Our SMRT Drama Unfolds

The last couple of days we’ve been entertained by the public inquiry into the spate of SMRT disruptions. We’ve just come to the juicy part where SMRT ex-CEO Saw Phaik Hwa gets grilled. Not unexpectedly, we’re going to learn about many more things wrong about SMRT.

One of the key issues is about the maintenance budget set by SMRT had not kept pace with the growing ridership. To cut a long story short, Ms Saw claimed a mid-life refresh had averted spending on maintenance. However, we learnt that those refresh were primarily about upgrading of air-conditioning and passenger cabins. These are good for passenger comfort, but don’t help to improve reliability and safety of the trains.

Ms Saw also claimed that productivity improvements helped keep maintenance cost low. I’m not sure I understand this. Ordinarily, I’d think about human productivity. Fewer people to do the work of more people. Yeah, of course, you reduce headcount, but there is the same amount of work to do, of course productivity increases, but do you get the same quality result?

Broadly speaking, productivity is simply about how much output you produce per unit of input. Whatever she means by productivity, it comes down to doing more with less. I don’t know if the same quality of work was produced, and I don’t think we’re ever going to get a simple answer about that. But quite clearly, SMRT has put in less input.

We also learnt about how some of the headcount lost due to natural attrition were not replaced. That means, basically, you reduced headcount. You don’t necessarily need to fire people or retrench people, you could also reduce headcount. That’s what many companies do to reduce manpower overheads.

The public inquiry has become like a drama. Each day unveils little snippets (or sometimes larger ones) of information about what goes on inside SMRT.

What SMRT has been doing is probably not different from most other private enterprises. Most businesses, if not all, ultimately wants to maximize profits. Maybe they could have lofty vision and mission statements about how they want to make the world a better place, or improve our lives, etc. But ultimately, isn’t it the case that they want to maximize profits?

The trouble is that our government has made train services a basic and critical transport infrastructure. You can’t run such infrastructure services like a typical private enterprise.

I was just about to compare with other basic infrastructure like water and electricity. Then I remembered, electricity providers are, technically, also privatised. But perhaps it’s different here because for consumers, the electricity tariff is fixed formula that depends on prevailing oil prices (and the irony is that our electricity is generated from natural gas, not oil). Big consumers of electricity have the flexibility to call for tender and benefit from healthy competition between the providers. So it’s different. Sure, electricity providers still want to maximize profits, but they do so by lowering their cost, and the quality of their output is easily measurable.

Having said that, I hope tomorrow we don’t wake up to a first blackout in many years, and the start to a new era where we’re told blackouts are “unavoidable” and we just need an incident management plan to deal with it.

I don’t think our “train disruption rate” has improved since December 2011. Despite everything that has been said and done, many of us are going to assume train service disruptions are very much a part of life. I seldom take the MRT, but a week or two ago, when I had an early meeting appointment in town, and had the option to take either a train/bus combo or just buses only, I actually factored in a variable delay component into the train segment of the journey, exactly like how I would do for buses.

Gone are the times when we could be quite confident that if we got to the train station at time X, we would be at our destination train station at time Y, give or take 5 minutes.