The Straits Times says

Track weakest link in rail operations

The saga of SMRT's failures is leaving Singaporeans in ascending states of disbelief. Two major breakdowns in 2011 occasioned a public inquiry - a serious indictment of any service organisation in Singapore. Since then, lapses big and small have continued to chip away at SMRT's reputation, and indirectly at the efficiency associated with Singapore. The latest revelation is that preliminary investigations by the train operator have found that a maintenance team in charge of a pump system - which eventually failed and caused a massive 20-hour disruption - is suspected of signing off on work that it had not done.

Such conduct, if proven, is a gross dereliction of duty, in obvious expectation of not being caught. Knowing that shoddy work would gravely affect a critical public service makes such wilful negligence all the more inexcusable. Mechanical failures and ageing systems are bad enough, but any deliberate falsification of maintenance records, to cover up work not done, belongs to a different order of things. As commuters' safety is involved, one might well ask if such acts invoke criminal liability. As the neglect of maintenance was not detected for almost a year, other questions are also raised. For instance, how effective are SMRT's supervisory protocols, especially when management is aware there are some "deep-seated cultural issues" in the organisation?

This weakness was acknowledged by SMRT chief Desmond Kuek. After the recent flooding of a rail tunnel, he said that "many of our major disruptions in the past have been attributed in some part, or all, to human error or failure". If this is indeed the nub of the issue, Singaporeans have every reason to be deeply concerned. When people form the weakest link in an organisation, no technological addition (like radar sensors) or major system upgrading will ensure rail reliability. Dishonest work would ultimately upend the best efforts of the majority of rail workers.

The next obvious cause for worry is the question of whether such lapses have created hidden dangers elsewhere. Would it take another breakdown - or worse - to reveal yet another unknown flaw in the system? Singaporeans would hope not, given that they depend on the safe and efficient functioning of the rail system. SMRT has given the assurance that the "relevant management chain of command" will be held accountable if investigations establish the presence of unacceptable actions or omissions. Exemplary punishment must be meted out to the guilty so as to send out a deterrent message, not just across the organisation but also to other workers in critical areas. Further, there must be transparency about any failures and the corrective action taken. To vindicate the tireless work of rail workers who help to keep Singapore on the move, SMRT must itself move swiftly to arrest any rot within.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 03, 2017, with the headline 'Track weakest link in rail operations'. Subscribe