Confidence in rail reliability, shaken by the distressing events on Tuesday, should not be further undermined by the notion that even rail operator SMRT Corp is baffled by the technical dysfunctionality. This arises as the root cause of the failure that affected over 250,000 commuters has yet to be nailed down precisely, as admitted by SMRT chief executive Desmond Kuek.
The latest incident, as Singaporeans are all too aware, follows a series of other breakdowns straddling two management teams since 2011. It is unnerving that Singaporeans must prepare for indeterminable ruptures too, that could be major, down the track.
SMRT has said it cannot be expected to catch every potential fault lurking within an extensive network. Also, major upgrading work is in progress, introducing new components that might not sync with legacy systems. One might ask how Changi Airport and the port were extensively revamped without major disruptions of critical operations. These are, of course, widely different from various perspectives but can impart useful lessons on how fail-safe systems and progressive change can be managed. Indeed, the chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Transport also referred to aviation's rigorous line checks as an example of how rail maintenance (flailed periodically by critics) can be improved. Instead, what one is hearing from SMRT, as a possible solution to recurring lapses, is a suggestion, among others, to "completely renew the system" - coming soon after it had expressed satisfaction with rail improvements at its annual general meeting this week.
In fairness, much has been accomplished untiringly by its team, contributing to a 91 per cent public satisfaction rating for public transport last year. It has a gargantuan task on its hands and "conflicting sets of priority in terms of resources, time and manpower", as Mr Kuek has noted. It is doing its best, but frustrated commuters might be forgiven for wondering if that is good enough. One might also ask if a fundamental shift is needed in management's approach to service reliability. SMRT is now giving priority to work on the third rail, sleepers and signalling system as these will yield far more enduring outcomes. While a long view is needed, the here and now must not be sidelined. Consider the scale of the disruptions, the knock-on effects felt by the economy, and the damage to the city's reputation for clockwork efficiency. What would be politic is a demonstration of management's determination to achieve higher standards of reliability forthwith, no matter what it takes. Crisis recovery and contingency plans, which the SMRT has pledged yet again to improve, should also see immediate transformation. A sense of deja vu would be most unwelcome if calamity strikes again.