Hushed tracks


This photo was taken on 22 March 2016. I didn’t know it then but it was when two families lost their beloved sons. A train ran into two trainee technicians as they were on a track. It must have been a moment of unfathomable grief. The enquiry that followed concluded that it was mostly human error. Specifically, negligence in observing safety rules on the part of the seniors in the work crew was the chief cause of the tragedy. See a brief statement from SMRT here.

When I came across this photo again in my pictures folder and looked at the metadata, particularly the date it was shot, it surprised me that the incident was only five months ago. It somehow felt much further back in time.

Why did it feel that way? I asked myself.

Maybe because so much has happened to the larger of our two metro operators since then. The Land Transport Authority (LTA) essentially threw up its hands in despair in July this year, announcing it would buy back the operating assets — the trains and signalling system — from SMRT at book value (S$1.06 billion). Within days, sovereign wealth fund Temasek Holdings announced that it would buy SMRT the company and delist it from the stock exchange. Temasek was already the majority shareholder (54.2%) of SMRT Corp. To buy the shares it does not already own will cost Temasek about $1.18 billion.

The LTA in its statement said the buyback of hardware from SMRT will enable the operator “to better focus on the operations and maintenance of the rail network”.

“Commuters will benefit from higher-quality rides,” it also said.

I am not holding my breath.

SMRT was becoming quite third-world, and frankly, I have little hope that it will improve anytime soon. For example, the station nearest my home used to have three top-up machines against a wall. Gradually — I suspect because they broke down and SMRT couldn’t repair them (nor afford to buy new ones) — they have been reduced to one. (There are additional machines nearer other entrances.) Then last week, I realised that the remaining machine no longer accepts cash. It only accepts ATM and credit cards.

I realised this only because the lady at the machine (behind whom I was queuing) was taking ages to top up her card. She kept cancelling her transaction and starting again. When I offered to help, she asked in Mandarin why it was that the user-interface did not provide a cash option. It definitely used to. The slot for inserting cash was still very much there. She obviously couldn’t read the big sign (only in English) which said “Credit card only” — a sign which was actually misleading, because you can still use an ATM card!

Anyway, the lady had to make her way to the passenger service counter to top up with cash.

I don’t know why SMRT does things the way it does, but the net result is retrograde. Perhaps the cash module of the machine no longer works and SMRT ain’t got the pennies to repair it. Perhaps MRT wanted to save money and not have to pay a crew to collect cash from machines. So, remove the cash option! To hell with customer convenience!

If that’s the case, then it tells you much about how obtuse the management is. You think people are suddenly going to stop wanting to pay in cash? No. Instead, they will just create more work for the human staff at the passenger service counter. Now, with humans handling money, there will be a higher chance of error. And the management will still have to send a crew to go collect the accumulated cash at the end of the day. Meanwhile the queue at the counter grows ever longer, and commuters are frustrated.

Not that the LTA is any better. It connived with SMRT for years to keep a dirty secret — that a whole new batch of trains was defective and had to be sent back to China for major repairs. When, thanks to Factwire, a Hong Kong website, the information leaked out (see also the Yahoo news report), our Transport minister Khaw Boon Wan gave the lame excuse that they didn’t want to cause undue panic among them public.

Well, what do you know? When the news broke — in the worst possible way, I’d add — there was no sign of public panic at all. The only panic that could be observed was in the corridors of power. Either these highly paid grandees don’t know the first thing about how our public reacts or they don’t care and will say anything, credible or incredible, so long as they do not have to accept responsibility.

Meanwhile, there’s not been a squeak from the stock exchange regulator. SMRT is a public-listed company. Something as material as having to send 26 train sets for several years of repairs in Qingdao — even if the cost is covered by the manufacturer — will no doubt affect service quality. It should have been disclosed and promptly. Why has SMRT not been rapped for non-transparency towards the investing public?

The overall picture is one of chronic underperformance and a conspiracy of not taking responsibility. Despite years of promising to pay more attention to maintenance, breakdowns are a regular feature. A recent article on the website Mothership noted that

For the first half of 2014, Hong Kong commuters experienced a delay of at least five minutes in only one out of every 300,000km travelled.

For full-year 2014, it was about 450,000km.

In 2015, it was 360,000km.

For the first-quarter of 2016, it was a staggering 520,000km.

On the other hand, the MRT system in Singapore suffers from an average of one disruption for every 133,000 train-km clocked last year.

(It’s not altogether clear whether the figures Mothership used for Singapore referred only to SMRT’s lines or to both SMRT’s and SMSTransit’s lines)

But much as the government would like us to think of it as purely a problem isolated within a dysfunctional SMRT Corp, which the LTA, as a white knight is rushing in to fix, it doesn’t take much to notice that the cancer spreads wider than that. The LTA was part of the cover-up. The stock exchange regulator has not woken up yet. And no one in government is prepared to acknowledge that relying on ex-military scholars to run a metro system is an inherent flaw.

The only time there was even a shred of integrity in providing a sort-of-honest account was when two young men died (though I wondered even then, why the question was not raised as to how a culture of such neglect of safety protocols had taken root).

Perhaps more blood needs to be shed to get real change. And I am not talking merely of Singapore’s rail system.





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