The ComfortDelGro subsidiary said that without government relief, it would have incurred an operating loss of $29.4 million.
SBS Transit stays in the black thanks to government grants SBS Transit operating expenses were 12.5% lower at $571 million. PHOTO: ST FILE

Transport operator SBS Transit posted a 27.4% drop in first-half net earnings to $32.6 million as there were fewer people commuting during the coronavirus pandemic.

The ComfortDelGro subsidiary said that without government relief, it would have incurred an operating loss of $29.4 million.

Revenue was down 14.9% to $603.2 million for the six months ended 30 June 2020, as circuit breaker measures from April to June to curb the spread of the virus brought public transport ridership down by as much as 80%.

Even after the measures were eased on 2 June 2020, ridership remained at around half of what it used to be before the pandemic. SBS Transit's operating expenses were 12.5% lower at $571 million, with fuel and electricity cost seeing the biggest drop - of 46.6% to $47.6 million - as fewer bus and train runs were made during the stay-home period.

Even staff cost, usually on an uptrend, fell 16.8% to $295.9 million because drivers clocked little or no overtime during the period. The bus and train operator's earnings per share fell from 14.39 cents to 10.45 cents. Its tangible asset per share stood at $1.73, from $1.69 as of 31 December last year.

The transport operator said profit in the first half "was largely lifted by government grants of $61.6 million". It said that for the six months, average rail ridership fell by more than 40% for the MRT and more than 30% for the LRT.

This was partially offset by average fares, which were 14.7% higher for the Downtown Line, 16.6% higher for the North East Line (NEL), and 8.7% higher for the Sengkang-Punggol LRT.

But SBS Transit remained in a strong cash position. As of 30 June 2020, it had short-term deposits and bank balances of $94.5 million. After accounting for borrowings of $75 million, it was in a net cash position of $19.5 million. Its net gearing ratio was 8.5% as of 31 December last year. Its gross gearing ratio was 14.2% as of 30 June this year, versus 14.6% as of 31 December last year.

Looking ahead, its directors said "the full economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is still unfolding". They expect transit revenue to be lower compared with last year as ridership remains low. Revenue from other commercial activities such as retail is expected to be "challenging" because of fewer people at train stations and bus interchanges.

Repairs and maintenance costs are expected to increase with the ongoing mid-life refurbishment of the NEL and the Sengkang-Punggol LRT. "The adverse impact of COVID-19... will be partially cushioned by grants from government support schemes," SBS Transit noted. But it added that the outlook will worsen if there is a second wave of infections.

In the light of the uncertainties, SBS Transit is not paying an interim dividend - a rare occurrence. At the same time last year, it paid 7.15 cents per share in dividend.