The importance of wanting trains to run on time

pic_201308_47The post described Singaporeans as a perennially grumpy lot, bitching even about trains arriving 30 seconds late. At first, I gave it little thought. The post was one of many linked from Facebook which I cursorily surfed through while munching my breakfast this morning. I didn’t even keep the link; now I can’t find it any more. It was penned by a Malaysian visiting from Penang who was expressing his amazement at how “advanced” Singapore was, and yet how unreasonable Singaporeans were in not appreciating what we have.

I do recognise however that the remark was really a metaphor for a general state of unhappiness; it was not meant to be taken literally.

But as the day wore on, my mind went back to this comment a few times, and I thought to myself: I don’t see why we should necessarily be ashamed of being demanding. Setting high standards is, after all, the first step to achieving them. I would much rather that we as a people are perpetually dissatisfied and striving for better than be too accommodative of slack.

It reminded me of several occasions when I have been in a neighbouring country, often while attending a conference, but by sheer force of personality taking over the organisation of some part of it. The take-overs usually followed repeated expressions of frustration with the ramshackle way things were going, e.g. lackadaisical time-keeping and punctuality, or incomplete, misleading and out-of-date information disseminated to participants. Quite often, I would not be alone in wanting to seize control of things in an effort to put them right. One or two fellow Singaporeans would be active alongside, just as frustrated as I was.

Almost always, a few non-Singaporeans would remark, “You guys are so Singaporean,” or something to that effect. They see little Lee Kuan Yews in us: ruthless, domineering and obsessed with efficiency. The remark is often delivered with a smile, though I suspect mixed feelings lurk behind it. It’s a well-known fact that our Asean neighbours behold Singapore with a mixture of envy and distaste.

That post by the Malaysian also said something about how Singaporeans are searching for identity. I am not sure I agree with him (or maybe it’s a ‘her’) . I reckon it half-depends on what one understands by ‘identity’. If one defines identity in primarily ethnic or cultural terms, then, yes, perhaps comparatively we come across as quite unrooted. But when others can recognise a Singaporeanness in us from the way we react to issues of organisation, thoroughness, punctuality and precision, then there must be some psycho-social attributes that characterise us. That’s cultural too, in its own way.

We shouldn’t shortchange ourselves. These attributes are, in the main, positive ones. It is only by being dissatisfied with the present that progress is sought, it is only by being frustrated with failings, however small, that quality improves. I would not want us to be too accepting of error, delays, or neglect. By this, I don’t only mean striving for the material. A general unhappiness with the state of the environment, physical or social, or with the quality of our lives, is just as effective in propelling us to change things for the better.

And even if the writer intended his remark about being impatient with trains 30 seconds late to be taken literally, I might still defend our right to be impatient. It’s like this: At peak hour, if trains don’t run at two-minute intervals, crowds build up. Thirty seconds would be a significant difference in such a context. It would represent a 20 percent reduction in capacity. This in turn can also be a metaphor. For the densely urbanised, highly complex and interlocked society that we are, we know the value of operating within tight tolerances.

* * * * *

A recent response of the Land Transport Authority (LTA) to widespread grumbling about public transport is the advertising campaign they are running to inform commuters of the improvements being undertaken. There are several indoor billboards trumpetting upgrades to the metro’s signalling system, which, when completed, should allow for closer spacing of trains, thus improving frequency.


Another speaks of adding 77 new trains. Information-wise, this one left me a little discontented. What does 77 really mean? What percentage increase is it to train stock? How much of an improvement to frequency and capacity does it represent? A number like that hyped in isolation is meaningless.

So, in the lead-up to this article, I did a bit of surfing. I couldn’t find any press release from the LTA talking about 77 trains, but I found one dated 1 February 2012 talking about 18 new trains for the Northeast Line and 16 new trains for the Circle Line. To be progressively delivered from 2015, the eighteen new 6-car trains for NEL will cost $234 million, whilst the sixteen new 3-car trains for CCL will cost $134 million. The press release said that when fully delivered, the new trains will increase peak-hour capacity on the NEL by 70 percent, and on the CCL by 40 percent.

There are currently 25 trains on the NEL (source: SBS Transit 2012 Annual Report, page 21) and 40 trains on the CCL (source, SMRT 2013 Annual Report page 84). These base figures are coherent with claims of capacity increase to come.

In SMRT’s 2013 Annual Report, page 84, there is a statement that they currently have 128 six-car trains on the East-West and North-South Lines. It also says that “we are adding 35 new trains which will be delivered progressively between 2014 and 2016.” Subtracting the 16 meant for the Circle Line, that leaves us with 19 trains. It is not clear how many of these are for the East-West or North-South Lines. Or, for that matter, whether additions to the Bukit Panjang LRT, if any, are included. But if we assume that the 19 are only for the East-West and North-South Lines, then they represent an increase of about 15 percent in rolling stock for the EWL and NSL — provided no old trains are taken out of service. It will be a small, but (I expect) a noticeable improvement.

That still leaves 24 trains unaccounted for out the “77 new trains” advertised in various posters. My guess is that these 24 are earmarked for the soon-to-open Downtown Line.

Based on the purchase values provided in the 1 Feb 2012 press release, the unit cost of a 6-car train is about $13 million. That of a 3-car train is about $8.4 million.  My estimate of the cost of all 77 trains is about $817 million. That’s a pretty big number.

Such big investments would not be possible without prudently-managed state finances and a healthy, growing economy. So yes, we should see things in perspective. There are many things in Singapore to be appreciative of. While not perfect, the management of our public transport is the envy of many from around the region, and credit should be given to the government.

On the other hand, it can just as easily be argued that if not for the the loud and persistent grumbling about crowding, breakdowns, the once-dismissive attitude of the previous SMRT management and the previous complacency of the Land Transport Authority, this new energy to revitalise and improve our public transport might not have come about.

It’s a fine balance to strike. We need to see things in perspective and be cognisant and appreciative of the foundation laid and the overall management of the economy. At the same time, we must never stop being impatient for better. And if being Singaporean is not defined by ethnicity or tradition, but by this state of mind, then, however annoying it may be to the powers that be that would much prefer hearing unadulterated praise from the citizenry, it may well be something about our identity we can all be proud of.

22 Responses to “The importance of wanting trains to run on time”

  1. 1 Anon 4scQ 29 August 2013 at 23:50

    Here’s the link:

    I don’t think the writer is actually a Malaysian from Penang – they look like travellers who just came up from Penang.

  2. 2 yuen 30 August 2013 at 05:46

    citizens emulate their leaders; I am sure LKY would get impatient with 30 second transport delays

    or maybe the leaders reflect the collective attitudes of citizens; that’s kind of democratic

  3. 3 henry 30 August 2013 at 09:50

    Hard numbers are not appreciated by people who expect efficient service.

    77 means nothing. However, waiting on platforms with an ever larger crowd and rising body heat mixed with bouquet of fragrances means frustration.

    Breaking the numbers down and costing is for bean counters. It reminds me of how a famous company touted to its staff that they spent 15 million dollars on a software to manage the work schedules. Why approach it with a cost in mind? What do the people want? Being told a number or having them experience the improvement?

    For the purpose of countering managers, perhaps the use of empirical evidence is necessary. But this is the problem with SIngaporeans. We sheepishly adopt the language that managers understand, going round in circles and not addressing the expectations of the customer.

    The way around this is to be innovative so that numbers, costs, price, percentages merge with customer expectations. Not every aspect can be measured. We measure too much… that is our identity… perhaps our destiny too.

  4. 4 JT1987 30 August 2013 at 10:14

    However, increasing train capacity will serve no purpose if track capacity isn’t increased as well. Trains during peak periods are already being forced to run at slower speeds due to overcrowding of train tracks. An additional 77 trains will just intensify congestion due to the lack of track expansion.

    • 5 Anon Hdds 3 September 2013 at 10:58

      Add to that the previous statements made by smrt that our peak hour trains are already running at the minimum intervals possible – 77 new trains isn’t going to mean more frequent trains.

  5. 6 The 30 August 2013 at 10:24

    The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

    — George Bernard Shaw

  6. 7 CC 30 August 2013 at 10:35

    If, like me, you are skeptical about those PR and propaganda to make SMRT/Bus services look good, try match that with the reality on the ground instead. These blokes at the blog is doing a great job keeping officials honest and on their toes!

  7. 8 Chan Chun Keat 30 August 2013 at 10:44

    I was wondering how much money LTA spent on the trumpeting campaign. Sheer waste of money if you ask me. We can read these on the newspaper or TV. Is it really necessary to put up gigantic banners? And further, this is something that is works in progress, is there need to blow trumpets when the results have yet to be seen? Why waste the money? Or is this more of a lead up to GE 2016?

    • 9 Din 30 August 2013 at 14:23

      They have hired top-notch PR to soothe the frustrations, anger felt by commuters. This is psychology at its best. By silently reading these posters, you self-talk and start thinking that they empathize with you and are already doing things to improve the situation. So no need to be frustrated and angry! It’s all done to make you change your perspective on your own accord. Like customer service recordings that say you will be attended to shortly, and keep you on hold for the next 10 or more minutes. And when the rep finally speaks with you, the 1st thing they’ll say is sorry to keep you waiting! You go soft and alter your thoughts to be more considerate, patient and forgiving with them.

    • 10 lobo76 30 August 2013 at 17:07

      Well, to be fair, I don’t watch too much TV and read the newspaper even less, so…

  8. 11 Duh 30 August 2013 at 15:48

    Extraordinary pay dictates extraordinary results – if the PAP MPs weren’t paid one of the highest salaries in the political world, Singaporeans would not be demanding exemplary performance. Did the PAP think that asking for such exorbitant salaries did not come with higher expectations?

    If they can’t deliver then don’t self-reward shamelessly.

  9. 12 Whatever 30 August 2013 at 16:56

    I have three points to make, not all unrelated.

    1. Efficiency is often pursued at the expense of robustness; a system which collapses due to a 30 sec delay is highly fragile I would say. In London, trains break down all the time, often putting a whole line out of service. But due to redundancies – multiple lines between destinations – it is usually nothing more than an annoying inconvenience.

    2. Singapore’s obsession with efficiency has unfortunately made Singaporeans an annoying, chippy, bunch of people who complain (often loudly) while on holiday in other countries.

    3. To find one’s national identity in being efficient as opposed to some lofty ideal (eg. Freedom, justice, etc) is surely not quite right

  10. 13 andyxianwong 30 August 2013 at 22:52

    I think talk of extra trains and improved signals is somewhat missing the point. What about all those times, off peak times, where you wait five or six minutes for a train, and when it comes, it is packed? In such cases, new trains and signals are surely irrelevent. If they can run a service every two minutes in the rush hour, surely nothing really stops them doing the same on Sunday afternoon at 2pm. I suppose what really happens, especially at non peak times, is the operators with thier localised monopoly try to maximise profits by running fewer trains with more passengers. When SMRT makes millions every year and pays huge dividends to it’s largest shareholder (Temasek), this seems like a no brainer.

  11. 14 Hawking Eye 30 August 2013 at 23:15

    Singaporeans generally project themselves well when abroad especially when it comes to meetings, seminars, presentations and the like. I heard this story from one contact, who in turn heard it from another. Few years back Tharman Shanmugaratnam, as then Education Minister led a team to an Arab country. Before the trip he asked for and read up some background about that country – its education policies, global views, history, culture etc. He gave a talk there followed up with Q & A session to Ministers, high officials and business leaders of that country. He spoke free hand and brilliantly so, with wit and humour and throwing in some Arab jokes as well that kept his audience roaring with laughter. They really enjoyed every minute of his presentation – what a superb performance!

    It is some of the Singaporeans, now living in the West and Australia, who bitch about Singapore, more out of envy than anything else, I believe. They were never happy here and probably not happy either with where they live now. But they never fail to come to Singapore to grab the goodies like the GST vouchers that our government dishes out to its people every year – how shameless and ungrateful!

  12. 15 Paul Ananth 30 August 2013 at 23:21

    The reality is that Singaporeans like most people all over the world do not like to be cheated. If we pay the world’s highest salaries to our leaders, we do not expect mediocre leadership, we expect people five times as competent as Barrack Obama. If we agree to pay the world’s highest car prices, we expect to have in return the world’s most efficient public transport. If not, we would argue that we could be better off with cheaper cars, fewer people and less efficient public transport – you get the drift….

    • 16 Anon 5wyG 1 September 2013 at 07:52

      …well said! They emulate the corporate world by claiming to pay for the best. Since the results are not there, they should behave like head honchos who fail in the corporate world: resign!

  13. 17 Spencer 31 August 2013 at 09:31

    We don’t pay top dollar for inefficiency and imbecility.

  14. 18 GG 31 August 2013 at 13:05

    I couldn’t agree more. I am sometimes tempted to let matters go when facing some irritation, I still do so most of the time. But on reflection if consumers do not voice complaints things will get worse (never mind about getting better). So we have a duty to give feedback. However we should not take things out on people who are not responsible but just working there.

  15. 19 Jez 31 August 2013 at 15:45

    Reading your article makes me want to leave Singapore asap

    I think Singaporeans should travel more widely to the rest of south East Asia to know what they are missing out on

    Namely some humanity, a sense of humour, and an ability to relax!

    It’s too uptight here everyone walks around with a stick up their ass

    Progress. For what? Material wealth? a more orderly society?

    Why are you so impatient? What are you rushing towards? Don’t you know it’s the economy who turns us into beings like that? time obsessed people who can’t even appreciate little pleasures in their day, constantly staring at your smartphone and sucked into some screen, unable to converse or connect with your fellow human beings

    It’s sad that people like you think impatience is a virtue!

    • 20 yuen 31 August 2013 at 19:54

      as I remarked earlier, citizens emulate their leaders; I am sure LKY would get impatient with 30 second transport delays so why should his people be any different?

      another reader quoted George Bernard Shaw “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” I assume this reader would consider LKY be an unreasonable man that inspired the nation to be unreasonable in order to make progress

  16. 21 Jay 3 September 2013 at 17:13

    “These attributes are in the main, positive ones”. I beg to differ. This constant need to be bigger, better, faster, it only digs deeper the trench of gnawing dissatisfaction. To what end, my friend? To what end? Life is never on time. Life often breaks down, decays, dies, disappears, disintegrates. Life is chaotic. But out of the muddy waters, the beatiful lotus blossoms. Do you ever see it blossoming from a sterile, clear, chlorinated water? Out of mess, humanity can often be at its shining best. But here you are, obssessed with perfect timing. I do feel sorry for the writer.

  17. 22 octopi 4 September 2013 at 14:11

    For too long we have conflated nation building with infrastructure building. Yes, the transport system is important, but places in the US like Los Angeles and NYC have managed to become major world centers without truly solving the problem of traffic congestion. And they have done this by being the best in the world in a few things that make up their respective economies.

    What I’d like to see are articles on things that are a little more fundamental. Questions like, what is the future of the Singapore economy. If we had a world beating something, what would that something be? Do we have a Silicon Valley? We don’t even have a Foxconn!

    Perfect timekeeping can be overrated. I read in an article that the new boss of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, is always late for meetings. That’s because she came from a company, Google where the bosses – even Brin and Page are always late for meetings. It’s not the most important thing in the world.

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