AUSTRALIAN transport company Tower Transit has set up an office here to bid for Singapore’s first government-contracted bus routes.

Its chairman, Neil Smith, said his company is primed for competition, having had to fight for contracts since it was formed in 1995.

“When you are in a monopoly or duopoly, you become relaxed. That’s just human nature,” Mr Smith said in an interview here with The Straits Times yesterday.

Tower expressed interest in entering the Singapore bus market as soon as the Government announced the move towards a contracting system in May.

Under the new regime, companies bid competitively for the rights to operate a parcel of routes for a fixed sum, while the Government owns operating assets and keeps fare revenue.

The first contract, for routes in Jurong, will be up for tender by the end of this month, and should be operational by 2016.

Other foreign companies which are said to be keen include France’s Veolia Transport RATP Asia, and Keolis, and Britain’s Go Ahead.

Mr Smith, who is also Tower’s founder, believes commuters are best served by an operator with a local focus.

“When you are operating a national network, you may not have that focus,” he said.

“It’s always the squeaky wheel that gets oiled.”

The company’s Singapore office is located off West Coast Highway, and is manned by three employees, including a former SMRT operations executive.

Mr Smith added that Tower – which operates buses in Perth, Sydney and Adelaide, as well as in Greater London – will not be competing solely on price.

Rather, its focus is on providing quality service by concentrating on human resources.

He is aware of the bus-driver shortage here, and wants “to understand whether it has to do with working conditions, salaries or something else”.

While he admits the salary range here seems “low”, he wants to first learn more about the cost of living here, other jobs that are open to bus drivers and what they pay.

Tower prides itself on having a contented workforce.

“We’ve never had a strike in Australia,” he said. “I know that may not be much here, but in Australia, it is.”

He said there are “five or six” big players in the global bus-contracting market. But a sign that real competition is at work is that margins have halved in the last 15 years, he said, adding that there is no room for collusion.

“First, the cultural difference between companies is huge,” said Mr Smith.

“Second, it is illegal. But the biggest reason is that we don’t like one another very much.”

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