Zit Seng's Blog

A Singaporean's technology and lifestyle blog

The Singapore-Class Transport System

Transportation is in the hot seat lately. 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 are what I call “managing expectations”. Or more appropriately here, “managing disappointments”.

I’m annoyed because “managing expectations” is what books teach me to do to other people. It doesn’t feel so great when others practice what you’ve learnt on you.

When MRT services breakdown again in future, we have already been told, “breakdowns are unavoidable”. When there are shutdowns in future, we are already warned, “the closures are needed”.

I can’t help but wonder if our MRT system had been designed, operated, and managed professionally. I haven’t lived overseas to know if subway systems in other cities have such shutdown requirements. But I have read that the New York City subways run continuously on a 24-hour basis, with no nightly system shutdown for maintenance.

Our MRT has a nightly shutdown of about 4 hours, and they cannot even get routine maintenance done correctly.

Maybe, in the 1980s, when our North-South lines were first built, it was unfathomable that our MRT system will be such a critical transportation infrastructure. Maybe the people at the top did think about it, but the big picture did not get understood by the people who designed the system.

One thing I’ve been wondering about is why doesn’t our MRT system run “express services”, that is, services that serve major stations but skip other stations along a line. E.g., on the North-South line, we could have an express service that stops at Ang Mo Kio, skips stops until Toa Payoh, then skips to Orchard, etc. It’s probably because the system was not built with parallel tracks, so trains cannot overtake one another. That’s right… that’s why when a train breaks down, the entire line is held up. You could not easily bypass a stalled train.

Our North-East line is much newer. Our Circle line is spanking new. I wonder if such provisions were made. Perhaps ridership isn’t high enough right now to justify express services, but still, I wonder if the system is capable of running them.

As a critical system in our transport infrastructure, could they not have designed the MRT to run without stoppages, be it for maintenance, upgrades, or expansions?

We don’t know yet what kind of shutdown the MRT system is going to have, so maybe it is a little premature to be all too jumpy about it. The shutdown of Jurong East station in 2010 over two weekends is probably tolerable. But to have this exercise repeated throughout the entire North-South East-West system is going to cause major inconvenience and nightmares.

I’ve not ranted about buses lately, although anecdotally I suspect we aren’t very pleased about them. I did gripe about taxis recently.

Officially, the LTA customer satisfaction survey shows a dip in levels in 2011 compared with 2010. I cannot understand, however, how is it that 9 in 10 were actually satisfied with our public transport services.

The other transport news that emerged today is about COE prices, that our Transport Minister says is not due to the Government slowing the growth in vehicle population. Yet he contradicts himself, sort of, later being quoted that the strong demand in COE is fueled by, among other things, more people bidding now in expectation that premiums may rise further. With quotas expected to be cut, it is only reasonable to assume that premiums will rise.

The principle of COE is good. But somehow the system that has been implemented leads to wild swings in prices. I don’t think this is a desirable effect. Buying cars is almost like playing the stock market, except that cars are a sure-lose investment. There should be some stability in here. It doesn’t make sense that the cost of private car transportation should vary so wildly depending on which year you bought the car.

The root of the problem seems to be that we’ve an overpopulated city that has grown too fast, and an antiquated transportation system that has not kept up with the growth. MRTs are congested, roads are congested, bus services unreliable, taxis nowhere to be found. I wonder if there are any statistics to show the growth in road capacity, train capacity, bus capacity, and taxi capacity, in comparison with the residential population increase in Singapore?

Granted that we cannot increase transport capacity overnight, is there some short-term wins we can achieve to relief pressure on the transport system? I’m thinking beyond just staggering working/schooling hours. Perhaps it is time to try harder at telecommuting, what with our IN2015 all-fibre nation almost all wired up. Actually, even telecommuting may not be enough. It’s not just about going to work or study that we’re having problems with… even getting to town to shop, dine, or whatever, is quite a problem.

We need a transport revolution.

2 thoughts on “The Singapore-Class Transport System

  1. Minister Lui Tuck Yew has put up such a good Wayang show that he will easily win the next Oscar. Accordingly to him such breakdowns of SMRT trains are unavoidable meaning that is he is in charge of maintaining the plane, he cannot quarantee there will be all these breakdowns and crashes.

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