An injection of $100 million to better train rail workers here is set to ease rail operators' cost burden as the industry strives to meet Singapore's transport needs.
The Rail Manpower Development Package (RMDP), announced by Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan at a transport workers' appreciation event yesterday, will become the main source of training funds for MRT and LRT workers in the next five years.
"Operators are financially not the most healthy at the moment... In order not to hold back such investments, the Government, through the Land Transport Authority (LTA), will co-invest," said Mr Khaw in his speech at the event.
"That way, the worker will have the tools to do what is necessary to raise their productivity and do their job better... The bottom line is we want to improve service levels for the commuters."
Both rail operators have recorded massive losses in recent years. In the 12 months to end-March this year, SMRT Trains' losses hit $155 million - almost double from a year ago - while SBS Transit's train division also registered losses in the tens of millions.
The LTA said the RMDP was co-developed with rail operators and the National Transport Workers' Union (NTWU) as a coordinated effort to ensure training programmes stay relevant to rail workers' needs.
Among other things, it will allow for investments in hardware equipment like simulators and virtual reality tools.
With these, workers who currently only get the chance to practise what they have learnt during limited engineering hours - often after midnight when trains have stopped operations - will be able to do so in the day, accelerating their pace of learning.
The SGRail Industry Scholarships, as well as sponsorships for current workers, will benefit around 400 students and staff, the authority said.
NTWU executive secretary Melvin Yong welcomed the move in a Facebook post yesterday, saying that the new plan was partially the result of the union's insistence that more resources be invested in manpower training.
"We recognise that the rail operators face (the) significant challenge of balancing heavy investments in maintenance with manpower training," he said. "(But) a world class public transport system requires a world class public transport workforce."
Mr Yong, who is also an MP for Tanjong Pagar GRC, said the union will ensure there is money for experienced workers to get certified for skill sets they already informally have, and for younger rail workers to build their careers.
The focus on the rail industry comes amid the planned expansion of the rail network from 230km to 360km over the next decade, even as stakeholders focus on upgrading ageing assets to make sure current lines continue to be reliable and efficient.
Both rail operators SBS Transit and SMRT applauded the Government's move.
Mr Cheng Siak Kian, the chief operating officer of SBS Transit, said his company has already identified seven new areas to focus on, including robotics and automation application. He noted that 1,500 SBS Transit workers across 16 job roles will receive new training as a result of the package.
Calling the plan a "great booster" for its workers, SMRT Trains chief executive officer Lee Ling Wee also said the plan will allow "our rail staff to continuously upgrade their skills to be an important part of this growing industry".
Transport workers at the event stressed the importance of training to improve their skills and enhance their careers.
Mr Mohamad Hairul Nizam Sunin, 38, was promoted to deputy engineering maintenance manager at Bukit Panjang LRT after attending a course for power electrical technicians.
"Training worked for me because I got promoted after completing the programme. The package is definitely an avenue for me to grow in the company," he said.
Mr Sean Han, a technician with SBS Transit who took an electrical engineering course this year, said simulations would have made his training less physically demanding.
"We had to go into tunnels between midnight and 4am during engineering hours," the 28-year-old said.
In his speech, Mr Khaw said the Transport Workers' Appreciation Day had been inaugurated in 2017 when "there was a lot of unhappiness about public transport" and "morale was a bit low".
"Public transport workers have made a lot of sacrifice. When most people are sleeping, they are working. This event reminds everybody to be gracious and grateful," he added.