Foreign contractors sought for MRT deals

Construction demands up, with new rail lines and extensions in the pipeline

THE Land Transport Authority (LTA) is wooing more foreign contractors to help local firms cope with the construction demands of the Republic's new MRT lines.

Foreign contractors from South Korea, Italy, Australia and China have been asked to bid for the clutch of MRT projects that are up for grabs over the next 10 years, which will double the MRT network to 360km by 2030.

LTA officials are meeting these contractors and asking them to build stations and carry out tunnelling work for half a dozen MRT projects. These include the Downtown and Thomson lines, which are in various stages of planning and construction currently.

Things will get even busier with new lines (the Cross Island Line, Jurong Regional Line and Eastern Region Line) and three extensions (Circle Line, North-East Line and Downtown Line 3) which will be built by 2030. All in, the LTA will be juggling three MRT construction projects at any one time over the next 17 years.

Mr Ng Kee Nam, LTA's deputy group director for rail (civil), said the heavy workload exerts a huge demand on home-grown companies with resource constraints.

He said: "In order to meet the timelines, we need to bring in more new contractors and specialist sub-contractors from abroad to ramp up capacity."

Opening up competition will also keep a lid on construction costs, he said.

About a dozen offshore and local contractors put in bids for recent projects for the Thomson Line, which is slated to be completed by 2021. This is up from the handful of local contractors who vied for Circle Line contracts between 2003 and 2004.

While more contractors are coming on board to spread the construction load and keep up with increasing ridership, the LTA is careful not to plan or build in haste.

That's why it is not possible to build "all at once", said Mr Rajan Krishnan, chief executive officer of engineering firm KTC Group.

"It is wiser to stagger the construction of the various projects to ensure there are enough resources to go around. (In this way), there is an efficient allocation of manpower."

Besides competing with foreign contractors for contracts, Mr Rajan said local firms such as his company will have to vie with them for workers.

This will be more difficult with the Government cutting foreign worker dependency ratio caps, while raising foreign worker levies - a double whammy for those hiring unskilled work permit holders in construction. It will also be more difficult to get specialists to fill middle management roles such as project leaders and safety supervisors, said Mr Rajan.

Transport expert Gopinath Menon sees the benefit of having foreign contractors who are more experienced in building underground structures, especially as Singapore digs deeper underground to build stations.

"Every station will most probably be underground and more MRT lines will criss-cross, so construction methods will be a lot more complex," he said.

The Nanyang Technological University adjunct associate professor said local and foreign contractors will benefit by sharing know-how and a finite amount of resources such as tunnel-boring machines.

"It can be a win-win arrangement and get the job done more effectively and efficiently."

jermync@sph.com.sg

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