MRT running smoothly comes at a price, mainly for train operators

Better reliability and capacity also translates into higher maintenance costs for MRT's operations

Photo: YouTube screengrab

For the past three years, Singapore’s MRT network has tripled in its reliability and capacity.

In doing so, Transport minister Khaw Boon Wan, cited in Parliament that it has become a burden for train operators.

The minister said this was mainly due to the intensified efforts and increased maintenance costs being shouldered by the rail operators such as SMRT Trains and SBS Transit.

He added both SMRT and SBS’ Downtown Line said that their operating costs were higher compared to their fare incomes as seen in the financial years in March 2018 and December 2017, respectively.

Khaw, basing his observations on the Downtown Line’s latest financial findings, highlighted that the transport ministry is carefully evaluating the results and it showed that the Downtown Line is not in good shape.

This was his response to Nominated MP Walter Theseira who made an inquiry about the needed amount from government grants and subsidies to provide the necessary operating costs of the MRT lines.

Dr Theseira also inquired about the government’s contingency plans in case the operators experience substantial and long-term operating losses.

The minister stressed that the existing fare formula which was until 2022 had not factored in the possible increase in maintenance expenses in the coming years.

He added the Public Transport Council (PTC) should address this issue, as the agency that regulates public transport fares.

In terms of the MRT network’s reliability, he cited that this is an engineering issue that has lingered for the past three years.

The problems have solutions, but you need money, resources, and time to resolve them.

Khaw mentioned how the money can be sourced. He said this can be taken from taxpayers’ money, government subsidies, commuters’ daily fares, and potential fare adjustments.

The Singaporean government has already heavily invested and provided subsidies to ensure that the country’s rail network continues to be reliable, convenient, and affordable to the riding public.

For the next five years, about $25 billion has been allotted for the expansion of the MRT network, with the development of the Thomson-East Coast Line, Jurong Region Line, and the Cross Island Line.

Other related expenses include a $4.5 billion budget that will be used for establishing, replacing old parts or upgrading rail network assets.

Khaw said the government is also taking precautionary measures before deciding to increase the required funding for rail operations as it also has to bear with competing needs in other sectors like healthcare and security industries.

As the rail network’s reliability increases, this means providing improved customer satisfaction. In the most recent annual PTC Customer Satisfaction Survey, many commuters have shown high satisfaction ratings with public transport in 2018 after the MRT enhancements were made.

The overall passenger satisfaction rating based on the poll rose to 7.9 from 7.7 in 2017. Since 2014, it was the fourth highest consecutive improvement. The MRT rating increased to 7.9 from 7.5 in 2017.

Based on the Land Transport Authority (LTA) figures, the average rail daily ridership for both MRT and LRT recorded the highest growth of 5.7% to 3.5 million rides daily.