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Speech by Minister for Transport Khaw Boon Wan at The Ministry of Transport’s Committee Of Supply Debate 2020 on Keeping Our Public Transport Amongst The Best in the World

05 Mar 2020 Speeches

1.     With your permission, Mr Chairman, may I ask the Clerks to distribute handouts for Members’ reference.

COVID-19 

2.     Mr Chairman, COVID-19 is still wreaking havoc around the world. In Singapore, Changi Airport took the first hit. Airlines have cancelled over 20% of their scheduled flights.  Passenger volume at Changi has plunged by 25%, and is likely to fall further. Both the cruise and ferry sectors are devastated. As China locks down, global supply chains are also disrupted. As fear grips, people telecommute more and go out less. Along with reduced tourist arrivals, our bus, rail, taxi and private hire car ridership have fallen by about 20%. This has taken a toll on the livelihoods of our taxi and private hire car drivers.

3.     We are also tracking the impact on our transport infrastructure projects. For now, the delay to project timelines is still manageable. But if the outbreak drags on, it could disrupt the supply of construction equipment and materials. And this could impact the timeline for Terminal 5, Tuas Port, new MRT stations, and the next-generation ERP system. For example, our new trains are being built in China.  

4.     With support from our tripartite partners, the Government reacted swiftly with a robust Unity Budget 2020. For the transport sector, MOT worked closely with NTUC and our transport operators to put in place relief measures to support our workers, while providing assurance to our commuters. Let me join Mr Sitoh Yih Pin to thank all frontline transport workers for keeping Singapore moving amidst this outbreak.  

Strategies for Recovery

5.     The COVID-19 outbreak will burn out. Sooner or later, our economy and our industries will recover. So while we attend to the immediate needs, we should also focus on the eventual recovery and make full use of this lull period.  

6.     First, position our companies and workers to ride the eventual upturn. Use this opportunity to transform and grow. We have the road maps, the Air, Land and Sea Transport Industry Transformation Maps, to show us the way forward. Let’s carry them out.

7.     Second, press on with our infrastructure plans. Over the next five years, we have an extensive line-up of construction projects in the transport sector.  

a.     On the aviation front, we are expanding Changi Airport.  The three-runway system will be operational by the mid-2020s. The development of Terminal 5 is well underway. 

b.     On the maritime front, Tuas Port Phase 1 will be fully operational by 2027. When fully completed in the 2040s, Tuas Port will be the world’s single largest fully automated container terminal.  

c.     Together, these investments will grow our external connectivity to seize growth in the global transport of goods and people.  

d.     Another international link is the proposed RTS Link with Malaysia. Miss Cheng Li Hui asked about the progress. The project remains suspended until the end of April this year. Recent political developments in Malaysia will further impact the project. While we remain committed to working with Malaysia to find a way forward, the project cannot be suspended indefinitely. We therefore look forward to hearing from Malaysia soon. Are there other options to address the Causeway jam? Expanding the immigration facilities will help as the current capacity is inadequate to handle the peak traffic. Better distribution of traffic between the Causeway and the Second Link will also help. Likewise a better distribution of traffic between peak and off-peak periods. And we have been trying to pursue all these options but to move the needle meaningfully, the RTS Link is the answer.

8.     On the domestic land transport side, we stand ready to speed up over $100 million worth of cycling path and road construction projects by up to 3 years. 

Clean and Green Transport 

9.     But beyond the immediate our vision is a clean and green transport system for Singapore. This will raise the quality of life for generations of Singaporeans to come. We will make three strategic moves.  

10.    First, phase out vehicles with internal combustion engines (ICE) by 2040. In other words, no more ICE vehicles by 2040! We have 20 years to phase them out. SMS Janil will explain how we can achieve this and replace them with cleaner vehicles.  

11.    Second, speed up the construction of our cycling infrastructure. SMS Lam will explain how we can get more Singaporeans to Walk-Cycle-Ride for first-mile and last-mile connectivity.  

12.    Third, keep our public transport among the best in the world. As noted by Mr Ang Wei Neng, Mr Sitoh Yih Pin, Ms Cheng Li Hui, Mr Melvin Yong and Mr Lim Biow Chuan, we have turned the corner on rail reliability. So let me join these MPs to thank our transport workers, LTA, SMRT, SBST and the National Transport Workers’ Union for their hard work and their dedication. But remember, maintenance is a continuous effort.  Never lift your eyes off the ball. And certainly, never be complacent. Let me also thank our commuters for their patience and understanding. But remember, a highly reliable MRT line may still experience some occasional hiccups. We do our best to reduce such inconveniences to the absolute minimum.

13.    I note Mr Ang Wei Neng’s suggestion that our rail operators should seek to venture abroad, as our bus operators have done. This is something for the operators to decide. But if they do, my advice is that their foreign ventures should not distract them from their local operations, domestic operations in Singapore. Their priority must always be to ensure safe, smooth and reliable journeys for our commuters in Singapore.

Rail Renewal and Expansion

14.    In any case, our two rail operators will be fully engaged with our domestic network.  There is plenty of work to be done. Over the next decade, we will be spending over $60 billion to expand and renew our rail network. 60,000 million dollars of works to be done. Let me elaborate, in response to Mr Sitoh Yih Pin, Mr Melvin Yong and Mr Dennis Tan.  

15.    First, we will be completing the Thomson-East Coast Line (TEL). Stage 1 has already opened. Stage 2 will follow within the next few months, single digit months. Mr Lim Biow Chuan, and his residents in Mountbatten will benefit from Stage 4 of TEL by 2023.  Can we expedite further? I think very difficult. This is a very complex project.  Every time I meet the team, I tell them ”Safety first. Safety first. Don’t be too hasty.” Deadlines are there, we certainly want as soon as possible but never compromise on safety. 

16.    Second, we will be completing the extensions to North East Line and Downtown Line, by 2023 and 2024 respectively, within the next term of government. We will see four new stations added to our rail network. And this includes the opening of Hume station by 2025, which Mayor Low Yen Ling has actively lobbied for in previous COS. This year, I didn’t find her cut. 

17.    Third, we , when we complete the circle. This final stretch at Keppel is the most challenging to build and also the most costly. But when completed in 2025, it will significantly raise the resilience of our MRT network and the travelling experience of our commuters.

18.    Fourth, we will be completing the Jurong Region Line by 2028. Like Mr Arasu Duraisamy, we want to ensure that our Tuas port workers will have good public transport to Tuas. JRL will benefit them. This is in addition to the Tuas West Extension and the bus services 247 and 248 in the Tuas South area, which we put in over the past few years.

19.    Fifth, we will be completing Phase 1 of the Cross Island Line by 2029. This will contribute towards the subsequent growth of our rail network to 360km, from the current 230km. In fact, a Singaporean student studying in Geneva, Faiz Basha, was so excited by our plan for our rail network that he produced a revised MRT map for 2030 and beyond. Mr Cedric Foo referred me to this map, he was intrigued by it and described it as a beautiful map. Indeed it is. SMS Janil told me of another Singaporean, architect Cliff Tan, based in the UK who has offered LTA many similar design suggestions. Both are overseas but their hearts are firmly anchored in Singapore! 

20.    Indeed, by 2030, around 80% of Singaporeans will live within walking distance of a train station. We would have achieved or exceeded the level of train connectivity enjoyed by the residents in Hong Kong, Tokyo and New York today. As Mr Cedric Foo remarked to me about our plan: “This is our commitment to build a liveable city and this is MOT’s contribution to reducing traffic jams as well as carbon emissions!” 

21.    Apart from expanding our rail network, we will finally complete the renewal of the North-South Line and East-West Line (NSEWL) by around 2023. Actually, 2023 is not too far away. This is 2020, and 2023 is two, three years’ time, Mr Lim. By then, we would also be able to see the benefits from the renewal of our oldest LRT, the Bukit Panjang LRT.  Ageing train stations too, will be suitably refurbished and upgraded, especially the toilets and the escalators. And in time, we will also need to renew the next oldest lines – North East Line and Sengkang Punggol LRT in good time.

22.    The hard lesson learnt from the problems earlier faced by SMRT, is that we must invest in good operations and maintenance. As noted by Miss Cheng Li Hui, and this means engineering capabilities, as well as the timely renewal of old MRT and LRT lines. There is no free lunch.  

23.    As we pursue these projects, let me assure Mr Melvin Yong that we will continue to work with operators and unions to ensure optimal working conditions for our transport workers. Mr Yong knows that these are my top concerns. Every time I visit the depot, I will check in, talk to them, take a good look at their lounge, their furniture and the toilets. These are signs of our operators paying attention. They form the backbone of our transport system. We must support them well so that they can perform to their maximum potential.

24.    Mr Chairman. Transport is both capital-intensive and skills-intensive. That is why MOT’s budget is among the biggest in Government. I think we are number 4 this year. Although in terms of the number of cuts, we are in the bottom 4. I think it says something. To ensure sustainability, we need taxpayers and commuters to co-fund it. The question is how to share the burden fairly. It is as posed by Mr Sitoh Yih Pin just now: how to strike a balance between financial sustainability, affordability, reliability and efficiency. It requires hard-headed calculations and a heavy dose of empathy. It requires political honesty and also sound judgement. That is why, amongst other things, we have a structure comprising an objective fare formula and an independent Public Transport Council.  

25.    I agree with Associate Professor Walter Theseira that fare adjustments must be accompanied by serious cost management, cost containment. We will continue to look for cost-cutting measures and productivity improvement solutions. We will also regularly benchmark our operators’ costs with their counterparts elsewhere. A recent NTU study gave us some reassurance that our operators’ costs are well within the normal range. But we must also have the discipline to deploy public transport services prudently. That is why we sometimes turn down MPs’ requests for new bus services. Shuttles, maybe we can negotiate, or shorter headways.  

26.    In the coming years, the expansion of rail and cycling lane infrastructure will add greater connectivity to the system and benefit more commuters. A highly interconnected transport network supported by real-time information will provide commuters with more route and mode options. Good mobile apps will empower commuters to choose the option that best meets their needs. As travel patterns change, we must be nimble to optimise the provision of public transport services. A/Prof Walter Theseira raised the idea of a transitional voucher for commuters affected by such optimisation. I am not so sure that it is easy to design such a scheme. But in a way, our cheaper off-peak rates is one such idea. In any case, we always ensure that commuters affected will have reasonable travel alternatives, so that they will not be left in the lurch, and our MPs understand the need for cost management.

27.    One such considerate MP is Mr Lim Biow Chuan. I heard his request for additional public bus services for his private estate residents. LTA will evaluate his request seriously, carefully and fairly. We do have shuttle services running in private estates. I live in a private estate where there is a shuttle bus going around. And quite recently, there was the first private estate shuttle bus that runs on electricity ¬- electric buses.  

Conclusion

28.    Mr Chairman, over the years, we have progressively transformed our land transport sector to better serve Singaporeans.  It has not been a smooth journey but we never let difficulties discourage us. Mr Ang Wei Neng referred to McKinsey’s 2018 report, ranking Singapore’s public transport as among the best in the world. More recently, there is a Business Insider France (Feb 11, 2020) report on urban mobility, in which consulting firm Oliver Wyman joined forces with the Berkeley University of California to rank the top 10 advanced cities in the world based on the quality of their public transport systems. Singapore came out top. Credit must go to successive generations of MOT and LTA officials, who put their heart and soul into this venture. But we know we are far from perfect. We still have a lot of things to do, including to complete the $60 billion of strategic long term plan for our rail network, which I outlined earlier. I look forward to Members’ continuing support.  

29.    My other MOT colleagues will now elaborate on our other plans moving forward. Thank you.