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LTA must prepare to take over rail operations, says Khaw

SINGAPORE — For the second time in less than three weeks, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan today (Dec 4) signalled a possible restructuring of the rail industry, as he reiterated the need to move away from the current model that separates the Land Transport Authority (LTA) as the designer and builder of the infrastructure, from the operators that also maintain it.

Mr Khaw (second from right) today with attendees of an inaugural forum on infrastructure maintenance. Photo: Robin Choo

Mr Khaw (second from right) today with attendees of an inaugural forum on infrastructure maintenance. Photo: Robin Choo

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SINGAPORE — For the second time in less than three weeks, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan today (Dec 4) signalled a possible restructuring of the rail industry, as he reiterated the need to move away from the current model that separates the Land Transport Authority (LTA) as the designer and builder of the infrastructure, from the operators that also maintain it. 

Already, he has asked LTA to establish a team that is able to take on operations and maintenance “should we decide to move in that direction”. “For new rail lines, for future rail lines, I think we have the opportunity to shape the way we do things,” said Mr Khaw, adding that this was among the reasons he asked LTA to build up its engineering expertise.

Speaking at an inaugural forum on infrastructure maintenance, Mr Khaw said that LTA team can be subsequently involved in “all aspects of the value chain, going beyond design and construction”. “By deploying them to augment the SMRT and SBST (SBS Transit) maintenance crews now, our LTA team will also pick up valuable on-the-job experience immediately,” he said. 

Mr Khaw noted that, from an economist’s viewpoint, the current model allows for more competition as the authorities can “pick and choose the operator”. “And if the operator is lousy, we can sack the operator and replace with another operator. But from an engineer’s viewpoint, I think it is not so ideal from the life-cycle perspective,” he said. 

He added: “I’m an engineer, I prefer an engineer’s viewpoint. But it is not so easy to change the model that we have today overnight.”

The “second-best” solution is to improve integration and forge a collaborative culture among staff from different organisations. “When we face a problem we face it as one team,” said Mr Khaw, reiterating a point he had made on his blog on Nov 17. “It does not matter whether you are LTA or SMRT or SBST; when a problem crops up, it is everybody’s problem.”

In the blog post, Mr Khaw had said that at the industry level, there needs to be greater integration, with all parties involved in the different stages working closely together. He also revealed that the Government was mulling over “whether to rework the (industry) structure or perhaps implement new processes to realise the ideal outcome”. Transport analysts TODAY spoke to said it was too soon to tell if the rail industry would follow in the footsteps of its bus counterpart in undergoing a major restructuring.

Dr Walter Theseira, a senior lecturer at SIM University (UniSIM) said it was also hard to predict the impact of any industry overhaul on the operators as much depends on the details of the shake-up, if and when it takes place. 

Nevertheless, UniSIM adjunct associate professor Park Byung Joon said that should the Government choose to head in that direction, it could possibly set up a company to “own, operate, maintain and invest” in the rail infrastructure.

At the forum, representatives from LTA, national water agency PUB, SMRT and SBST signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to enhance collaboration in infrastructure maintenance. Mr Khaw said: “We have chosen the water utilities and rail sectors as they are literally the lifeblood of our country. Over time, we want to invite more organisations to join this community.”

About 150 senior engineers and staff from the four organisations attended the forum where they participated in sharing sessions and focus group discussions.

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