Vital to improve rail reliability

A SERIES of rail cracks prompted the regulator to seek advice from an international trackwork expert two years ago. Other persistent problems that have hurt rail reliability in recent years lie behind the latest move to have independent experts assess the health of the entire rail network. This speaks of the regulator's determination to get to the root of the persistent transport problems.

Despite relentless efforts since 2011 to upgrade rail infrastructure and step up maintenance, the number of major breakdowns - those lasting more than half an hour - hit a four-year high of 12 last year. That is totally unacceptable. Singapore's mass rapid transit system, which used to enjoy a pristine record in its early years, now ranks near the bottom among newer Asian metros in terms of reliability, according to a comparison of 29 international operators by CoMET-Nova.

Reputation matters, but it's not just a question of pride. What's at stake is the efficacy of a linchpin of Singapore's land transport masterplan. Hence, much is riding on the Land Transport Authority's (LTA) use of external, troubleshooting consultants. It paves the way for an honest critique, of a key component of national infrastructure, by those who will have no qualms about pinpointing any mistakes or bad decisions of the past. A thorough independent audit must be ruthless in ferreting out performance gaps in the rail system. The success of the exercise could well hinge on the access that LTA and transport operators grant the independent assessors to staff, train systems and maintenance records.

Naturally, commuters and taxpayers have a great interest in the outcome of this exercise. Train ridership has risen steadily and the daily average is now 2.76 million. Any major disruption affects tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people. Diagnosing root causes of problems that plague current rail lines is crucial to ensure that new lines are not similarly hampered. People will want assurance that the many billions of dollars required to double the length of the rail network to 360km by 2030 will be well spent.

The effort also impinges on the bid to get more people to switch from cars to public transport as part of a long-term plan to ensure the city remains liveable and runs efficiently. As a wave of vehicle deregistrations looms - formed by a large number whose certificates of entitlement are due to expire - it would not do if car owners refuse to switch to public transport and choose to outbid each other for fresh COEs. For public transport to supplant cars as the travel mode of choice, the trains, which are its backbone, must at the very least get commuters to and from work and school in good time, with a minimum of surprises.