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‘Train disruptions unacceptable and unforgivable’

Andrew Loh

Peak hour morning traffic at the Bishan MRT Circle Line. (Yahoo! photo)

Singapore's Circle Line has been plagued by disasters and disruptions right from the get-go. It exceeded its original budgeted cost of S$6.7 billion; saw a section of the tunnel collapse in 2004, killing four workers; and experienced a cave-in at one of its construction sites in 2008.

On 14 December, Singapore Mass Rapid Transit (SMRT) yet again raised the ire of the public.  Thousands of commuters were affected when service on its Circle Line was disrupted at 6am that day. Although the cause was found and "partially" rectified in 40 minutes, trains were delayed for up to 5 hours after that. Workers were reported to have taken two hours to get to work that morning.

This is, of course, not the first time that such lapses have happened. According to news reports, this "is the second disruption since the line was fully opened this year and the eighth since its phased opening in 2009."

"The number of service disruptions on the Circle Line in the first 10 months of this year has already equaled the total experienced by commuters last year, according to figures from the Land Transport Authority (LTA)," reported the Today newspaper.

There have been disruptions in each of the last two months — on 20 September, a faulty cable stalled train services for four hours, affecting more than 26, 500 commuters, and on 17 October, "train faults" led to thousands of commuters being stranded.

Frequently fined

These follow the two security breaches at SMRT's depots — the first in May 2010 for which the company was fined S$50,000, and the second at its Bishan depot in August 2011. SMRT was hit with a stiffer S$200,000 fine for the latter lapse.

So far, the Public Transport Council (PTC) has punished SMRT several times, with the biggest penalty at S$400,000, for "causing severe train disruption" in 2008; and the smallest at S$300 in October 2010 for "failing to adhere to scheduled headways in three instances" for its buses.

Despite these penalties imposed by the Land Transport Authority (LTA) and the Public Transport Council (PTC), the failings continue to happen. The latest one on 14 December won't be the last, if history is any indication, and it comes on the back of an increase in taxi fares last week which had already angered the public. This in turn was preceded by the "revision" in fares for trains and buses which took effect on 8 October this year.

With cars out of reach of the average Singaporean and now taxi fares increased again (which, by the way, include a 15 ½ hour surcharge period throughout the day), failings in the train system is unacceptable as it is the main channel and the cheaper avenue of commute for millions daily.

After each failure, SMRT would apologise, as it did on Wednesday, "for the inconvenience caused" and pledge to do better.

Such acts of contrition are hollow and meaningless if SMRT can't get its house in order. Eight disruptions in two years, with several of these affecting tens of thousands of people, are unacceptable.

CEO's accountability

Perhaps the PTC should consider more severe punishment. Apparently, even a fine of S$400,000 is not doing the trick. Certainly, S$300 doesn't even come close either.

The question one would ask is: how seriously, really, does SMRT take such failings?

In 2010, when trains were packed and commuters were complaining, Saw Phaik Hwa, the President and CEO of SMRT, dismissed these concerns and defended the company. Instead, she pointed the finger at commuters and said: "People can board the train, it is whether they choose to."

Her remarks, besides upping the level of anger of the public by a few notches, also showed a CEO completely out of touch with reality. Saw later apologised for her comment. But commuters cannot keep being offered apologies while service keeps getting disrupted.

The train system has become the economic lifeline of Singapore. It is used by millions daily for their commute. While the public can and will accept the occasional hiccup, it is unforgivable and unacceptable that these disruptions are now more serious and more frequent.

From security breaches at its depots, to its failures in meeting taxi and bus standards, to these train disruptions, these are no longer "inconveniences" but serious failings.

The question which is being raised is whether Saw, who joined SMRT in 2002, is the right person for the job.

SMRT and SBSTransit, the other public transport operator, have been successful almost yearly in their applications to the PTC to "revise" fares. The two companies have also been pulling in good revenues, some at record levels, the last 10 years or so.

Fat pay cheque

Saw herself hasn't been doing that badly on a personal level. In 2010, she was reported to be the highest-paid SMRT CEO ever, with a salary of S$1.67 million in 2009. The next year, this increased to S$1.85 million.

Her deputy, Yeo Meng Hin, who has since left SMRT, was the second-highest paid in both years as well.

Yet, in the years that Saw has been in charge, especially the last two to three years, the lapses in security and in service should be a cause for worry. While some failures are perhaps out of her hands to control, surely the more serious ones (which even the PTC agrees to be so, hence the hefty fines of S$200,000 and S$400,000) should entail more serious consequences.

Or will we see Saw handed another record-breaking pay cheque in 2011?

The transport operators are, as a matter of course, allowed to apply to the PTC every year to "revise" fares. Invariably, or at least in the public's eyes, such revisions allow the operators to reap in ever-increasing profits.

As long as the PTC helps, in this way, the operators — especially SMRT — to annually generate increasing profits by granting their applications to "revise" fares, there are no reasons for an operator like SMRT to take such failures seriously.

Are there any incentives for SMRT to improve service standards when it is given the green light to raise fares almost on an annual basis, and its top executives are rewarded so handsomely, despite all the frequent "inconveniences" caused to commuters?

Andrew helms publichouse.sg as Editor-in-Chief. His writings have been reproduced in other publications, including the Australian Housing Journal in 2010. He was nominated by Yahoo! Singapore as one of Singapore's most influential media persons in 2011.