There are no quick fixes for persistent rail disruptions and failures like the tunnel flooding last month. Just as the risks posed by ageing systems arose over many years, renewing key components of the North-South and East-West lines is a long-haul task. These include the sleepers, third rail, signalling system and power supply, as Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan told Parliament.
He drew a striking analogy between his heart operation some years ago and the upgrading of rail assets. He said that his cardiologist had advised him to fix his heart problem with a bypass or risk falling dead. Similarly, the issues facing SMRT, whether "viewed by others as inherited, structural or cultural", in the words of SMRT chief Desmond Kuek, place an onus on the organisation to bite the bullet. Water pumping systems can be rectified quickly but changing the work culture will require sustained effort. Alongside achieving engineering goals, SMRT must ensure that human lapses do not interrupt the efficient functioning of the rail system.
The rail operator's resources are indeed stretched by the need to replace or renew core systems on older lines, even as the network expands. All this is being done while striving to cause minimum inconvenience to commuters. Because of the constrained engineering time of three hours each night, renewal work will stretch up to 2024. If faster completion is desired, commuters too will have to bite the bullet and accept services ending earlier, starting later or a bit of both.
Essentially, commuters are bearing the consequences of trade-offs made during earlier periods. Fewer options to overcome contingencies are the result of decisions to keep costs down and minimise land usage when the system was being built. This impact comes to the fore when the dual demands of maintenance and expansion intersect. Some problems are inevitable, but the key issue is whether SMRT's management and staff are on top of the situation or whether they are busier responding to problems as they arise. Even as the organisation grapples with the lingering legacy of trade-offs, it will need to move into a future where the bottom line will be the unfailing reliability of train services. The objective must be to provide a public service that matches the needs and expectations of Singaporeans.
The technical and institutional plans that Mr Khaw has outlined will require all within the organisation to pull together. The irony of SMRT's performance is that while it has made progress in recent years, the public perception is that it has reason to be "awash in collective shame", as Mr Kuek put it. The latest incident, however, was the fault of just a few of its staff. Rather than allow the morale of the rest to slide, SMRT must imbue them with a new elan if the organisation is to catch up with the best metros elsewhere.