At first glance, a new target for rail reliability this year, set by Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan in March, had appeared rather ambitious. This was for trains to travel an average of 300,000km before a failure occurred. The target represented a 72 per cent improvement over last year's record, which reached an average of 174,000km covered before encountering delays of over five minutes.
The latest rail reliability report bears out official optimism by showing that substantial improvements are possible. The MRT network achieved 354,000 train-km between delays in the first quarter of this year. This is a noteworthy achievement, although the performance of the different lines was uneven. Importantly, the improvement must be sustained over the remaining quarters in order to fulfil Mr Khaw's expectations. Indeed, the Government has raised the bar by saying that Singapore would shoot for 400,000 train-km next year. That is a viable goal, not least because Taipei's metro, for example, clocked 800,000 train-km in 2015 before a breakdown took place.
There are challenges ahead that will have to be met before commuters can take higher service standards as a given. Renewal projects will remain at the heart of that effort. The report notes that a major contributor to the improvement was the progress made in renewing the rail network, especially on the oldest North-South and East-West lines. The replacement of the third rail, which supplies power to trains, is more than 95 per cent complete on those lines. The replacement of sleepers was completed in December last year, and the upgrading of the signalling system for the lines will be completed this year and the next, respectively. However, water seepage remains a concern in a system where most lines are underground.
Overall, Singaporeans can hope to see tangible improvements made to their commuting experience as the country expects to spend more than $4 billion renewing, upgrading and expanding rail assets in the next five years. That money would be in addition to about $20 billion that will be spent on building new public transport infrastructure.
The need for additional manpower to manage an expanded rail network - running to 360km by 2030 - has been recognised in plans to increase the number of workers to 15,000 by that year. Currently, about 10,000 are employed by the LTA as well as rail operators in the engineering, operations and maintenance fields. Much as the rejuvenation of bus services was crucial to the country's transport system during its early industrialisation, today's Singapore depends on the train system to carry it forward into the future. Attracting high-performing professionals, whether new or mid-career, into the rail sector will be instrumental in ensuring total reliability.