Monday, October 25, 2010

S'pore shows world how to move people

Oct 25, 2010

From Dublin to Rio, clients are tapping local expertise in transport

By Goh Chin Lian

TRAIN and bus commuters in Dublin who use integrated transit cards next year and future metro passengers in Rio de Janeiro will have something in common.

The know-how behind their transport systems tracks back here - from the ticketing software for the Irish contactless card to the passenger-information displays on the Brazilian trains.

Singapore's expertise is also what officials in China's Tianjin relied on in their World Bank-funded study of improvements to its public transport system.

In the past decade, several companies that have built up experience developing public transport infrastructure here have, with the support of IE Singapore, hawked their expertise overseas - and clients from China to the Middle East are biting.

The companies' success reflects what is valued about Singapore-style systems - not just the technology, but also the integration of different systems that view transport planning in totality, transport engineers told The Straits Times.

Examples include Singapore Technologies (ST) Electronics, CPG Consultants which was born out of corporatising the Public Works Department in 1999, and MSI Global, the external arm of the Land Transport Authority (LTA).

The contracts they clinch are no small potatoes: For example, a dozen of ST Electronics' rail, road traffic and taxi projects in the past four years have exceeded $270 million in total value.
MSI, which started out as a $2 shell company in 1995, is today a $22 million firm with a mostly foreign client list.

The Dublin Rail Procurement Agency is one of its clients, to which it delivered software enabling commuters to use one card for trains, buses, coaches and trams. MSI pipped its Hong Kong, Korean and American rivals to the contract, said MSI business unit head Silvester Prakasam.

Reasons include Singapore's success with contactless cards usable not only on trains and buses, but also in shops. Knowing how to achieve this kind of integration, which Dublin valued, came from the way MSI's parent, the LTA, worked with other government agencies here.

Similarly, CPG's clients from Fiji, Brazil and China also recognise its holistic transport planning skills.

For the project in Tianjin, completed last year, CPG roped in veteran consultants Joseph Yee and Gopinath Menon. Their work on Singapore's land transport system, spanning more than 30 years, has taken them from planning to developing congestion-pricing measures like the Area Licensing Scheme and its successor, Electronic Road Pricing (ERP).

The study they did for Tianjin examined issues such as the city's masterplan, road-building programme, bus-priority lanes and plans for a city-rail system.

But transport engineers here say they are careful not to insist the Singapore way is the best way. Often, they have to adapt their expertise to local conditions and hire local consultants to get access to the right people and cut through red tape.

Mr Yee noted that, unlike in Singapore, other countries have more than one level of government; competing jurisdictions can create roadblocks to a project.

Political will is also not a given abroad. In Singapore, 'we dare to do what's unpopular when we know the long-term benefits for the country', he said.

Getting a grip on the local situation in a third world country is thus crucial, said Associate Professor Menon.

ST Electronics president Lee Fook Sun cited one such experience in Guangzhou in 2005. A single contactless card system looked like the neatest solution for the city, but the company had to accommodate its client's wish for a system that also accepted tokens. This was because its commuters included people from other provinces who were passing through and would not pay for a stored-value card.

ST Electronics has since sunk roots in foreign soil. It hired 150 research engineers in Shenzhen and transferred technology and production to a Shanghai subsidiary, where costs are lower than here.

This subsidiary has even come full circle: It has worked with trainmakers from China to clinch deals elsewhere - including here for the Downtown Line trains.

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