Sunday, 25 December 2011

More reactions to the MRT breakdown on 15 and 17 Dec 2011

Lack of options, clarity make MRT woes worse
Don't wait till inquiry is complete to implement changes, update public
By Maria Almenoar, The Straits Times, 20 Dec 2011

ONCE, on a trip to London, I sniggered when I heard an announcement on the Underground.

'All lines are working 100 per cent today, all lines are 100 per cent,' said a disembodied voice over the system.

I thought with pride how that would be a redundant statement if one ever heard it in our trains at home.

Singapore's public transport system had worked at 100 per cent reliability, almost 100 per cent of the time.

But that illusion crashed into reality last week when the trains here ran into two major disruptions.

The massive five-hour shutdown on Thursday night, followed by a seven-hour breakdown on Saturday on the North-South Line have put a dent in commuters' confidence in the system.

Train commuters here have been reasonable, mostly. This was evident from the calm way that many reacted to being kept in the dark, literally, by lights that failed to come on, and figuratively, by the operator who took too long to let them know what was happening.

And many also accept that with the trains running more frequently and lines intersecting at more points, the system is now more complex than ever before in its 24-year history.

As connectivity increases, so will the potential for breakdowns and disruptions as new lines take time to be run in, as experienced recently on the Circle Line. More rail lines are also being built up to 2020, with parts of the Downtown Line opening next in 2013.

But even as commuters learn to recognise and cope with this reality, what about the operators?

SMRT has promised to get to the bottom of the causes and has made profuse apologies about wanting to do better.

The obvious questions that have surfaced: What was it doing before this? What sort of standard operating procedures did it abide by? How frequently did it rehearse its emergency preparedness routines?

What has been troubling though, has been SMRT's vague and imprecise answers to these questions.

One would have thought that precisely because of the growing complexity of the lines and greater frequency of trains, someone in management would have paused for a moment to wonder what impact these moves might have on maintenance and downtime and the provision of alternatives.

And this is what makes the breakdowns unacceptable: the lack of alternatives and information given to those affected.

Singapore's network is still in transition and is not as far-reaching yet as those in cities like London and New York. Breakdowns are commonplace there but commuters are funnelled and filtered to other working lines.

In Singapore, it is not so easy to transfer affected commuters to another line. So, the gaps in the system that could result because of a breakdown or any downtime must be anticipated well in advance, planned for and activated with speed when they do occur.

This is what peeved commuters most last week, that they were being taken off the trains and made to feel they had to fend for themselves.

Among the gaps that need to be worked on are better bus bridging services, communication and signage and efficiency in an emergency.

Firstly, bus bridging services need to be activated more swiftly and extensively during a train breakdown. It should not take nearly an hour to crank up this back-up system, like what happened last week.

Buses are, of course, no good if drivers are ill-prepared to ferry commuters around. During last week's ordeal, commuters complained about drivers being confused about the journeys and stopping some distance from stations.

Secondly, SMRT must recognise that its communication skills in a crisis are amateurish.

Commuters need information to make choices. They want to be told early and across as many platforms as possible if their trips will be affected by delays or cancellations and how they ought to re-route their journeys.

Even at the stations, commuters reported having to walk all the way in only to learn of the disruption. Why couldn't signs have been put up much farther out? Even when stations were closed, the signs were not visible at some stations until one reached the shuttered facades. Signs to direct commuters to bus bridging services were also hard to come by.

SMRT is not the only player accountable.

As regulator, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) must set the bar, and set it high, particularly with the standard operating procedures during emergencies.

Commuters may be able to accept a compromise in their journey time but they should not have to accept anything that compromises their safety.

So far, the authorities have been vague on what standard operating procedures (SOPs) they require the operators to follow in an emergency, other than confirming only that there are indeed SOPs to be followed.

If these SOPs come with no specific obligations, then the LTA needs to revise these standards.

For one thing, how long is a reasonable time for commuters to wait in a stalled train before help comes?

If back-up power to provide ventilation and lighting in a stalled train can last for 45 minutes, is this the longest expected duration commuters can be in such situations?

So far, officials seem to be saying that all will become clear when the committee of inquiry finishes its work.

The case for transparency is clear. When almost two-thirds of all journeys in the morning are taken on public transport, the fact is that unexplained delays on the rail network can affect livelihoods.

Take the case of truck driver Chan Chun Meng, 68, who got to work late, after waiting for a shuttle bus for more than 11/2 hours. He said his $78 daily pay was docked by $10.

Even as the operator and regulator get to the root causes of the breakdowns, neither should wait to implement the lessons already learnt and to keep the public apprised. This is the least that commuters deserve.

Opposition parties express concern over SMRT train breakdowns
By Cai Haoxiang, The Straits Times, 19 Dec 2011

Singapore's opposition parties have expressed concern over the recent MRT breakdowns.

In statements at the weekend, both the Workers' Party (WP) and Singapore People's Party (SPP) asked if the train disruptions reflected deeper structural problems in the 24-year-old MRT system.

They were also concerned that the lack of preparedness for the breakdowns bode ill for the management of worse crises like a terrorist attack or a train collision.

The WP, which has called for public transport to be nationalised in two past general elections, asked in a statement on Sunday if profit-maximising MRT operators had invested sufficiently in maintenance and upgrades even as Singapore's population expanded over the past decade.

The population grew from four million in 2000 to 5.2 million this year, and complaints about the train squeeze have been commonplace in recent years.

Ridership on SMRT's North-South, East-West and Circle lines averaged 1.83 million a day last month, up from 1.48 million the same month in 2009.

The party said: 'We ask if the Land Transport Authority (LTA), as the regulator of the MRT operators, could have been more vigilant in ensuring that quality of service and safety standards, including train maintenance and operations, were met by SMRT.'

It added: 'In the matter of this essential public good, the Government is accountable to the people of Singapore for the performance of the MRT operators to ensure the safety and well-being of commuters.'

SMRT runs the North-South Line, which was hit by major breakdowns last Thursday evening and again on Saturday morning, with thousands of commuters affected.

It also operates the Circle Line, which broke down last Wednesday morning, as well as the East-West Line. SBS Transit runs the North-East Line.

On Saturday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong ordered a high-level inquiry into the breakdowns. It will study and publicly present evidence on why they happened, and how the system can be strengthened. The committee will be appointed within 'a couple of weeks'.

Meanwhile, the SPP called for a comprehensive review of Singapore's transport system and policies.

In a statement last Friday, Non-Constituency MP Lina Chiam said transport system failures could 'paralyse' the country. Massive road jams could hinder emergency calls, while the mobilisation of national servicemen could have been obstructed, she said.

The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) and the Reform Party (RP) also issued statements on the MRT service breakdowns.

SDP asked why an inquiry was not carried out earlier, given various MRT breakdowns in recent years. RP said the management of SMRT's majority shareholder, Temasek Holdings, should also be held responsible.

Meanwhile, the issue is set to get an airing in Parliament early next year.

Mrs Chiam promised to consult Singaporeans as she prepares proposals on the transport system in Parliament's Budget debate, usually in March.

People's Action Party MP Irene Ng has already filed a parliamentary question on the adequacy of SMRT's standard operating procedures in areas such as alternative transport arrangements, crowd control and information dissemination.

Mrs Chiam said: 'When Singaporeans complain about our transport infrastructure, it is not because they are spoilt.

'Singaporeans have the good sense to tell when transport failures are the result of incompetence, sheer arrogance and complacency on the part of the transport authorities and service providers.'

A major disruption in 24 years is understandable - and forgivable

AS A Singaporean who has spent a good part of the past 10 years in Japan, and now in Spain, let me offer a different perspective to last week's train disruptions in Singapore ('Commuters delayed as Circle Line breaks down', last Thursday; 'MRT breakdown chaos', last Friday; 'PM orders inquiry as trains break down again', Sun-day) .

Japan has one of the most efficient transport systems in the world, yet it is also prone to the occasional disruption, whether it is caused technically or for other reasons.

In Barcelona where I live, the transport system is vulnerable to workers' strikes, which sometimes mean disrupted service for long periods.

Yet in both places, the public react calmly and do not point fingers at their government in anger.

By contrast, I read my friends in Singapore who rant online about operators, the Ministry of Transport and even the minister.

This reflects a population pampered by an efficient society who have grown intolerant.

A major breakdown in 24 years of operation is understandable - and forgivable.

We can improve the current systems by revising ways of communication so commuters can be better informed in an emergency.

For example, when a disruption occurs in the train network in Japan, information about the incident is immediately available on the website of the company, various news websites and a banner is displayed on Japanese tele-vision channels. This allows affected passengers to check the latest information online with their mobile phones, and lets them consider alternative routes before they travel.

This will allow us to maintain our world-class transport reputation.
Samson Guanglin Lee
Barcelona, Spain
ST Forum, 20 Dec 2011

Govt must step in quickly

THE Circle Line was opened to much fanfare ('Circle Line opens after 10-year wait'; Oct 8) and promised to usher in a new era of rail connectivity and public transport. However, all that seems to have been dampened by a string of hiccups, culminating in the three major disruptions on the Circle and North-South lines from last Wednesday.

There will always be unforeseen technical glitches, and commuters are largely willing to accept that. What is worrying is the recurrence of major failures, and the inability of the contingency plans to cope with them.

Confidence in the network's security was already undermined with the security breaches at the depots, and now images of commuters stuck in darkened trains have dented the perceived safety. The public perception of a corporation more interested in the bottom line and an out-of-touch management have only exacerbated the situation.

As a country that prides itself on reliability, efficiency and safety, we need to act quickly to restore confidence. The time for punitive measures is past, and what is needed is a strong hand of intervention by the Government to set things right, quickly.
Dr Reuben Wong
ST Forum, 20 Dec 2011

Quitting, the first step

IN PURSUING profit, SMRT may have lost its focus in providing the best public transport service available ('Tracking the woman in the rail hot seat'; Sunday).

When Ms Saw Phaik Hwa was appointed SMRT's chief executive officer, the path she took appeared to be one of enhancing revenue from retail space in MRT stations.

The strategy may have gratified shareholders, but not the travelling public.

Clearly, a review of the company is called for, given the damage to Singapore's credibility.

Ms Saw says she will do all she can to fix the problem ('SMRT chief 'staying put' to fix things'; yesterday) and that it would not be right for her to leave now.

In fact, her resignation should be SMRT's first step in regaining public trust.

Public confidence in her ability to solve problems has been shaken.

A dignified exit for her would be the right thing to do.
Ricky Ow
ST Forum, 20 Dec 2011

Quitting isn't the answer

THE minor snafus arising from the train service disruptions have grown into a larger storm. However, calling for the resignation of the chief executive of SMRT, and imposing fines does not solve the under-lying problem.

The main issue is capacity and how much reserve we have. With an exploding population in Singapore, and expensive certificates of entitlement (COEs), more people depend on the three pillars of public transport: buses, trains and taxis. These pillars must cover one another in case of disruptions.

However, there is little public about the three pillars as they are all privately run and profit and loss are paramount. As a result, the companies will always eke more out of the system, and reduce their costs.

We no longer have parallel bus and train routes. Taxis are more expensive with no improvement in their services.

Ultimately, if the Government wants the public to move away from cars, and transform Singapore into a First World nation, public transport must be first class; and with some reserve so we can arrive at our destinations, on time, all the time.
Peter Loon
ST Forum, 20 Dec 2011

'SMRT should take a profit cut and reduce its fares in view of these shortcomings.'

MS CHLORIN CHEW: 'When SMRT applied to the Public Transport Council for the maximum fare hike allowable in July this year, its executive vice-president of trains, Mr Khoo Hean Siang, was quoted as saying that its productivity gains from commercial activities like retail rentals have been shared with commuters as it lowers the maximum allowable fare adjustment. He also reassured the public that SMRT remains committed to continue providing the best service possible. Fast forward five months and commuters are suffering train disruptions, chaos after breakdowns, and wrong train announcements. Instead of quicker commuting, train speeds are slower and commuters are expected to accept this. SMRT should take a profit cut and reduce its fares in view of these shortcomings.'

CEO's contribution
'Ms Saw has taken the pressure off raising fares. I am still amazed it costs me $1.69 to travel more than 20km to work.'

MRS EUNICE LIM: 'Under chief executive officer Saw Phaik Hwa, SMRT has added to Singapore's vibrancy. We can shop and dine at MRT stations which no longer look bland but blend into Singapore's shopping landscape. By generating revenue from sources other than ridership, Ms Saw has taken the pressure off raising fares for commuters. I am still amazed it costs me $1.69 to travel more than 20km to work. Perhaps she can hire an able chief train officer to run the trains while she continues to generate revenue to fund train operations so commuters continue to pay affordable fares.'

Re-focusing SMRT
'If SMRT is corporatised, the Government may be likelier to focus management attention on safe and reliable travel.'

MR SOON SZE MENG: 'To offer shareholder value, SMRT has had to seek other profit sources. It cannot raise fares to earn revenue without seeking permission from the Public Transport Council. It has monetised its land and station spaces by charging rents. While SMRT stresses safe and reliable commuting, the success of its retail operations and multiple failures in train service and security breaches suggest otherwise. Corporatised transport entities like PSA International and Changi Airport Group may be a model for our land transport providers where safe and reliable service is critical. If SMRT as the dominant train transport provider is corporatised, the Government, as the only shareholder through Temasek Holdings, may be likelier to focus management attention on safe and reliable public travel. The management may also be less distracted by the need to generate more profit for shareholders.''

Be reasonable, like commuters elsewhere

I HAVE lived in many countries, and in Singapore for over 10 years.

Having observed the social media scene this year, I wonder whether citizens know what an awesome country Singapore is, the credit for which is largely attributable to the forward-thinking leadership that nurtures diversity and economic growth and a disciplined democracy.

Consider the ongoing debates and media coverage about the three MRT disruptions last week.

In an ideal world, everything would be perfect. Doubtless, things can be improved. However, reacting to a few incidents with overwhelming angst, calling for SMRT chief executive officer Saw Phaik Hwa to resign or asking for free rides in compensation seem ludicrous.

Train service disruptions are common in London and do not trigger resignations or refunds.

Last week's multiple disruptions are not a big deal in developed countries elsewhere where commuters take it in their stride.

By contrast, the deluge of public anger here over a similar spate of disruptions reveals a lack of awareness of life in other countries. It reveals an unconstructive attitude of looking for an opportunity to attack the Government and associated organisations to prove that these entities are under-performing.

Flip the story and consider Singapore as a nation and what its Government has achieved.

Singapore has by far a well-connected transport network, not unlike London and New York city, which the public feel reasonably comfortable to use.

With the growth in infrastructure reach, disruptions ought to be expected.

No doubt, business continuity planning, especially for public services, ought to be highly reliable and the multiple train disruptions have given SMRT a chance to assess and plan improvements.

I feel confident in stating - by taking the past as a predictor of the future - that by the same time next year, SMRT's service reliability would have increased.

Life is a testimonial to the fact that the best of plans fails. We must go through the bumps and enjoy the good days.

The key to a proud citizenry is to have a reasonable sense of awareness and an attitude to progress from adversity. Being demanding of a government is absolutely reasonable and choosing to be constructively demanding over constantly criticising is worth considering and beneficial.
Anju Tiwari (Ms)
ST Forum, 21 Dec 2011

Changes must start from the top...

SMRT'S multiple train disruptions, which began last Wednesday, triggered the question of whether its chief executive officer Saw Phaik Hwa should resign ('Quitting, the first step' by Mr Ricky Ow; yesterday) or not ('Quitting isn't the answer' by Mr Peter Loon; yesterday).

The culture of any company reflects its CEO's character, vision, capability and attitude.

If Ms Saw says she will stay on 'to put things right' ('SMRT chief 'staying put' to fix things'; Monday), I am not confident she can.

Despite many signs of a decline in train service over the past two to three years, SMRT under her watch preferred to describe the delays, disruptions, breakdowns and overcrowding as normal, citing the increasing scale of passenger usage.

My impression is that SMRT has been run to maximise profit over the past few years, a focus that may have affected maintenance, operational improvement and even caused glaring security lapses.

Doubtless, Ms Saw improved the retail aspect of the business but that is not what SMRT needs now to regain its reputation and service standards. The focus on train operations, which is SMRT's most important aspect and which is the prime reason for its existence, seems to have been lost.

So, why would there be confidence about whether Ms Saw can put things right?

Changes are needed and I hope the Land Transport Authority (LTA) will not palm off the multiple disruptions as something to be expected.

I hope a commuter does not have to suffer injury or worse before positive change takes place. The disruptions have gone from bad to worse. The public in any other developed city, who also rely heavily on an efficient public train system, would have demanded change.

I hope the LTA and Ms Saw will heed the protests of a small minority asking for change - which should start at the very top of SMRT - for the good of Singapore.
Kenneth Ling
ST Forum, 21 Dec 2011

Kicking up a fuss ensures MRT standards kept high
By Joel Cooper, The Straits Times, 20 Dec 2011

ANGER, frustration, dismay. All of these emotions were etched onto the faces of passengers left in the lurch by the past week's MRT breakdowns.

But as I looked at the pictures of stranded commuters, my main feeling was one of deja vu.

I come from London, a city that sits on top of the world's oldest underground rail network. In my hometown, getting stuck on a train that grinds to a halt for no apparent reason is an all-too-frequent experience. Just last year, passengers reportedly had to be led to safety down dark tunnels two days in a row due to power failures and a defective train.

Sound familiar? You bet. Yet there is one big difference between these incidents and Singapore's spate of MRT breakdowns - the reaction. In Britain's case, there were a handful of newspaper articles, but little public outcry. Here, we have had calls for SMRT's chief executive to resign and the Prime Minister announcing an inquiry.

This difference in attitudes has led some of my Singaporean colleagues to ask me whether I think that the public has overreacted to the current travel woes.

My answer is no.

Why shouldn't people demand that standards be kept high? Breakdowns like these might still be rare, but unless commuters keep up the pressure and refuse to accept poor service, they could easily become more common.

The last thing that anyone wants is a situation like in London, where delays happen so often that travellers simply shrug their shoulders as if to say 'just another hold-up'.

Not that the Tube is so terrible. Unlike the MRT, it has no shortage of alternative routes built into its vast underground network. So commuters struggling with one delayed line can often simply hop onto another without having to leave the station.

It's also a lot easier to forgive the occasional hiccup when you remember the Tube is nearly 150 years old in places and has a 408km labyrinth of track - all of which must be painstakingly maintained.

Compared with the clapped out, ageing London Underground, the MRT is like a brand new toy fresh out of its box. If it does not work perfectly, who can blame the customer for asking for his money back?

With only 146.5km of track, the network is also still quite small, which ought to make it easier to maintain. In general, SMRT and SBS Transit have clearly done a good job of this. Singapore is known throughout the world for its smooth and efficient transport network - which is why the scenes of stranded passengers are such a shock.

But as the network grows older, fatter and more unwieldy, I hope that standards do not start to slip.

After all, a lot is at stake. The Tube may be unreliable at times, but who goes to London for the trains anyway? For most people, it's more about having themselves photographed outside Buckingham Palace or Big Ben.

Singapore is in a very different situation. Being orderly and well run is one of its biggest selling points abroad. Whether you are a holidaymaker hoping for a hassle-free break, or a business traveller wanting to get to meetings on time, the Republic's efficiency is a major draw.

It would be a real shame to see this hard-won reputation eroded. One thing I enjoy about living in Singapore is not having to leave for work early in case of delays. In London, I always allowed at least an extra 15 minutes of journey time for things like cancellations, power failures or the classic British excuse for late trains: 'leaves on the line'.

Here, I can plan my journeys with almost pin-point precision because I know I won't have to wait longer than about five minutes on an MRT platform and, once I'm aboard, nothing will break down.

Of course, last week's setbacks have made me and many other commuters question whether we can still take these things for granted. There will always be the occasional technical glitch, which most of us can tolerate. But if it starts to happen too often, passengers' confidence and goodwill could end up being drained.

Unsurprisingly, research has shown longer train journeys are more stressful for travellers than short ones. This could even have implications for the economy. Commuters nearing the end of lengthy trips perform worse in simple tasks such as proof reading, according to a 2006 study by academics from New York's Cornell and Polytechnic universities.

So, no. Singaporeans are not overreacting to the troubling spate of delays. If you want the best service, you sometimes have to make a fuss. The fact the public has developed such high standards for the MRT shows just how fast and well run it still is. Long may that continue.

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