Commuters may have to wait longer for trains during off-peak hours, as train operators consider cost-saving measures in the face of mounting losses.
Operating costs have risen as train services have become more reliable, and Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said yesterday it was time to extend the focus from immediate fixes to include the system's long-term sustainability.
Noting that demand for train services is not uniform throughout the day, he said he would encourage rail operators to experiment with longer train intervals during off-peak times.
Speaking at the SBS Transit (SBST) Sengkang Depot to celebrate improvements in rail reliability, Mr Khaw noted the MRT network recorded mean kilometres between failure (MKBF) of over one million train-km last month. This measures the distance travelled before a train fault that lasts more than five minutes. In 2017, the MRT network as a whole clocked 181,000 MKBF.
But train operators have expressed concerns about the cost of service improvements. Last month, SMRT Trains reported losses of $155 million in the 12 months to end-March this year, almost double that of a year ago, because of higher operating expenses. Spending on repairs and maintenance accounted for about 71 per cent of rail-fare revenue, up from just 45 per cent three years ago.
Meanwhile, SBS Transit's Downtown Line registered losses of $125 million over the past three years.
The Transport Ministry has said such losses are not sustainable and higher fares will be needed, even with rising operating subsidies by the Government for public transport in the next five years.
Talks have also begun between the National Transport Workers' Union and the Land Transport Authority on reviewing the year-old New Rail Financing Framework, which caps operators' earnings while giving them a measure of protection if costs outpace revenues.
Mr Khaw noted that initiatives by SMRT and SBST have led to greater cost efficiency and total savings of more than $25 million since 2015. These include the use of train driving simulators, and putting trains into energy-saving mode before they are deployed.
An adjustment of train frequencies based on commuter demand would also optimise the use of resources, said Mr Khaw, citing the example of the Taipei Metro and Hong Kong MTR, which have train intervals of up to 10 and 14 minutes respectively during off-peak hours.
"This also reduces unnecessary wear and tear on the system that drives up downstream maintenance costs," he noted.
Currently, SMRT and SBST trains arrive at stations every five to seven minutes during off-peak hours.
National University of Singapore transport infrastructure expert Raymond Ong said it was sensible to lengthen train intervals during non-peak hours to reduce unnecessary stress on the system.
But transport economist Michael Li from the Nanyang Technological University said it would make sense only if utilisation is relatively low during off-peak hours.
"If the off-peak utilisation rate of the train's capacity is high, it would not make sense to do a consolidation of the service even if operators have financial issues," he said.
Commuters too were concerned about the impact on them, with some like civil servant Nurul Rahmat, 32, wondering if the reduction in wear and tear from having off-peak trains run less frequently would make a significant cut in operating costs.