Vivian Balakrishnan explains what planners are doing to keep costs of transport system down

Acting Transport Minister Vivian Balakrishnan pointed out that spending on transport has "more than doubled over the last 10 years, from $5.4 billion in 2009 to $11.5 billion in 2019".
Acting Transport Minister Vivian Balakrishnan pointed out that spending on transport has "more than doubled over the last 10 years, from $5.4 billion in 2009 to $11.5 billion in 2019".ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

SINGAPORE - After years of investment on expanding and improving Singapore's transport infrastructure, the topic of financial sustainability was raised by Acting Transport Minister Vivian Balakrishnan in Parliament on Thursday (March 7).

Dr Balakrishnan pointed out that spending on transport has "more than doubled over the last 10 years, from $5.4 billion in 2009 to $11.5 billion in 2019".

The MRT network is expanding, he noted, citing how the Thomson-East Coast Line will open from the end of this year. It will "eventually serve up to one million commuters".

Dr Balakrishnan added: "By around 2030, we can look forward to the opening of Circle Line Stage 6, the Jurong Region Line and the Cross Island Line. We added 200 trains over the last five years. We also introduced over 1,000 buses under the Bus Service Enhancement Programme."

But "we need to exercise fiscal discipline to reduce costs and maximise value for money", he added.

To this end, he cited cases of where planners had taken steps to rein in cost. For example, Land Transport Authority had saved $2 billion in construction costs with the East Coast Integrated Depot by stacking three MRT depots and a bus depot "on top of each other... the first such facility of its kind".

Next, keeping a focus on life-cycle costs when procuring major assets. When the first-generation North-south, East-west Line trains were due for renewal, Singapore sought out systems "that are easier and cheaper to maintain" throughout their 30-year lifespan.

 
 
 
 

Dr Balakrishnan also said contestability has helped bring down bids of the average bus contract "by about 20 per cent" since the first bus package was awarded in 2015.

Incentives to shift commuter behaviour to spread out demand for transport capacity has been another way to optimise usage.

Lower fares for travel during off-peak hours have worked, the minister said, noting that 12 per cent of commuters now travel during the morning pre-peak period - from as low as 6 per cent when the scheme started in 2013.

"We will continue to look for ways to smoothen out travel demand, while being mindful that not all commuters have the flexibility to change their commuting patterns," he said.

Even with all these measures to maximise value, Dr Balakrishnan pointed out that "a high quality public transport system still requires significant resources".

For instance, adding capacity means additional cost. Hence the Public Transport Council introduced the Network Capacity Factor into the fare adjustment formula last year to reflect new capacity add to the system, vis-a-vis actual demand for them.

Even so, the Government will continue to keep fares affordable, he said. For instance, it will fund all infrastructure costs and provide operating subsidies.

Dr Balakrishnan emphasised that Singapore has to strike "a balance between affordability and long-term fiscal sustainability of our transport system".

The Transport Ministry also announced Thursday that the Downtown MRT line's Hume station will open by 2025.

Mayor of South West District Ms Low Yen Ling, who has been lobbying for the station to open for a number of years now, pressed on. "Is there a chance that the completion of the Hume MRT station can be completed before 2025, please?" she asked.

Senior Minister of State for Transport Janil Puthucheary reiterated that the station will open by 2025, with clear emphasis on the word "by" - an indication that the facility could be ready earlier.

To questions from MP Ang Wei Neng (Jurong GRC), Dr Janil said 64 per cent of households are currently within 10-minute walk from an MRT station, and 45 per cent of public transport commuters complete their journeys within 45 minutes.

The target is for 80 per cent of households to be within 10 minutes of an MRT station by 2030; and 90 per cent of peak-hour trips to the city to be completed in 45 minutes.