Zit Seng's Blog

A Singaporean's technology and lifestyle blog

Striving Always To Improve

The recent signalling problems on the Circle line is the sort of situation that is familiar to me, in various areas of my work, including programming, network, server systems, and other bits of IT infrastructure. The Circle Line was plagued by a mysterious signalling problem that lasted a few days. As mysterious as it had started, it later disappeared.

Do we have any computer programmers here? You know how it is like. There’s this really puzzling bug that crashes your program. It has been working fine all the while. One fine day, or perhaps not so fine a day once the problem surfaces, your program suddenly doesn’t work the way it was supposed to do, the way it had been working all the while.

Try as you might to figure out what’s wrong, you can’t. Then one fine day, this time it really qualifies as a brighter day, the problem suddenly goes away. You rejoice.

Funny enough, for me, and perhaps the true programmers, I’d be really annoyed that my program is now working. I mean, I’m happy that it is working, but at the same time really frustrated to not know why it was not working, as well as why it is now be working. There must be a reason. Things don’t spoil for no reason. Things don’t auto-fix themselves.

The same thing happens as much with network, with servers, and all sorts of systems. The good thing for programmers is that, if you wrote the code, you can go in and actually investigate the problem yourself. You are able to dive in deep. With “boxes”, like network switches, server systems, and that sort, there’s only so much you can poke inside. Your hacking skills are hampered by the lack of access. It is truly frustrating to troubleshoot a mysterious blackbox.

I wonder what is going on in the minds of our SMRT engineers. Or LTA engineers. Or whoever they are running the train system. Are they happy, thank their lucky stars and all that, that the trains are running fine again? Or are they really frustrated and upset that the trains are running fine again, because they don’t know what had gone wrong?

I hope it is the latter.

I wasn’t going to write this post about trains today, except that I came across a couple of comments today about how Singaporeans should not complain too much about our trains, that we should appreciate what we have, and that we have in fact been quite pampered and all that.

Yes, I’m one of them who complain lots about trains. But that’s because we should always strive to improve. Are we just going to just pat ourselves on our backs, thank SMRT, SBS Transit, and the LTA for an excellent job well done (cough, cough), and just pray that things don’t get any worse than before? Are we happy for everything to just stay status quo?

This happens from time to time when someone comes back from a holiday and experiences “problems” with other trains and think that we’re all so lucky in Singapore. Tokyo, Hong Kong, or New York, or wherever. Even in super dense Tokyo where everything runs so well, there are hiccups.

I know Tokyo enough. When in Shinjuku station at the wrong time of the day, if you want to walk in (or out) and everyone else wants to get out (or in), i.e. opposite of you, you should just give up. It’s like the gates of a storm drain have been opened, you cannot move against the torrent gushing toward you. Alright, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s sort of like that. You must have read how train operators employ staff to physically pack commuters into trains. They would probably have you sit on top of train carriages if they could do that.

They do have track faults and all those breakdowns from time to time too. The difference is that they give you real-time information, even with an estimated time to fix, even if you are travelling on a different line not affected by the incident. That way, you can easily plan your trip around the problem. If I had to complain, it’s that the information wasn’t provided in English. I was temporarily lost in Munich once upon a time because they announced the withdrawal of a train service in German, and I couldn’t understand a word of it.

Of course, you could argue that in Singapore, that’s not necessary, because you’re stuck anyway, it’s not as if there were any viable alternatives available. Just get out of the station and join the queue for the bus bridging services!

So someone said we are lucky to have sheltered walkways around train stations. Yes, we must thank LTA very much for that. We have scorching hot sun and high humidity in Singapore. It would be unbearable to step out of the station without shelter. This isn’t a problem in many other cities. But oh wait, they instead have massive underground network of tunnels connecting buildings far, far, away from the stations!

We certainly don’t have the worst train system in the world. We are a developed country, and it is only fair that we should set our expectations much higher. We complain, but I don’t think we have any unreasonable expectations.

Question, are we satisfied to have a train system that just (barely) works? Are we just aiming to be good enough? Or should we be striving to leapfrog ahead of other comparable cities?

I hope SMRT and LTA folks, from engineers to managers, are tearing themselves up now because their trains are actually working. A problem that can auto-fix itself is a really worrying problem.

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