The provision of free bus services during major rail disruptions is one of the mitigatory measures being taken to help commuters cope in the immediate aftermath of a breakdown. Other steps are greater ease in getting refunds and the availability of a mobile phone app to disseminate information to affected commuters. Recovery systems could include mobilising shopkeepers at stations to direct crowds so bottlenecks are relieved.
These are not nominal concessions made to soothe the ire of Singaporeans, but an attempt by the authorities to ensure that public transport operators recognise and compensate for the scale of the inconvenience caused by breakdowns. Yet, these steps remain but crunch measures. The travelling public would also want to know what systemic changes have been emplaced since a costly Committee of Inquiry was set up after the disquiet over three breakdowns in four days in 2011. Bringing in international experts, a work in progress, might only be a part of the solution as problems have ranged across many areas - perimeter security, tracks, signalling, power supply, tunnel water seepage, testing of a new train, blackouts at stations and others.
Public confidence in train operators has been shaken to the point that there are fresh calls emerging to nationalise the public transport system, an approach that has long been discredited in official circles. Privatisation has been "taken too far", it was argued at the recent Singapore Economic Policy Forum, leading to a sharp focus on financial results and weak incentives to spend on long-term maintenance. In response to such criticism, the SMRT Group pointed out that 41 to 45 per cent of its rail revenue over the last four quarters was spent on "rail maintenance staff costs, depreciation of rail assets and other rail maintenance-related operating expenses".
Still, the lay view is that breakdowns are becoming endemic. That could be the result of an operating culture that sees such failures as inevitable as the system ages. As SMRT's chief executive once noted, one solution is to "completely renew" the system and another is to step up its maintenance regime. But the latter is deemed not good enough by the newly appointed Adviser on Rail Transformation, Mr Tan Gee Paw, who believes operators must "go beyond codes of practice and do preventive risk analysis on the entire system". SMRT has enlarged its engineering pool but Mr Tan has suggested using "third-party consultants supplemented by independent street smart, sharp-eyed operating engineers who have years of experience" to catch the metaphorical rats that lurk in a system. The vigour of this approach, sparked by Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan, is what is sorely needed to show that Singapore can tap ingenuity to run even an ageing system reliably, while planning for progressive renewal.