Lots of people want to ride with you in the limo, but what you want is someone who will take the bus with you when the limo breaks down.

–             Oprah Winfrey, American media executive, actress, talk show host, television producer and philanthropist

In Malaysia, the main types of bus licence are stage, express, excursion, school and workers. Stage buses are the most common. Daily, they carry a huge number of passengers, mainly commuters, and run in stages making frequent stops in urban and rural areas.

Express buses travel long distances between cities and large towns without stopping to pick up passengers. Excursion buses, popularly known as tour buses, are chartered for exclusive use by a group for transfers such as between airport and hotel or for sightseeing.

School buses are meant for students to and from school and worker buses, formerly known as factory buses, are used for ferrying staff, a service normally provided by contractors. School and factory buses are usually lower end or used vehicles for fares to be affordable.

However, some operators prefer superior vehicles and try to charter out their school or factory buses whenever they can and often encroach into the territory of excursion buses. It can also be dangerous for the passengers when bus drivers are unfamiliar with the routes.

The bus industry is saddled with many issues but none more dire than those besieging stage buses and will take time to unravel as they involve the Federal Ministry of Transport, Sarawak Ministry of Transport, Commercial Vehicle Licensing Board (CVLB), local authorities and enforcement agencies.

In Peninsular Malaysia, the Land Public Transport Commission (SPAD) was formed to take over from CVLB in 2011 but had not prevented the demise of many private stage bus companies. Most of those that remained are in dire straits.

Stage bus companies are usually allotted large areas to service and routes include both profitable and unprofitable ones. Unlike tour bus companies that can decline charter bookings, stage buses must continue to run daily on fixed routes and schedules.

To ensure unprofitable or social routes are serviced, the Interim Stage Bus Support Fund (ISBSF) was introduced in 2012 to keep companies afloat. But competition by government-run bus companies and free bus services have caused many private firms to collapse in recent years.

The ISBSF may have provided a lifeline but delays in releasing payment to stage bus companies were no different from interrupting power supply to equipment for patients under intensive care. This has happened since 2016 and had grown from bad to worse.

ISBSF was meant as an interim measure until it is substituted by the Stage Bus Services Transformation (SBST) programme, also known as MyBas, which was introduced in 2015 in selected cities and operators but had left out deserving bus companies in the Klang Valley.

Delays in releasing payment had become the norm. Last November, Sarawak Transport Minister Datuk Lee Kim Shin had to voice out to Federal Minister of Transport Anthony Loke that bus operators under SBST programme must be paid promptly.

In January 2020, Lee took several bus trips in Kuching and Miri to experience first-hand what commuters go through daily, which was reported in “Sarawak Transport Minister endures long wait for buses in Kuching” (New Sarawak Tribune, Jan 22).

After gathering views from bus passengers and drivers, he later had a meeting with Sarawak Bus Transport Companies Association (SBTCA) and was attended by Sarawak Transport Ministry advisor Dr Lawrence Tseu, who is also Sarawak CVLB chairman.

Issues in stage bus service are well-known and a separate ministry for transport would allow greater focus in overcoming challenges. Existing problems must be addressed holistically and in coordinated manner for the bus industry to forge ahead.

Below are some suggestions from a layman’s point of view to lend fresh perspective to revitalise an old business with equally weary operators and jaded passengers. It is also a good time to sex up stage bus services in Sarawak.

Ideally, all mini, midi and full-size stage buses must be air-conditioned and fitted with front and rear facing video cameras and CCTVs inside; installed with vehicle telematics system allowing their movement to be tracked and journey recorded; and a bus app developed for passengers to check the whereabouts of the next bus including seats and standing room available.

Bus stops may be a sign on a pole denoting where buses are allowed to stop for picking up or dropping off passengers in rural areas. Bus stands with a roof over a bench are needed in urban areas and must not be built too near the road otherwise waiting passengers could be hit by vehicles veering out of control or fall victim to snatch thieves.

If space is available, construct a layby so that buses do not hold up traffic behind and the bench diagonally facing the road so that waiting passengers do not have to keep rubbernecking towards the right trying to catch sight an of arriving bus.

Where space is a constraint in the city, bus stands can be built underground and passengers emerge only after the bus has arrived. The air-conditioned underground bus stand with convenience store would be a popular haven compared to the sweltering heat outside.

The CVLB could introduce a new category of stage bus that does not run on fixed routes or timetable and based on demand through booking but for transfers only. These buses can only wait at depots of stage bus companies and not on the streets like taxis or private e-hailing vehicles.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.