The Straits Times says

Fast-tracking LTA's capabilities

Since overcrowding and reliability concerns peaked in 2011, rail transportation has been in search of a model that is simple enough for people to see how desired outcomes (namely, smooth and affordable rides) can be assured over time, and complex enough to address other factors that planners and policymakers cannot afford to ignore as well. The latter include investment and running costs, equitable pricing of rides, efficiency and safety, traffic congestion and urban connectivity.

Against this panoply of needs, it would be inadequate to just rely on traditional approaches like charging a state agency with the running of a comprehensive rail network or leaving it entirely to the private sector to keep people moving. To simply swear by nationalisation or by the market is to create a dichotomy of models that is out of step with the times. An integrated approach is appropriate in urban settings, where public investment and standard-setting can be combined with private ingenuity to provide an extensive transport system that a transport model is no more than an abridged representation of.

In a narrower context, Coordinating Minister for Infrastructure and Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan spoke recently about an excellent rail system's need for "an integrated approach, from design to construction, actual operations and maintenance". There's merit in institutionalising within the Land Transport Authority (LTA) deeper engineering know-how, based on a better understanding of a rail system's key components and on direct experience of operations. Systemic improvement, rather than "Band-Aid" solutions, is more likely to emerge when operational experiences "feed back into the design stage, so designs can improve over time", as Mr Khaw put it.

Certainly, such engineering capability will hold LTA in good stead should the rail system gravitate towards a private contracting model for the provision of services, coupled with public ownership of rail assets. That expertise will help the regulator set more comprehensive engineering requirements relating to the maintenance of trains and networks. After all, there's a risk that short-term contractors might focus more on yield rather than the long-term reliability of the system as a whole. Also, as contracts could change hands with every fresh cycle, it would be detrimental if technical issues are not "systematically documented" by LTA so that stubborn or novel problems down the track can be dealt with in an optimal manner.

Any rail model that integrates public and private roles, in order to meet changing demands, should give primacy to strategic considerations. For example, rail must be the first choice of commuters if a "car-lite" future is to be realised; a system should be sustainable over the long term; it must meet the evolving needs of the economy; and it ought to promote overall urban liveability.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 15, 2015, with the headline 'Fast-tracking LTA's capabilities'. Print Edition | Subscribe