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River taxi services scaled back as one operator shuts down

TODAY reports: The Urban Redevelopment Authority has called a tender for a new operator, but challenges on reliability and demand remain.

SINGAPORE: Three years after river taxis were launched to provide commuters working or living near the Singapore River with an alternative to land transport, one operator has bowed out while another has scaled back operations and increased its fare.

The search for a new second operator has begun, with the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) calling a tender on Dec 17. The tender, for water transportation services between Jiak Kim and Singapore Sports Hub for two years with the option for a further term of three years, will close on Jan 21.

Singapore River Explorer ceased operations on Jan 1 after its three-year licence expired. A joint venture between Global Yellow Pages and Leisure Empire, the announcement on ending its river taxi operations was made last month by Global Yellow Pages in a Singapore Exchange filing, which said River Explorer owes it S$5.9 million plus S$400,000 in interest.

The other river cruise and river taxi operator, Singapore River Cruise, has cut the operating hours of its river taxi services to 8am to 10am and 5pm to 7pm on weekdays — a sharp reduction from 7am to 10pm daily, previously.

River taxi fares have increased from S$3 to S$5 per person and the route between Robertson Quay and the Esplanade now features five stops, about half the number previously. The changes took place on Jan 1, said Singapore River Cruise general manager See Toh Yew Leong. Previously, the S$3 price cap was cited by former cruise operator Singapore Ducktours as one of the requirements that could make the operations financially unsustainable.


A URA spokesperson said adjustments were made to the timing, pricing and routes “to meet the demand accordingly”, as part of Singapore River Cruise’s licence renewal. “These changes will also apply to the new operator after we award the tender,” the spokesperson said.

Mr See Toh said a review was done with URA to see “how best to maximise the hours and the man-hours”. The company wants to cater to daily commuters working in the Central Business District, as well as those heading to the Esplanade, Boat Quay or Clarke Quay in the evening.

It was still too early to say how well the new arrangement was working, but the company will monitor demand and engage the authorities to “see how to fine-tune this”, said Mr See Toh.

With a good public transport network in place, he said, the river taxis “just give daily commuters another option to choose from, something fun and not the usual route”. Asked if the river taxis have been profitable, Mr See Toh said: “We do it as a whole, both river cruise and river taxi.”

River cruises, which are targeted at tourists and sightseers, cost S$25 for a 40-minute ride. For the S$5 water taxi fare, commuters may use their EZ-Link and NETS FlashPay cards to pay.

Several attempts have been made by the authorities, dating back more than a decade, to get water transportation in the area to take off in a bigger way among locals. But experts have noted that, unlike in Bangkok, roads are not so congested during peak hours as to spur a switch to water taxis, which would unlikely help commuters save time.

Transport analyst Park Byung Joon said river taxis are a good option for a small group of people, but felt the service was more of a “joyride” not too different from a river cruise.

“The route that river taxis can offer is quite limited, so it’s not something a lot of Singaporeans can benefit from,” said Dr Park, an adjunct associate professor at SIM University. He added that the rail network also allows one to get to Marina Bay Sands while remaining in an air-conditioned environment, for instance.

Mr See Toh cited wet weather and people working too late to catch a river taxi as factors that could work against demand.

Although he did not think river taxis would be a major form of transportation here, Dr Park felt the market is big enough for two operators, as they are also able to run cruises for tourists.


And for its customer base — condominium dwellers along the Singapore River who work in the financial district — a fare increase from S$3 to $5 will not make much of a difference, he said.

When approached, four residents of the Robertson Quay area said they know about the river taxis or have seen the boats on the river. Some said it was a pleasant option — albeit a touristy one — but were put off by previous waiting times of around 20 minutes. Clemenceau resident Yohei Takeda, 47, felt the service was not reliable enough.

Rodyk Street resident Nigel Parkes, 56, said he has taken the river taxi once to his office in Clarke Quay and had learnt about the service from his landlord. “It is very convenient, but I’m trying to up my fitness so I’m actually walking to work now,” said the general manager of a marine company.

Read the original TODAY report here.