Minister Lui Tuck Yew: Gov't accepts share of blame for December breakdowns

Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew has admitted the Ministry of Transport and the Land Transport Authority (LTA) have fallen short in their responsibilities to keep train operator SMRT in check.

Addressing the recent Committee of Inquiry (COI) findings in Parliament on Tuesday, Lui said the two do share part of the blame in the twin MRT disruptions in December last year that affected more than 200,000 commuters.

He said that it is the responsibility of the ministry to ensure that the LTA does what it is supposed to do -- which is in turn to ensure that the public transport operators (PTOs) deliver standards expected of them.

"SMRT's maintenance regime had shortcomings, but we too -- both MoT, as the supervising ministry, and LTA, as the regulator -- have to shoulder our share of the responsibility," he said. "We could have done more, and could have done better... I give the House my assurance that we will spare no effort to improve."

Stating that the ministry accepts the COI's findings and recommendations in its report submitted to him earlier this month, Lui spoke at length about the role of the LTA as a regulator for public transport.

He said the LTA is responsible for holding PTOs accountable to their smooth operations and in the provision of a public service.

"The LTA fell short in this regard. It must do better," he said.

Lui also spoke of the need for the LTA's regulatory framework to be strengthened and for the authority to work much more closely with operators to ensure that they do what they're supposed to.

To do this, he said instead of taking a corrective stance, the LTA must take a systematic approach to identify areas of concern and working closely with transport operators on critical aspects of maintenance and repair.

Among the new measures already in place is the establishment of a joint team of engineers and experts from both SMRT and the LTA, which is working to reduce the number of incidents requiring trains to be removed from service by 30 per cent by next year.

He also said the two have taken steps to harmonise classification levels on incidents in order to better coordinate their responses to them, and are also developing a new code of practice for incident management.

Lui added that the LTA will require transport operators to engage independent experts and auditors to provide "health checks" on its maintenance processes every three years.

He also said he plans to raise the maximum fine for PTOs from the current S$1 million to make it more commensurate for the severity of incidents that occur.

Commercial vs engineering; private vs nationalised?

Turning his focus on the PTOs, Lui said they need to strike a balance between their two objectives of providing a public service and commercial aims.

"(PTOs) need to find a balance between being a commercial entity and an engineering company that provides a public service," he said.

He recognised SMRT's need to pay more attention to the engineering aspects of its business, but also shared that in his recent visits to the train operator's central premises, he has found that the company has taken "a renewed emphasis on engineering and maintenance".

Addressing further queries from members of the House on nationalising public transport and learning from different models used abroad, Lui said it is "not in our interest to emulate" the outcomes or methods adopted in London, for its tube system, and the New York subway.

These, he said, are run by nationalised entities that focus purely on the delivery of a public service. Without a profit motive, however, Lui said PTOs may not provide service that is as efficient and productive as it is now.

"A profit motive engenders behaviour for operators to be more efficient and productive," he said. "There is a pressure on them to be efficient, an ingredient we would like to see in our public transport network as well."

The Committee of Inquiry (COI) findings, issued last week, said Singapore's MRT system has been plagued by outdated equipment and poor maintenance for years. It also criticised SMRT for chasing profits.

The high-level panel assigned to look into the two breakdowns in December last year also criticised management for rushing to resume services without adequately addressing underlying problems.

Since the twin December breakdowns, the SMRT has been plagued by numerous disruptions.

In April, services along the newly opened multi-billion-dollar Circle Line were disrupted for three straight days during rush-hour traffic.

Last week, City Hall MRT station was hit by a 90-minute power blackout caused by a short circuit.