A lot more needs to be done to improve the maintenance regime of Singapore's train system, Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew said.
But this should not translate into shutting down the system during operating hours to get the work done, he said in an interview with The Straits Times.
"For an ageing system, we really need to step up our maintenance," he said, pointing out that the effort needed to maintain a 10- to 15-year-old system is "very different" from that for a 25- to 30-year-old system. Singapore's first MRT line opened in 1987, 28 years ago.
The issue of congested and delayed trains in the run-up to the 2011 General Election made transport a hot-button issue then.
A slew of improvements have boosted services and reliability, but recent breakdowns have pushed transport back into the limelight as Singapore heads for its next election in the weeks ahead.
Asked if increased maintenance would mean more halts to services during operating hours, as operators have complained they have only a small window every night to complete maintenance, Mr Lui said: "I don't necessarily agree that they must have more prolonged shutdowns of the system in order to be able to do what must be done."
The way to intensify the maintenance is through a proper allocation of manpower resources and better use of technology, he said.
Pointing to Hong Kong's MTR system, to which the Singapore system is often compared, Mr Lui said it is run as intensively as Singapore's and yet, during their graveyard shift, there is a "massive mobilisation" effort. "We are not yet at that level," he said.
Calling for a change in the maintenance roster of Singapore's public transport operators, Mr Lui said more could be done to better deploy manpower in the graveyard shift.
Technology should also be used more, particularly to monitor the system's condition. It would make maintenance tasks more achievable and manageable, he said.
Asked if the MRT's reliability problems were due to maintenance or design and infrastructure problems, Mr Lui said he did not want to apportion blame to either.
But he noted design problems tend to crop up within three to five years of the opening of a line.
"To say that design issues come up after 20, 25 years, well, I would say that if people have progressed to a better and improved design, then they ought to have kept up," he said.
Mr Lui said he did not believe major breakdowns like those of July 7 affecting two key lines cannot be prevented with enhanced maintenance. But, he added: "Setbacks are an opportunity for us to really put in even more effort and hopefully do better over time."
He noted that while reliability has had a mixed report card, much has been done to solve the two other pet peeves of commuters: capacity and congestion.
In the last four years, train capacity has gone up by almost 30 per cent and headways - the time between trains arriving - is now within five minutes for the major lines, except during the early morning.
Mr Lui, who is known to visit different stations unannounced, said he noticed that more people could board the second train that arrives instead of having to wait longer.
Buses, he said with pride, have helped the most in easing the congestion problem.
While new trains take about three to four years to get on the tracks and new lines take about 10 to 12 years to build, the $1.1 billion Bus Service Enhancement Programme has seen buses added to the roads within a year, easing congestion and reducing headways.
About 750 new buses will be on the roads by the year end, with another 250 by 2017. Said Mr Lui: "We would have turned the corner on congestion and capacity issues."