Lessons for MRT from the New York subway

Like the New York City subway, Singapore's MRT system was derailed after years of bad decisions. It has been getting back painfully on track

The New York City metro has been making headlines for the wrong reasons this month - not unlike our MRT system.

In an in-depth feature on Nov 18 titled "How politics and bad decisions starved New York's subways", the New York Times chronicled incidents of derailment, fire - both injuring dozens of commuters - and trains stalling in tunnels without lights or air-conditioning.

Even without these incidents, reliability has plummeted to its lowest since the city's last transit crisis of the 1970s, the paper reported. Maintenance expenditure has fallen - there has not been enough money to hire technicians, but ironically, the salaries of managerial staff have risen to almost US$300,000 (S$403,000) a year.

On the back of this, ridership has been rising. Last year, the average weekday figure hit a high of 5.7 million, before dipping by 2 per cent this year.

Mr Eddie Guo, a 58-year-old Singaporean who has lived in New York City since 1999, tells The Straits Times: "I certainly do not recall stations being so packed that it may, on really bad days, take two to three trains before I could get on.

"I had also never seen crowds backed up from the platform into the stairs before."

Mr Guo, director of the United Nations Office of Internal Oversight Services, adds that he now commutes by river ferry, which he describes as "a real pleasure".

Ridership on the New York City subway has risen, but reliability has fallen to its lowest since the city recovered from a transit crisis in the 1970s. Apathy resulted in funds being diverted away from the metro since then; maintenance expenditure has fallen and there is not enough money to hire technicians. PHOTO: NYTIMES

The New York Times wrote that "the problems plaguing the subway... were years in the making". The report made it clear that the woes stemmed from poor policy decisions.

After the system recovered strongly from its 1970s pit - on the back of heavy investments and political will - apathy set in. After all, reliability had improved by 30-fold, ridership was never stronger, and the operating financials went from deficit to a healthy surplus.

The city had essentially made the mistake of relying too much on its engineering measure of reliability - of how many kilometres trains clock before a delay occurs - and not paying more attention to what was actually happening on the ground.

The city then started diverting money away from the metro to fund various other causes, including a ski resort which was not doing well, instead of, say, raising taxes. Over the past two decades, US$1.5 billion was diverted, according to the New York Times.


Herein lies a powerful lesson for Singapore, whose system is barely one-third the age of New York's 113-year-old metro.

Singapore's system ran relatively smoothly in its first 15 years. It was, in fact, hailed as one of the most reliable systems in the world.

But something happened in the 2000s. SMRT, the sole transit rail operator then, got listed on the stock exchange. A new management started focusing on shareholder returns by growing a retail arm. Train ridership began soaring as Singapore's population exploded.

In 2001, a year after it was listed, SMRT paid main shareholder Temasek Holdings a special dividend of $540 million. By last year, it had paid out a further $1.2 billion or so in dividends to shareholders. So, in total, it paid out $1.74 billion, which was more than half its net earnings in the 15-year period.

Meanwhile, replacement plans for ageing assets got pushed to the back burner. For instance, an upgrading of the signalling system was announced in 1997, and was slated to be completed by 2002. That project got off the ground only last year, and will now be completed by the middle of next year - 16 years late.

Like New York, Singapore dropped the ball. Even though SMRT had not cut back on spending for repairs and maintenance, it was not translated to improvement in service or engineering robustness.


Things came to a boil in December 2011, when a sagging power-supply rail - called the third rail - caused two massive breakdowns. Commuters were stuck on at least one train without lights or air-con.

The incidents on Dec 15 and 17 triggered a Committee of Inquiry (COI), which found, among several other things, that train wheels were not properly maintained and had many flat spots. This caused undue vibration when the trains were in motion, which was thought to have contributed to the third rail dislodging.

In its 358-page report, the COI stated that there "appeared to be a gaping disconnect between what was formally on record and what was happening on the ground".

"It was particularly difficult to reconcile the seemingly robust maintenance regime with the failure of a significant number of items," it stated.

Going by recent events, it would seem that the lessons of 2011 - hammered home by the COI, which lasted six weeks - have not yet fully sunk in. For instance, plans to inform commuters of the severity of each delay, how long it will actually last, and when the next train will arrive will be rolled out only next year - six years after the COI noted that "passengers do not always trust the information they are given" today.

If things are not put right soon, this distrust may well spread. Here, the state of the New York City subway is a cautionary tale we cannot ignore.

The city had essentially made the mistake of relying too much on its engineering measure of reliability - of how many kilometres trains clock before a delay occurs - and not paying more attention to what was actually happening on the ground.

In a scathing editorial on Oct 21, the New York Times opined that the subway crisis boiled down to bad decisions made by politicians - "all of whom ride the subway about as often as they publicly admit error".

The amount of funds they diverted away from what the system needed to cope with age and rising ridership was the main reason for its latest downward spiral.

"You can shortchange the system only so much and get away with it," the editorial noted.


To be fair, Singapore has done much to try to put its rail system back on track of late. On a national level, transport budgets have grown considerably, largely because of new rail projects.

SMRT has been delisted. It is now fully owned by Temasek, and by virtue of that, the Government.


The Government, in the form of the Land Transport Authority (LTA), now owns all of its assets. This, hopefully, will lead to more timely replacement and upgrading in the future.

For things which should have been replaced more than a decade ago, Singapore is putting pedal to the metal. The third rail on the North-South and East-West lines have been changed out. And all the sleepers have been replaced.

Hence, there are no more breakdowns attributable to these two sets of components anymore.

When the signalling system upgrading is done by the middle of next year, signalling-related delays should go the same way, too. Hopefully, the LTA, which appointed signalling contractor Thales to do the job, can first ensure that there are no more flaws such as the ones which led to the Nov 15 collision.

There are a number of other parts which need changing or upgrading, including power cables, tracks and the trains themselves. All these will take up to 2024.

It is a long time for commuters to wait - 13 years, if you count from 2011. It goes to show that if you neglect a system, making it right again is doubly hard.

But make it right again we must. Any effort to shorten the timeline would not be a bad thing either.

To that end, SMRT and the LTA should hire more people who can do the work, even if it means going beyond our shores to do so.

As for the workers (or supervisors) who are impeding progress, clearly efforts must be made to identify and reform them. Failing which, they must be dismissed, like those who were recently found to have falsified maintenance logs for the anti-flooding system.

Last, but not least, the people who work for SMRT - or for that matter, SBS Transit, which runs the North East and Downtown lines - must be empowered. They must feel that what they do or decide makes a difference. And the corporate culture cannot be such that workers take the heat when things go wrong, and bosses bask in glory when things go right. It is Management 101.

SMRT's new chairman, Mr Seah Moon Ming, seemed to be showing the way when he bowed to apologise for the Oct 7 tunnel flooding. It is too early to say how his values will permeate the ranks, but the man offers a glimmer of hope.

If everything falls into place, there is no reason why our MRT cannot be among the best - if not the best - in the world. And not just from an engineering point of view, but going by the actual experience of the people who currently make 3.3 million train trips a day.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 30, 2017, with the headline 'Lessons for MRT from the NY subway'. Print Edition | Subscribe