One year ago, Singapore entered a “circuit breaker” lockdown.
Singaporeans had to stay home and away from crowds to keep safe from the COVID-19 virus.
With the restrictions leading to an overnight decline in travel and activity, bus and rail operator SBS Transit Ltd (SGX: S61) was hit hard.
In the first half of 2020, SBS reported an operating loss of S$29.4 million before Government relief.
But as Singapore eases its COVID-19 restrictions, the company’s immediate prospects look brighter.
SBS Transit has released its 2020 annual report, and here are five points worth highlighting.
Plunge in ridership
In 2020, average daily ridership on the Downtown MRT Line (DTL) fell 46% compared to 2019, while ridership on the North-East Line (NEL) fell by 40.9%.
The drop in ridership can mostly be blamed on the circuit breaker period between April and June 2020, where rail ridership plunged by 86%.
However, the rise in telecommuting arrangements meant that ridership continued to remain depressed even when the circuit breaker period ended.
However, things are looking up for SBS.
As of 5 April 2020, up to 75% of staff who can work from home will be allowed to return to the office, an increase from the previous 50%.
With this move, in addition to further easing of restrictions for activities such as weddings and sports events, SBS should experience a strong recovery in ridership for the rest of 2021, barring a resurgence of COVID-19 infections.
Bus and train services
In response to drastically lowered demand during the circuit breaker, SBS Transit adjusted the frequency of its services.
The DTL, NEL and Sengkang-Punggol Light Rail Transit (SPLRT) all ended services 30 minutes early every day, while train intervals on the DTL were increased from 2.5 minutes to 3.5 minutes.
The company also suspended selected bus routes, including two Chinatown Direct, six Nite Owl and other Express services.
SBS Transit also had to step up its hygiene practices by intensifying cleaning and disinfecting routines.
The company piloted the use of Electrostatic Disinfectant Spray (EDS) technology on its buses and trains to keep its vehicles sanitized for up to six months.
Further efforts were made to protect its staff, including the introduction of face shields for bus captains, and the provision of masks, hand sanitizers, vitamin tablets and care packs.
Lastly, the company also specially retrofitted and operated five buses to facilitate the transport of COVID-19-related persons.
SBS continues to pursue initiatives to keep the company relevant in the years ahead.
The company runs half of the “green” bus fleet in Singapore, with 20 electric and 25 hybrid buses.
In conjunction with Singapore Technologies Engineering Ltd (SGX: S63), SBS is also working on autonomous vehicle projects with pilot services in Sentosa and Jurong Island.
The group also continues to drive digitalization through its “Bits & Bytes” initiative, strengthening its capabilities in monitoring and signalling to boost rail reliability, customer experience and corporate efficiency.
To enhance customer experience, SBS Transit is working with Thales S.A. (ENX.PA: HO) to build technological solutions that detect the crowd level at stations and in trains.
The technology will also enhance train station staff’s ability to ease congestion, identify suspicious persons and commuters who need mobility assistance.
The company expects to roll out the initial testing of this technology by June 2021.
SBS Transit has also set up a Centre of Excellence with the digital office of ComfortDelGro Corporation Ltd (SGX: C52) to boost its data analytics capabilities.
The improvement in analytics will help the company to further strengthen rail reliability, including flood control and server monitoring to pre-empt system failures.
SBS also introduced mobile applications to streamline its operations.
Some of their new apps make it easier for engineers to highlight defects, allow bus captains to access administrative functions on the move, and roll out e-learning modules for employees.
SBS Transit’s bus accident rate was improved from 0.12 cases in 2019 to 0.09 cases in 2020 per 100,000 kilometres travelled.
There were also no fatal accidents in 2020, compared to one in 2019.
The company introduced the iSafe management system in 2020, which helps to evaluate the driving competency of bus captains and offer coaching when necessary.
For trains, SBS Transit hit a significant milestone as its Mean Kilometre Between Failure (MKBF) exceeded two million kilometres for the first time.
The NEL and DTL improved rail reliability by 48% and 83% respectively, helping SBS to surpass the national average MKBF of 1.45 million km.
SBS also managed to improve workplace safety, with injuries to rail staff and contractors falling 85.7% in 2020.
During the year, the company also signed an agreement with the largest rail operator in Paris to explore business opportunities and enhance metro services in Singapore.
Get smart: A change in leadership
SBS Transit chairman Lim Jit Poh will be retiring this year after being at the helm of SBS Transit for 18 years.
While his successor has not been named, we should not have to wait long as the company may announce his successor at the upcoming annual general meeting (AGM) at the end of April.
Along with Lim, two other directors will also be stepping down from the board after the AGM.
It will be worth keeping an eye out for any major change in strategic direction by the new chairman as SBS Transit adapts to the new post-pandemic normal.
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Disclosure: Herman Ng does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned.