By Joy Fang
Disruptions on a heavily utilised rail system such as Singapore's are unavoidable, but breakdowns longer than 30 minutes are considered major disruptions, said Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew in Parliament yesterday.
He said the Ministry of Transport "will try and minimise as much as possible the major disruptions and to keep them in check".
But with an average of 2.7 million passenger trips daily and thousands of train trips in more than 18 hours a day, "there is no way you can prevent disruptions from occurring".
He was responding to Member of Parliament for Nee Soon GRC Lee Bee Wah's queries on whether more can be done to address the spate of breakdowns.
"If they do take place, you then have an incident-management plan in place that will try to ameliorate the effects on commuters," he added.
Mr Lui also gave details of the resources spent by transport operator SBS Transit on preventive maintenance of the rail track and tunnel of the North-East Line (NEL). He said it spent about $16 million from 2007 to last year in this area, adding that it was "a fraction of the total maintenance cost that they spent" on the line.
The operator, which has an in-house team of about 470 maintenance staff, also conducts regular inspections in accordance with approved maintenance plans, he said.
This includes a monthly deployment of an engineering vehicle to detect track faults, six-monthly tunnel inspections to check for cracks and leaks, as well as nightly checks to look for signs of defects or wear and tear.
On March 15, some 90,000 commuters were affected by a disruption on the NEL, which lasted some 10 hours. It was the biggest train disruption here since two major incidents on SMRT's North-South Line on Dec 15 and 17 last year.
Mr Lui said he has asked the Land Transport Authority (LTA) to work with the operators to put in place a "condition- monitoring regime" to give a better idea of how to prioritise some of the maintenance efforts needed.
Foreign bus drivers
Mr Lui also addressed the issue of employing foreign bus drivers.
He was referring to a recent accident in Sengkang, where an SBS Transit bus driven by a foreign driver killed a 66-year-old woman. While everyone is "saddened" by the incident, Mr Lui stressed that regardless of nationality, it is crucial that every driver is adequately trained and appropriately qualified.
"Especially if they come from abroad, then (they should be) given the kind of orientation that will help them familiarise themselves with the peculiarities of the system here in Singapore," he said.
In the public-bus sector, about 61 per cent of drivers are Singaporeans and permanent residents, about 26 per cent are Malaysians and about 12 to 13 per cent are from China.
Mr Lui added that the training of foreign drivers should include infusing them with the responsibility that they carry and to make sure that they operate their vehicles in a safe manner.
While the two public-bus operators will need to hire about 1,600 more drivers for the additional 800 buses in five years, Mr Lui said the Government will not micro-manage their wages and employment terms.
The LTA is also exploring the use of buses from private bus companies to supplement the public-bus fleet, he noted.
But there are constraints as private operators are trying to maximise the utilisation of their fleet, and are also needed to ferry workers and students during the peak hours, he said.
He added that the current system of rotating an average of two drivers to operate every bus through the course of a day was adequate.
Mr Lui said: "There's the morning peak as well as the evening peak and, in between, some of the drivers will then get to rest in the interchanges."
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