By Ryan Chng
As residents of UTown, everyone in USP would have taken the ISB (internal shuttle bus) at least once. Those of us who are more fortunate can spend entire days in UTown, but inevitably there comes a point where we have to leave it. So more or less everyone is familiar with that orange rollercoaster; the crowds at the bus stop, the bumpy rides. But chances are, we don’t actually know much about the system behind the scenes.
The fleet, fully wheelchair-accessible, comprises a total of 32 fourth-generation regular buses and 3 third-generation spare buses (during normal service). The services are provided by ComfortDelGro Bus, or CDG, who hire the drivers and own the vehicles.
Most of the 20-odd third-generation buses have retired from NUS duties (some live new lives as IKEA shuttle buses) but are ready to be pulled back any time they’re needed. These rounder buses — with many more seats, all facing forwards — are a student favourite, but the bane of many a driver as they have inadequate power to scale the slopes of NUS.
The drivers who drive our shuttle buses are a mix of local and foreign drivers; some have worked for SBS Transit or SMRT while some have served all their years with chartered bus companies. This writer spoke to several bus drivers in the hope of seeking out interesting perspectives. And many did come.
When it comes to duties, it turns out our drivers are more overworked than we imagine. In terms of rosters, there are two schemes for drivers. In the first scheme, drivers are allocated a regular vehicle and a route letter, changing routes every other week. For example, PC4071M usually alternates between D1 and D2 weekly. In the second (known as “jump-bus”) scheme, drivers have no permanent route or bus — their schedule varies day by day, depending on the company’s need.
A typical first-scheme shift lasts twelve hours: either from 7am to 7pm or 11am to 11pm. So a first-scheme driver may drive continuously from 7am to 2pm, and resume at 3pm.
But if he arrives late due to delays, say at 2.40pm instead, it eats into his break time. Drivers for D (who end trips behind Business School) have to eat at The Terrace, where long queues often force them to hurry through meals. Drivers of A (who end at PGP Terminal) have it a bit easier, as they get to eat at PGP Residences, which is less crowded and has air-conditioning.
Worst of all, even if they do have time, they can’t even relax in the air-conditioned comfort of their bus — it’ll be taken and used by someone doing the “jump-bus” scheme! They have to squeeze into the cramped container or room that doubles as a drivers’ lounge.
The schedules are far from perfect, either. A big gripe many drivers have is that the schedules don’t allow for longer travel time during the congested peak hours.
“It’s very stressful,” shared a former driver we spoke to. “Around 6pm, lots of cars use NUS as a shortcut especially around Science. So it would hold me back, but the schedule demands that I reach the final stop at the same time.”
Since many drivers are caught in congestion, they have to speed up along the few stretches of road that aren’t clogged, such as the UTown link bridge (where they have to jam the brakes if they see an oncoming bus). That is, for some routes, accessible only after an excruciating U-turn outside the Museum, a challenge in itself.
This combination of jams and the U-turn leads to D2 being widely agreed upon as the toughest route to drive. But if you thought C was the easiest, think again! This semester, C was amended such that it serves UTown twice in a single trip, yet the scheduled travel time did not increase.
Regardless of route, though, some problems afflict all drivers.
Between trips, drivers have to clean the bus. This is a task easier said than done, owing to the amount of litter some students generate from eating! Mr Siddek, whose route D bus is easily recognisable by the red ‘SINGAPORE’ banner in front, recounted in annoyance the time he had to clean up after a student who dropped a curry puff on the floor… before promptly alighting.
In another significant issue, during peak hours, many of us just squeeze onto the bus without thinking, filling up every square inch of the bus, including the front area. But this blocks the doors, mirror and left side of the windscreen.
This results in drivers having to swerve into and jam-brake at bus stops, as they can’t see the kerb or left side mirror. The many roundabouts are also perilous as they completely can’t see cars shooting into the roundabout from their left!
All this translates into a very stressful 12-hour shift for anyone in the position of driving an internal shuttle bus.
Drivers obviously offer a unique perspective into the workings of a bus system, but as one driver I spoke to was quick to emphasise, ultimately it is their passengers — we students — whom they serve.
While the immediate sources of dissatisfaction for students are obvious, the passenger experience using our buses is lacking for reasons that go beyond punctuality, comfort and waiting times.
One issue people may have noticed is the exhaust at bus stops. The fourth-gen shuttle buses, Volvo B9Ls, were designed with a low floor all the way through. This, of course, means getting the engine out of the way, so it’s squashed off to the left.
This brings two problems. Firstly, exhaust and hot air are emitted to the left of the bus, directly at waiting passengers. Secondly, a door cannot be installed at the rear of the bus, thus wasting potential as a third door would improve passenger flow without any worries of fare evasion (since the buses are free).
This happened because the Volvo B9L was designed for Europe, where people drive on the right side of the road, and was not redesigned for us. Why, then, did we buy expensive Volvos? There’s an explanation for this — CDG happens to own the dealer for Volvo buses.
Furthermore, the connectivity in southern NUS is way better going eastward (anticlockwise) than westward (clockwise). From FASS, D1 and B1 end their trip at BIZ2 — where you can board an A1, that ends its trip right at PGP Terminal — where you can board A1 or D2 towards FoS and beyond. This enables you to bypass the heavy congestion (both cars and passengers) between CLB and FoS near RVRC, a chronically choked stretch.
Going the other way, though, is a massive headache. Coming from FoS, A2 terminates at PGPR, so you have to walk to PGP Terminal to continue your journey. If you take D2, it ends at Carpark 11 — where you must walk to BIZ2. Both of the walks are unsheltered. So if you’re heading from FoS to SoC/FASS, good luck.
What to do?
As students, it’s tempting to think that there’s nothing we can do except suffer in silence or walk. But cliche as it sounds, we can play a part to make our rides better. There’s just a bit of proactivity needed.
Soon Hao Jing, Y4 Chemical Engineering + USP student (and now NUSSU Vice-President), shared his personal experience with efforts to improve the bus routes. Two years ago, when NUS introduced the General Education Modules (GEM) requirement, he foresaw a rise in inter-faculty travel and travel to UTown. “As a UTown resident, I knew the D1 frequency was seriously not enough,” he shares. “So I suggested, why not take the B and C buses, which were hardly utilised, and divert some of them?”
Together with a few friends, he held discussions with Office of Campus Amenities (OCA) and ComfortDelGro Bus (CDG); the team went to great lengths to battle resistance and inertia, writing proposals, collecting data and following buses on trips.
The journey, like many an ISB ride, was far from smooth. Nevertheless, they persevered and scored a meeting with the VP-IT of ComfortDelGro — and convinced them to rework the bus ETA algorithm for the NUS NextBus app. OCA has also begun trialling new route amendments every semester and changing deployment patterns, such as scheduling more buses during the last twenty minutes of the hour.
Feedback from drivers is also being acted upon — if you’ve boarded a bus lately, you might have noticed an extra handlebar near the driver. It looks like a great place to hold on to, but it actually serves to block off that area so drivers have a clear line of sight to their rear view mirror! This ingenious solution was done on the part of CDG to improve safety.
These go to show that with the right perseverance, it is definitely possible to bring change to the system. Many changes might have gone unnoticed, but look beyond the superficialities and you’ll realise the A1 now isn’t the A1 that used to be.
The system isn’t perfect. It never will be. But there’s always something we can do. Our buses are operated by CDG, but come under the responsibility of OCA. Issues should be directed to them — look for Mr Sulaiman or Ms Priscilla Kok, who have been rather helpful. OCA also holds discussions with students sometimes, near the end of the semester — joining to share your opinion is definitely an option, but refrain from lobbying. Constructive feedback helps!
If you have something you wish to look into but would like to consult a familiar face in USP who knows about ISB operations, you may look for me, the NUSSU Deputy Welfare Secretary (Internal Shuttle Bus) or Hao Jing — we’re more than happy to take your questions, and looking for people who feel just as passionately about the bus services as we do. Till then, stay curious and have a safe trip!
The writer is currently in Year 1, majoring in whichever Computing module of his has the most workload. He is currently (perpetually?) trying to figure out why no one ever seems to want supper when he does.