New rail financing framework

Set up central pool of train engineers

I struggle to reconcile SMRT's comment that rail fare margins have been on a declining trend with its top management's record earnings over the same period ("LTA to take over rail assets in move to improve service", "Khaw lists benefits of new financing model" and "An equitable deal with focus on commuter welfare"; all published last Saturday).

Perhaps the authorities can consider taking a few more steps for the industry's rationalisation and help SMRT to become an even more asset-light company.

I suggest the following additions as part of its new financing framework:

First, consolidate our pool of train engineers under the Land Transport Authority's stewardship and close the loop in upholding the highest maintenance standards - massive breakdowns being the biggest bugbear of rail reliability and safety over the last decade.

This should enhance the economies of scale and scope for the long-term development of precious human resources, including at the upcoming rail academy, instead of creating wasteful competition for them.

Second, establish the same arrangement for rail traffic control and facilitate a universal overview and response to any chinks across the entire network from a major central command hub.

The pooling of back-end resources is necessary in a market with a lower density of competing train lines due to our relatively modest daily ridership of about three million commuters - which is projected to double at most, even with an expanded population and lower car ownership - compared to a metropolitan area like Greater Tokyo, which serves over 40 million passengers every day.

Buses, bicycles and so forth can continue to cover any slack in the last-mile connection.

The LTA should charge the cost of maintaining these two teams to the rail operators as part of their licensing, leasing and revenue-sharing schemes.

The operators will now function as carriers, station managers, marketing-customer relationship agents and so on, at the front line of service.

Their strategic objective must be to help increase overall ridership on public transport for a car-lite society by viewing all mobility options - rail, bus, taxis, private cars and even motorcycles and bicycles - as a multi-modal integrated network, instead of in silos.

Their working brief must be to deliver world-class service standards with "smart" public transport offerings across the whole portfolio.

Once expertise and excellence are built up and sustained, the various entities can consider joining hands as a consortium for overseas ventures, the way Changi Airport might work with SIA Engineering, Sats and even Singapore Airlines in the aviation space abroad.

Toh Cheng Seong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 19, 2016, with the headline 'Set up central pool of train engineers'. Print Edition | Subscribe