GEORGE TOWN: Rapid Penang chief executive officer Azhar Ahmad has been appointed chief operating officer of the National Land Public Transport Commission (SPAD) effective next month.
Azhar is a tough nut in public transport, having endured physical threats and a strike by bus drivers days after reporting to work with Rapid Penang four years ago.
Azhar is widely regarded as the man who transformed the pathetic public bus services in Penang into what it is today.
Rapid Penang buses are now the preferred mode of public transport, registering about 35 million in annual ridership, and still growing.
The emergence of Rapid Penang buses here also spelled the end of the pajak (lease) system, which saw buses hired out to individuals who failed to provide efficient and reliable service to commuters here.
In an exclusive interview with the New Straits Times, Azhar outlined the challenges he faced after the Federal Government pumped in RM200 million to introduce 150 new buses in 2007 to improve the public bus services here.
"It was not easy as we had to face many challenges from bus operators... there were physical threats, sabotage and many other issues involving our own drivers.
"However, we took on all these challenges head-on and started transforming the mindset of our drivers to take pride in their work.
"We changed their title from bus drivers to captains to create a more professional outlook for them, besides charting a clear career growth opportunity that made them look forward to giving their best," he said, adding that the establishment of the Rapid Penang Academy that followed soon after was instrumental in churning out a dedicated, professional and committed workforce.
Azhar said the academy had seen more than 600 cadets now working as bus captains serving various routes on the island and mainland.
"We started out with just 350 employees, now we have 1,100 workers. Rapid Penang is expected to provide jobs for some 2,000 people in years to come."
Rapid Penang is set to undergo further growth as the Federal Government has pumped in an additional RM120 million to introduce another 200 buses which are set to hit the roads here soon.
Azhar attributed Rapid Penang's success, from a meagre three million ridership in 2007 to 35 million today, to the many innovative ideas introduced on its buses.
Rapid Penang was the first in the country to use the Global Positioning System to track its fleet of buses through an Intelligent Computer Information System (ICIS). The ICIS provides commuters with real-time information, getting an accurate estimate of the arrival time of each bus.
Rapid Penang buses plying certain routes are also equipped with WiFi to enable users to surf the Internet free.
"These are revolutionary services in the local transport industry. With further innovation, we hope to see our ridership figures increase by 20 to 30 per cent annually," he said, adding that Rapid Penang was aiming to get more white-collar workers to commute by public buses.
Rapid Penang also created a first by leveraging its services with community airline Firefly, providing free shuttle bus services to airline passengers arriving here daily. The passengers need only show their boarding pass.
On the challenges he faced in the four years with Rapid Penang, Azhar said: "Getting the various authorities to work in tandem with Rapid Penang to provide an efficient, reliable and comfortable bus service.
"Public transport is not just about the hardware, but must also be completed with the necessary infrastructure, like bus terminals and shelters.
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