Nothing appeared sorrier than the viral image of an MRT train stuck in a flooded tunnel 12 days ago. The flooding, which led to service disruption along the busy North-South Line, was preventable and arose because the SMRT team responsible for maintaining anti-flood measures had "failed us", as Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan declared. Tellingly, SMRT chief Desmond Kuek acknowledged that "many of our major disruptions in the past have been attributed in some part, or all, to human error or failure".
Sadly, the litany of past failures is a long one. The rail disruptions were severe enough in 2011 to warrant an investigation by a government-formed Committee of Inquiry. Maintenance weakness was identified then, as it was in other cases which affected hundreds of thousands, especially when two major MRT lines were simultaneously crippled by defects. Those who had struggled to go to workplaces, exam centres, clinics or their homes were not assuaged by breakdown information like power trips, faulty voltage relay, water leakage and glitches linked to a new signalling system. No one expects an extensive network to function faultlessly all the time, but when delays display a tiresome frequency, one might well ask if this is the new norm. In a farcical manner, yet another train fault affected even those attending the new Downtown Line 3 open house last Sunday.
The expansion of the rail network holds the promise of smooth urban mobility, as outlined in the Land Transport Master Plan. The goal is to have 75 per cent of all peak-hour journeys made on public transport, as the rail network doubles in size to cover 360km in 2030 and puts eight in 10 households within a 10-minute walk of a train station. But if service reliability remains patchy despite the suite of operating performance standards laid down by the Land Transport Authority (LTA), the relentless push to get more people off the roads and onto public transport will remain a policy destination that is never arrived at.
In fairness, considerable effort has been undertaken since 2012 to address ageing asset issues, staff numbers and technical proficiency, and to develop condition monitoring tools for critical systems. Unfortunately, the hard work behind the scenes has been overshadowed by images of hordes of commuters stranded periodically; weak security measures at a depot which was exploited by vandals; and the tragic deaths of staff as a result of a track accident last year. Mr Kuek alluded to "some deep-seated cultural issues within the company" that have to be rooted out so the organisation as a whole can function on a higher plane. SMRT's board and LTA must act decisively to ensure all steps are taken to get to the bottom of these issues. Rail reliability is so critical to Singapore's ambitions to be a Smart Nation that it must be fixed once and for all.