Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan has asked the Land Transport Authority (LTA) to beef up its engineering team so that it could take over the operation and maintenance of the MRT, should the need arise.
He indicated that that day might come if the Government decides to restructure the rail industry.
Speaking at a forum on infrastructure maintenance yesterday, he said that "creating an excellent rail system requires an integrated approach, from design to construction, actual operations and maintenance".
He said the current model separates the designer and builder - the LTA - from the ones which maintain and operate the system - SMRT and SBS Transit (SBST).
"From an economist's viewpoint, this allows for more competition in choosing the operator," he said. "From an engineer's viewpoint, it is not so ideal from the life-cycle perspective."
Mr Khaw said that if the model was an integrated one, "the operational experience should feed back into the design stage, so designs can improve over time".
He said the learnt experience must be "systematically documented, institutionalised and taught to successors". "Only then can we sustain world-class rail services."
But he added that "it is not so easy to change the model that we have today overnight", although for future MRT lines - such as the Thomson-East Coast Line - "we may have the opportunity to shape the way we do things".
As such, he has instructed LTA to beef up its engineering capability. "They must establish a team that is able to take on operations and maintenance, should we decide to move in that direction," he said.
LTA engineers will soon be deployed to "augment the SMRT and SBST maintenance crews now", in the process picking up "valuable on-the-job experience".
Meanwhile, both operators and regulator must work in a unified fashion "to improve integration through process, by forging a culture of One Team".
Mr Khaw said commuters do not care whose fault it is when there is a problem - they just want it fixed.
Yesterday, he witnessed the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the LTA, PUB, SBST and SMRT to foster relations in infrastructure maintenance.
PUB deputy chief executive Tan Yok Gin said: "Be it the water systems or rail system, similar fundamental engineering knowledge, best practices and asset management approach apply."
Dr Walter Theseira, an economist at SIM University, said: "The Government is moving towards a type of contracting scheme similar to bus contracting... so that it has more control over service quality.
"It has become apparent that for such a model to work successfully, you need to have sufficient depth of expertise within government."