury, which is the same back home. Vandalism isn’t an issue at all and neither is littering. The bus stops are clean, graffiti-free and the signposts are very clear.

“The LTA knows exactly where people are going with commuters tapping on and off the bus each journey. From a planning perspective, that’s heaven.

“There are some really good apps that can be used to plan a journey and it’s very fast to update according to the user’s location and what’s happening on the network.

“A Go-Ahead Singapore driver will only ever be in their distinctive red and yellow uniform: there are very strict standards. To join the bus industry as a driver, individuals have to go through the Singapore Bus Academy. There are key standards that have to be met varying from interacting with passengers to using the ticketing system. The LTA constantly monitors drivers, so they know if standards start to slip.”


“David Cutts was very keen to introduce management trainees to attract some fresh blood to the sector,” Eugene explained. “It was difficult at first as the bus contracting model was relatively new, as was Go-Ahead Singapore itself.

“We’ve been able to engage a management trainee who previously had a career in a different sector but has relevant experience he can use. He’s hit the ground running. We’ve done the same with management recruits from other sectors and given them exposure to buses and a dedicated training regime. Best practice is also exchanged between London and Loyang, which works really well.

“We have lots of classrooms at the garage where we offer driver training, covering areas such as how to interact with commuters. The base standards bus captains are taught at the Singapore Bus Academy are topped up by Go-Ahead. We have the ability to educate our staff and ensure they behave how we want them to on the road.”

Eugene explained how education is very important in Singapore and there is a strong desire within the culture to have a good job.

He said: “The bus contracting model and having overseas operators has made the industry more attractive, as has the Singapore Bus Academy because it raises the bar. Recently a typical bus driver’s salary has increased from around S$1,300 (£715) a month to a basic S$2,000 (£1,100), which naturally helps make the role more attractive. The majority of our workforce is local, but we also have people from Malaysia and China who are bus captains.

“London is an expensive city and Singapore can be too but there is a lot of social housing in Singapore, making living there a bit more affordable. One of the food outlets in a shopping centre was recently advertising for a server with a salary of S$2,000 a month, which in theory is our competition.

“There are different skill sets used in that role, of course, and the hours there are probably longer. Also, our people can increase their earnings through overtime and bonuses, with recognition vouchers for excellent service. There are also colleagues who have worked their way up and are now managing the operations control centre regulating the service.”

Electric bus

Go-Ahead utilised its London expertise on alternative technology trials in Singapore, specifically the electric bus trials that the LTA was keen to work with the operator on. “We ran a bus for six months building the range up progressively on three different routes,” Eugene explained. “We proved the technology can work in a very hot climate, in stop-start conditions and with air-conditioning required at all times. The vehicle was a BYD K9 built in 2013, so the technology has moved on since, but nonetheless we showed that an electric bus can work in Singapore.

“I was massively impressed with how quickly the LTA got the charging infrastructure in for the electric bus. It was just the one charging point as apposed to the 50 or so in London, but it was installed very swiftly.

“On the back of that trial, the LTA has called a tender to bus manufacturers to procure 60 fully electric buses and 50 hybrid buses. We would love to run those vehicles for them, as we have the experience from London, in Waterloo specifically and soon in other locations such as Camberwell and Northumberland Park in the coming months. TfL entrusted us with the electric bus trial and we were very happy to prove again that the technology works.

“The LTA has been to London on numerous occasions. They were looking at e-buses here five months ago as well as hybrids – the whole range of technology that Go-Ahead London has to offer. We’re always happy to work with them.”

The bus network in Singapore benefits from a lack of congestion, largely due to the high costs of owning a private car. BUSINTERCHANGE.NET


In April this year the LTA called for tenders to operate 18 bus services originating from Bukit Merah Bus Interchange, Harbourfront Bus Interchange, Buona Vista Bus Terminal, Marina Centre Bus Terminal, New Bridge Road Bus Terminal, Queen Street Bus Terminal and Shenton Way Bus Terminal. The 18 bus routes will be supported by the new Ulu Pandan Bus Depot which is scheduled to be completed by the first quarter of 2018 and will be able to accommodate 500 buses.

“My colleagues and I were looking at the new garage that will be the base – it’s enormous,” Eugene enthused. “Singapore doesn’t do anything in halves; it might be a small island but the footprint is massive. Like Loyang depot, this new garage will happily house 500 vehicles. Like in lots of other areas in Singapore, when the Government decide they are going to do something, it’s full steam ahead.

“It’s hard to not be impressed with the expansions being made to transport – from airports to the Mass Rapid Transit system (MRT). One of the bus interchanges that we manage is in an area called Punggol which is relatively new. There is a 20-year plan to populate it with over 100,000 residents with high-rise living. Everything in Singapore is forever evolving and expanding which is really impressive.

“There are various rail extensions coming up this year and in the future, so it’ll be interesting to see what impact that has on the bus network. It should create growth, but some longer journeys may be lost to the rail. It’s the LTA’s network, so ultimately it’s their decision.”

Car use

The Singapore bus network enjoys high patronage and provides high frequency services. Although there’s some congestion, it’s not on the scale known in London. Eugene said he suspects a huge factor is that the Government has made car ownership prohibitively expensive, in order to protect the environment and to limit the number of vehicles on the road, as the island has a small geographical footprint.

“Before a local can even think about getting a car they have to apply for a Certificate of Entitlement (COE), which allows access to the road network and the right to own a car for 10 years,” explained Eugene. “The cost of a COE varies according to the vehicle it is for and the demand for it as each one is auctioned, but it is usually upwards of S$43,000 (£23,600), subject to engine size. That’s before the car is purchased, insured and fuelled.

“A car only lasts 10 years, as after that the owner is hit with prohibitive charges due to the Government wanting the cars on the roads to be as clean and modern as possible.

“Premium cars, such as Jaguars, are very popular – the car is a status symbol there but a premium is certainly paid for it. Very few people actually buy a car, they instead choose to lease it over a 10-year period. I was talking to a colleague who had a BMW 3 Series, it was coming up to 10 years old and was in fantastic condition but that’s the end of the car’s life in Singapore and they have to get a new one.”

Community engagement

Eugene explained that community engagement is very important in Singapore. He outlined one example of this: “In April we launched a new feeder service, the 381 (Punggol – Punggol East). I met a young boy that morning with his mother: his name is Shawn, he’s around nine years old and loves buses. Knowing this lad loved buses, I offered him a tour of the garage. A few months later, after his exams, his mother made contact with us and we organised for Shawn and his friends to visit. We changed the digital blinds on some of the vehicles to say “Go-Ahead Singapore welcomes Shawn and his friends,” which was lovely. Both in London and Singapore we like to engage with people in that way when the time is right.

“A big fundraising event in Singapore is Hair for Hope where people shave their heads to raise money for cancer charities. I was impressed to see that a lot of our people took part and we secured over S$7,700 (£4,200).

“We’re also about to circulate our first corporate sustainability report. Go-Ahead isn’t compelled to produce these documents but it does for each of its operating companies. Go-Ahead Singapore’s first sustainability report will be shared with various stakeholders, including the LTA, to show what we’re doing and what we plan to do in the future.

“English is the most spoken language in Singapore, but we need to be able to translate and have our messages displayed in other languages, such as Chinese, as many bus captains are more comfortable conversing and reading in Chinese and Malay. Jessica Cheang and Michelle Ng in our communications department are fluent in both, so when we produce our messages, it is in English and Chinese.”


Eugene ended with saying: “We’re here for the long-term and we want to expand the business. The LTA demand high standards, so it’s vital we maintain excellent commuter- focused services. There are a lot of advantages to Singapore which make operating there a very attractive option to us. There’s one garage with two vehicle types, staff who want to work, the ability to operate in an environment which is generally friendly towards the bus and in an area which is encouraging the use of public transport. What’s not to like?”[/wlm_ismember]