According to the Ministry of Education (MOE), about 98% of Primary One students are posted to a school of their choice, or within 2km of their homes, with a minority of primary school students using school bus services to commute to and from school.
For parents who are reliant on school bus service to ferry their children between home and school, school bus fares are an additional cost to bear. And with the cost of transport operations increasing due to factors like higher manpower and fuel costs, as well as higher COE prices, MOE recently announced that it would be allowing current school bus operators to increase their prices by up to 13% in 2024.
But how exactly do school bus operators for primary schools operate? And how much are they allowed to charge for bus fare?
School Bus Operators Have To Tender For Each Primary School
The first thing to know is that every school bus operator providing transport service at a primary school has to follow a tendering process to win its contract. As explained by MOE, schools appoint bus operators through an open and competitive bidding process based on quality and bus fares for various route distances. This also means there is no uniform fixed fare among schools.
Fare prices are based on a cap, which means that the operators, if they win the contract, are contractually obliged to provide service to students in the primary school at a fare that does not exceed what they state. They can, of course, charge a lower price if they want.
Once a contract is won by the school bus operator, the contract period typically lasts for four years.
School Bus Fares Depend On Various Factors
As schools would appoint their own operators based on the tender received, there is no fixed price for primary school bus fares across different schools. MOE also explains that fares proposed by bus operators would also consider specific operating conditions, such as route distance, capacity of buses and the number of students along the route.
Charges for smaller buses, which likely would cater to less popular routes, would be generally higher as students enjoy more benefits such as mandatory installation of seat belts, one-to-one seating, easier access to pick-up points and shorter journey time. Also, the number of students a small bus can take is much fewer than that of a big bus so there is less economy of scale.
Parents can opt for 1-way or 2-way services. Based on online research, while some bus operators charge a slightly lower price for 1-way service, there are others that may charge the same amount, regardless of whether you opt for 1-way or 2-way transport service.
Example of school bus fare
For lower-income families, as part of the MOE Financial Assistance Scheme (MOE FAS), 65% of school bus fares per year for primary school students who take school bus would be covered by the scheme.
Bus Operators Are Contractually Required To Transport Students Within 6km Of Their School
When tendering for the school bus contract, operators are contractually required to transport students who are living up to 6km from their schools, regardless of the demand for the route. This is when they would have to state in their tender documents the maximum fares they would charge based on the various distances.
Example of school bus fare
For students who live further away, they can still request the bus operator to provide the bus service. For such cases, bus operators can consider the request on a best-effort basis, at a negotiated price. They are not contractually obliged to provide the service.
Do note that for contracts commencing from 2024 onwards, bus operators would be contractually required to transport students living within 4km of their school, down from the current 6km.
MOE Do Allow Bus Operators To Increase Their Fares
To deal with the increase in cost during contract periods, MOE does allow school bus operators to increase the pricing cap of school bus fares under existing contracts.
For example, in January 2023, MOE adjusted the pricing cap for existing contracts by 7%. With effect from January 2024, school bus operators under existing contracts can increase their prices by up to 13%. According to MOE, these adjustments will significantly minimise the risk of disruptions and inconvenience to families should these incumbent operators be unable to sustain their operations.
It’s important to point out that parents do not automatically have to pay and accept these fare increments. If parents find the revised fare from the bus operators too high, they can choose not to continue with the school bus service in 2024. Likewise, bus operators have to also consider whether an increase in price could reduce the demand for their bus service and hence revenue.
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