SINGAPORE (March 17): Transport minister Khaw Boon Wan has set an ambitious target for rail reliability.

This year, he wants trains to run an average of 300,000 km before they experience a delay of more than five minutes. Next year, this mean kilometre between failure (MKBF) target will be raised to 400,000 km. By 2020, the goal will be 800,000 km.

To achieve its target, the Ministry of Transport has committed $4 billion over the next five years to overhaul the ageing rail system.

The package includes the replacement and upgrades of the third rail, the signalling system and the power supply system. The third rail supplies power to trains; the signalling system tells trains when to stop and go. This is on top of the $20 billion budgeted for new public transport infrastructure.

In order to ensure the fiscal burden does not become excessive for taxpayers, Khaw says train fares may have to go up. While taxpayers now bear the cost of building and replacing infrastructure, Khaw says fares should cover operating costs. That is currently not the case.

The public reaction was predictably negative, coming after an announcement that the price of water will go up. Singaporeans argue they should not pay more to enrich train operators, especially as trains continue to break down.

As the regulator of the public transport industry, it is the job of the Land Transport Authority (LTA) to ensure public transport operators meet certain standards. There are precedents for this in other industries in which profit-driven entities supply important public goods.

But the ultimate responsibility for setting those standards lies with the regulator. And standards should be predetermined and based on available resources rather than retroactive and based on the level of public outrage.

With a strong regulator, commuters need not fear that they will be shortchanged because companies are pursuing profits. Unless LTA fills this role effectively, there is a risk that the discourse on public transport will become increasingly unhelpful.

For the full story on SMRT and the LTA’s plans to pursue financial sustainability under a new rail financing framework (NRFF), find out more in this week’s issue of The Edge Singapore (Issue 771, week of March 20), available at newsstands today.