Low ridership puts school bus operators in a bind

Roslan Ahmad, 61, remembers vividly how his school bus was packed with children when he began working as a driver four decades ago.

“The bus was always cramped with students. Some would have to stand during the whole trip to school,” said the father of eight as he shared fond memories of when he started driving the school bus in his early 20s.

After years of working as a driver, Roslan saved enough to buy his own bus, before adding another one to cater for school field trips.

Although many new players had ventured into the business over the years, Roslan was earning enough to support his family.

It was smooth sailing until the Covid-19 pandemic hit, forcing the government to implement the Movement Control Order (MCO) in 2020. It dealt a huge blow to the business.

“We thought it would only be for a few months. But the series of lockdowns lasted for two years.

“As schools were closed, we lost our only source of income,” he said.

To survive, he ventured into selling nasi kandar at a stall in Jalan Sultanah here, but the business did not go as well as he had hoped for.

“Luckily my children had grown up and they had been helping me with our expenses during the difficult times,” he told theĀ New Straits Times.

Roslan said the loan moratorium introduced by the government also helped him retain
his buses.

With the lockdowns fully lifted early this year, bus operators were finally back in full swing.

“School field trips also helped us earn some additional income besides the daily school ride,” said Roslan as he kept a watchful eye on the boys that he ferried for a football match at a secondary school in Mergong here recently.

Roslan said the fuel subsidy provided by the government helped cover his overhead to transport between 30 to 40 students on school days.

However, not everyone was as lucky as Roslan, with many still on the rocky road to recovery.

School bus operators in Sungai Petani, the southern district of Kedah, were struggling with dwindling ridership and ballooning operation costs.

“I have sold my three vans and a bus during the pandemic. I couldn’t afford to keep them because we were out of business for almost two years.

“Even when schools were closed, we still had to send the school bus for Puspakom inspections every six months, costing between RM500 and RM600 for each van.

“Every time we sent the vehicles for inspection, we had to spend more on repair works because the vehicles were not in good shape since they had been idle for too long,” said one of the operators, who wished to be identified as only Ahmad.

According to Ahmad, at least four to five school bus operators in Sungai Petani area have quit the business and sold off their fleet during the pandemic.

He said although schools have fully reopened since March, the operators were facing challenges to stay afloat.

“Many parents are still wary of allowing their children to travel in buses to get to school, fearing exposure to Covid-19.

“My van is nowhere near as full as it used to be,” said Ahmad, who charges RM55 in basic monthly fares for children living within a 7km radius of SK Sri Gedong in Sungai Petani.

To compound matters, he said the cost of spare parts and maintenance had jumped by more than 100 per cent in recent months.

“Even labour charges have increased from RM35 to RM70 for basic maintenance works.

“We are not making any profit right now. The fares are just enough to cover my operating overhead,” lamented Ahmad, who claimed that he was not getting the fuel subsidy from the government.

He said operators were mulling increasing the fares due to the higher operating costs, but admitted that it would not be easy.

“Most parents here are middle- and low-income earners. They, too, are burdened by the spiralling cost of living.

“So, reviewing the fare now is a very sensitive matter for the parents,” he said.

Ahmad hoped that the government would look into ways to ease operators’ burden so that they could continue providing the service to schoolchildren.


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