LTA must be ready to take over MRT operations: Khaw Boon Wan

Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan speaking at the signing of the MOU on joint infrastructural maintenance between LTA, PUB, SMRT and SBST held at the Grand Copthorne Waterfront hotel on Dec 4.
Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan speaking at the signing of the MOU on joint infrastructural maintenance between LTA, PUB, SMRT and SBST held at the Grand Copthorne Waterfront hotel on Dec 4.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN
From left: Gan Juay Kiat, CEO SBST; Chew Men Leong, CE LTA; Tan Gee Paw, PUB Chairman; Khaw Boon Wan, Minister for Transport;  Tan Yok Gin, Deputy CE (Operations) PUB; Desmond Kuek, CEO SMRT after the signing of the MOU on joint infrastructural maint
From left: Gan Juay Kiat, CEO SBST; Chew Men Leong, CE LTA; Tan Gee Paw, PUB Chairman; Khaw Boon Wan, Minister for Transport; Tan Yok Gin, Deputy CE (Operations) PUB; Desmond Kuek, CEO SMRT after the signing of the MOU on joint infrastructural maintenance between LTA, PUB, SMRT and SBST held at the Grand Copthorne Waterfront hotel on Dec 4.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN
From left: Chew Men Leong, CE LTA; Gan Juay Kiat, CEO SBST; Tan Yok Gin, CE (covering) PUB; Desmond Kuek, CEO SMRT after the signing of the MOU on joint infrastructural maintenance between LTA, PUB, SMRT and SBST held at the Grand Copthorne Waterfron
From left: Chew Men Leong, CE LTA; Gan Juay Kiat, CEO SBST; Tan Yok Gin, CE (covering) PUB; Desmond Kuek, CEO SMRT after the signing of the MOU on joint infrastructural maintenance between LTA, PUB, SMRT and SBST held at the Grand Copthorne Waterfront hotel on Dec 4.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN
Minister for Transport Khaw Boon Wan (left) chats with officials and engineers before the signing of the MOU on joint infrastructural maintenance between LTA, PUB, SMRT and SBST held at the Grand Copthorne Waterfront hotel on Dec 4.
Minister for Transport Khaw Boon Wan (left) chats with officials and engineers before the signing of the MOU on joint infrastructural maintenance between LTA, PUB, SMRT and SBST held at the Grand Copthorne Waterfront hotel on Dec 4.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

SINGAPORE - Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan has hinted again at restructuring the rail industry - the second time within a month.

Speaking at a Joint Forum on Infrastructure Maintenance on Friday (Dec 4), Mr Khaw said "creating an excellent rail system requires an integrated approach, from design through construction, actual operations and maintenance".

He said the current model separates the the designer and builder - the Land Transport Authority - from the maintainer and operator - SMRT Corp and SBS Transit.

"From an economist's viewpoint, this allows for more competition in choosing the operator," he said. "From an engineer's viewpoint, it is not so ideal from the life-cycle perspective."

The minister made a similar point in his blog three weeks ago, saying that a reliable rail system starts with good design.

At yesterday's forum, Mr Khaw said that if the model was an integrated one, "the operational experience should feed back into the design stage, so designs can improve over time, and reduce the need for 'rat catchers'" - repeating a term used by PUB chairman Tan Gee Paw to describe people who can spot potential problems.

Mr Khaw added that the learnt experience must be "systematically documented, institutionalised, and taught to successors".

"Only then can we sustain world-class rail services," he noted.

But Mr Khaw said "it is not so easy to change the model that we have today overnight", although for future MRT lines - such as the Thomson-East Coast Line - "we may have the opportunity to shape the way we do things".

As such, he has instructed the LTA to beef up its engineering team.

"They must establish a team that is able to take on operations and maintenance, should we decide to move in that direction," the minister said.

LTA engineers will be deployed to "augment the SMRT and SBST maintenance crews now", in the process picking up "valuable on-the-job experience immediately".

Meanwhile, both operators and regulator must work in a unified fashion "to improve integration through process, by forging a culture of One Team".

Mr Khaw said commuters do not care whose fault it is when there is a problem - they just want it fixed.

Yesterday, Mr Khaw witnessed the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the LTA, PUB, SBST and SMRT to foster relations in infrastructure maintenance.

Areas of collaboration include asset management strategies, maintenance programmes, maintenance expertise, and audit processes.

PUB deputy chief executive (operations) Tan Yok Gin said: "Be it the water systems or rail system, similar fundamental engineering knowledge, best practices and asset management approached apply.

"There are certainly areas where we can learn from each other."

Dr Walter Theseira, an economist at SIM University, said: "The government is moving towards is a type of contracting scheme similar to bus contracting... so that it has more control over service quality.

"It's become apparent that for such a model to work successfully, you need to have sufficient depth of expertise within government.

"The problem with both contracting and the present model is that performance risk isn't borne solely by the operator. If an operator fails, it becomes the public's problem. For example, should an operator become insolvent... there might be no recourse but to pump additional funds into the operator or to pay - at high cost - for a competitor to take over on an emergency basis.

"With expertise within government, it might be possible to take over operations to a greater extent, which would cushion the impact."

christan@sph.com.sg