AT A recent Chinese New Year lunch, a senior civil servant suggested that I write an article on why Singaporeans should give up their aspiration to own a car.
Half-jokingly, I said I would - provided there was no major MRT incident for six months in a row. By "major", I meant incidents that disrupt service for more than 30 minutes each.
The condition is fair and, in fact, is one I think train operators SMRT and SBS Transit should aim for.
While it is unreasonable to expect machines to operate without a single glitch, it is reasonable to expect major incidents to be kept to a minimum. After all, rail systems are inherently robust and durable. And a system that is as new, short and costly as ours should have fewer breakdowns.
For instance, breakdowns on the 125-year-old, 340km, 24-hour New York City subway average one every 260,000km operated.
Singapore's 25-year-old, 180km network breaks down once every 120,000km.
What is essential is a proper maintenance regimen, which train operators and regulators must nail down if the country is to promote public transport - which is intrinsically slower and less comfortable than the car - as a choice transport mode.
And if a mode of transport cannot be as comfortable or speedy as the private car, it should at least be reliable.
A major train breakdown impacts passengers travelling on the affected line as well as those in other parts of the rail network. Even minor incidents can trigger this ripple effect, but to a lesser extent. Not only that, a major incident calls for bus bridging, which can impact bus commuters and road users at large, when bus services are diverted to cater to stranded train passengers.
That is why major incidents have to be minimised. And on this front, Singapore has some way to go. The total number of disruptions lasting more than five minutes in 2011, 2012 and 2013 were 393, 396 and 309 respectively.
Disruptions lasting more than 30 minutes each fell from 11 in 2011 to eight in 2012. It remained at eight last year. For incidents lasting more than an hour, the figure went from six in 2011 to four in 2012, but rose to five last year.
This year has not begun well for train operators. In January alone, there were three incidents lasting more than 30 minutes each. Of these, two stretched beyond an hour. These are not comforting numbers.
Last year, more than 130,000 commuters were affected by disruptions lasting more than an hour, or about the same number in 2012. While the figures are far smaller than the 250,000 inconvenienced by major breakdowns in 2011, they are still significant - representing more than 10 per cent of train commuters.
You could calculate the economic impact of such delays, but that would be irrelevant in today's argument. The crux of the issue is: How do you convince people they should not aspire to own a car, when the probability of them being caught in a major rail disruption is so significant?
It is hard to quantify the cost of a delay, even if you can quantify the value of time. The confusion, the discomfort, the anxiety of not knowing when one can complete one's journey - these make up the anatomy of a delay. And being caught in one on a day when there is an all-important test or interview you cannot be late for can be devastating. Especially so for folks who cannot afford the luxury of a cab, and have to rely 100 per cent on public transport.
The unhappiness over an MRT delay is arguably deeper than say, a bus delay, because of the high expectations commuters attach to rail travel. The frequency and punctuality of trains now far exceed standards attained by buses.
Also, in some cases, a rail breakdown entails passengers walking on tracks or in tunnels - which can potentially be hazardous.
Or to put it another way: How can drivers be persuaded to give up their cars when the rail network - the backbone of the public transport system - is in a state where there is one major incident every six to seven weeks?
Consider, too, that even without major incidents, the system is straining at the seams. Packed carriages, crowded station platforms, lower operating speeds and patchy air-conditioning are recurring complaints. Frayed nerves and short fuses have become par for the course.
Professor Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, went as far as hypothesising that another major MRT breakdown, "combined with declining trust in public institutions", could result in "the perfect combination for a riot or two".
He said that in an Opinion piece for this paper last April. Last week, he followed up with an article on how car ownership and usage rates seem to be dipping in the West - and why Singaporeans should take a leaf from that trend.
I concur with his observations. But the reasons for the disenchantment with the car in the West are worsening congestion, parking woes and a growing environmental consciousness (especially among the young). These are not strong motivations here. In fact, they often do not apply. Compared to most major cities, the roads here are relatively free-flowing and parking is aplenty. And environmental concerns do not yet seem to rank high among people here - young or old.
But the car's biggest attraction must be its speed and efficiency. Door-to-door journeys by car in Singapore is often less than half the average time taken by public transport. As long as this huge gap remains, the aspiration to own a car will remain.
The balance, however, tilts substantially in favour of public transport if your points of origin and destination are both on the doorstep of an MRT station.
Not only that, people living near stations are more likely to use public transport. According to the Land Transport Authority's latest Household Interview Travel Survey, among people who live within 400m of an MRT station, 71 per cent take public transport. The percentage drops to 67 per cent if the distance is 800m. And for those living beyond 2km of a station, only 55 per cent take public transport.
As the rail network expands, more and more of us will live and work within walking distance of a station. By 2030, the network is expected to almost double to 360km, and 80 per cent of households should be within 10 minutes' walk to a station (up from around 60 per cent today).
But the increased coverage will be quite meaningless if it is not paired with better reliability.
On that score, it is good to know the Government and the transport operators are pulling out all the stops to fix things. It may take a while, but there is optimism that standards Singaporeans have come to expect can be re-established.
And just for the record: The senior civil servant accepted my "challenge". Six months, no more than one breakdown over 30 minutes. The clock begins ticking in the Year of the Horse.
This story was first published in The Straits Times on Feb 13, 2014
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