The New Singapore Standard for Train Service

I read with disappointment our Transport Minister Mr Lui’s address in parliament. I thought we were supposed to have a world-class public transport system. His Ministry is only targeting to minimize train disruptions that last longer than 30 minutes. I suppose delays under 30 minutes are considered tolerable. If the train operators can shorten the delays to under 30 minutes, they would have satisfied the new standards for train service Mr Lui wants.

Seriously? Shouldn’t you want to minimize the chance of any train service disruptions happening at all? Is he setting the bar too low?

Now our train operators are going to run their operations with the mindset that, no matter what happens, just make sure service doesn’t get disrupted for longer than 30 minutes.

I am getting the sense that, after the initial spurt of excitement and vigour when he got on board as Transport Minister, the reality of the state of transportation in Singapore has begun to sink in.

Remember all the original bright ideas like bus arrival information that will also tell you how full the bus is? Like if there are seats available, or if there is only standing room available. Very nice. Today, I’m still puzzled about why, just why, is it so difficult to get integrated bus arrival information for both SBS Transit and SMRT Buses.

For the Transport Minister to justify that train disruptions are “unavoidable” and will occur from time to time seems to send the wrong signal down the line. I must admit that I’m reading this news from Channel News Asia, and they could have quoted bits and pieces of his speech out of context. I think the message that should be sent across ought to be one along the lines that disruptions are unacceptable, and that everyone had better spare no effort to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Can we not set our standards higher?

A Shinkansen ride I took some years ago from Osaka to Tokyo arrived at one of the stops just before Tokyo station 5 minutes late. There was an outpouring of apologies over the public address system, both in the train and on the station platform. It felt like they had just committed the greatest sin. The train ride from Osaka was almost 3 hours. They were only 5 minutes late. I thought, wow, these Japanese are really very serious about punctuality.

Then, recently, I came to know about “Delay Certificates”. Train operators may provide passengers a Delay Certificate for a delay as little as just 5 minutes. The Delay Certificate provides documentary proof of lateness, and can, for example, be used as reason for late admission to university exams. This is also practiced on the Deutsche Bahn in Germany.

The Tokaido Shinkansen line is reputed to average 18 seconds delay in 2006. The Shinkansen as a whole, averaged 6 seconds from scheduled arrival time in 2003, and, mind you, this includes all natural and human accidents and errors.

Do you say this is an unfair comparison? A Shinkansen ticket costs a lot. But I dare say the municipal train services in Tokyo are equally good. They still cost more than the equivalent ride in Singapore, probably, but let’s not forget that generally the cost of living in Tokyo is higher than in Singapore.

Then, about the maintenance regime, didn’t the Transport Ministry and train operators know that, surely, the maintenance of a 1 year old system vs a 20 year old system has to be quite different? Are the train operators still doing exactly the same thing on a 20 year old system that they did when it was brand new?

I’m amused by reports of various sorts of clips flying off elevated MRT tracks recently. Maybe it has been happening all along, just that only now people are taking notice of them and it is newsworthy enough. I can’t imagine how many more might have detached themselves in the underground tracks. The clip that was found in Ang Mo Kio apparently, according to SMRT, did not come off the tracks nearby. Cool. So the clip must have come off from far far away then. I don’t know what the SMRT spokesperson was thinking, but surely this is even more worrying that the clip either got propelled off the track from a very long distance away (think flying missle…), or it got carried by a train and eventually deposited it somewhere else?

In a short span of time, after the massive train disruption last December, after the NSEWL was shutdown for a full inspection, and presumably nothing was amiss then, we now suddenly find a bunch of these clips dislodged?

According to Mr Lui, SBS Transit spent $16M on preventive maintenance on the North-East Line from 2007 to 2011. According to the SBS Transit’s annual reports, their cumulative operating profits from FY2007 to FY2011 amounted to $272.9M. (EBITDA for rail operations alone in FY2011 is $20.3M.) Clearly they could have afforded to spend a lot more on preventive maintenance. I don’t know what the situation is like with SMRT. The issue about older train lines is more applicable to SMRT.

When we talk about profits, we’re once again reminded that our train operators, as are the bus operators (oh wait, actually they are the same companies), are driven by profit. They want to increase fares, minimize expenses, and hence maximize profits. They are answerable to their shareholders, not commuters. Is it worse off to go the route of a nationalized government-run company? Maybe, because they are not motivated by profits so they might not be so efficient, not so productive, and deliver less satisfactory service. (Not that the existing service levels of our current train/bus operators are great.)

Just an idea: How about running public transport as a national cooperative company? Run it like a private company, but at the end of the day, the profits go back to commuters. I know it is not as easy as it sounds. But then again, I’m not sure if anyone has actually given it some serious thought.

Please let’s have higher expectations for our world-class public transport.

Comments

  1. just another commuter says:

    The points you’ve brought up certainly makes Nationalisation sound attractive. I admit, as a commuter myself, I like the idea. But I’m not smart enough to grasp any issues (if any) that it may bring. Unfortunately, we may never be any wiser, as it won’t be debated seriously at Parliament. That’s because the people most likely to bring it up will be the opposition (or have they already brought it up?), and by virtue of being in the opposition, it won’t get accepted as policy.

    Not to mention that nationalisation is seen as step backwards/policy reversal, given the drive for corporatisation/privatisation in the past.

  2. Victor says:

    I think they just need to invest in good machine learning software for bus arrival based on current gps location of all the buses (maybe bus speed too) and data from the past.

  3. sgcynic says:

    If this transport minister’s pragmatic (defeatist) mindset towards the MRT system is also spplied to our airport (which incidentally is older than the MRT network), woe to our status as a transport hub. What’s next – a couple of minutes of water and electrical stoppage perodically? Hmm… what to do? It’s happened. Let’s move on. Sounds familiar? “Leadership” infects all.

  4. [...] Last week, it was about our Transport Minister justifying that MRT breakdowns are unavoidable (see The New Singapore Standard for Train Service). This week, we are told to be prepared for more shutdowns. I’m disappointed. These stunts [...]

  5. […] for his Ministry to minimise train disruptions that last 30 minutes or longer. I posted about this New Singapore Standard for Train Service. It’s now 2014. Do you think the number of train disruptions that last 30 minutes or longer […]