Singapore’s transport system grinding to a halt

By Zofia Reych

Under mounting pressure over transport inefficiencies and lack of transparency, former army general Chew Men Leong resigned from the Land Transport Authority (LTA) on August 6. His 22-month-long tenure as CEO was the shortest in the history of Singapore’s civil service.

“[In the coming months] I will be making a change of career over to the private sector,” commented Chew Men Leong on his decision, but it is believed that his departure from LTA had been sped up by frequent MRT failures and public dissatisfaction with increasing fares.

The failing system

Since gaining independence in 1965, Singapore has undergone a rapid urbanisation. The island city-state’s total area measures only 274 square miles and it is currently inhabited by 5,7 million people, making it one of the most densely populated territories in the world.

The number of Singapore’s inhabitants has more than tripled in the last five decades and it is expected to reach nearly 7 million by 2030. Because of strict land constriction, infrastructure is a major challenge, and the woes of Singapore’s transportation system are testimony to that.

Until the seventies, the city was dominated by private, unregulated bus operators and pirate taxis. When SBS and SMRT (formerly TIBS) took over, fares were regulated and the Public Transport Council (PTC) started looking into ensuing bus priority over passenger cars. But as the MRT trains were added in the eighties, the PTC failed in its efforts to integrate the two systems, and prioritising bus lanes also hasn’t been achieved.

The government is trying to discourage car ownership through very high COE costs (Certificate of Entitlement for car ownership), but cars remain a symbol of status only heightened by the astronomical COE fares. Many Singaporeans are also unwilling to rely solely on the unreliable public transport.

The first of two major breakdowns occurred in 2011. All trains on the North-South line stopped and the passengers had to wait an hour for rescue in complete darkness. A more recent event, affecting both the North-South line and the East-West Line, took place in July last year, when 413,000 journeys were disrupted.

Dubious management

In June this year, 35 SMRT trains bought from a mainland manufacturer had to be sent back due to major construction defects. They were were in use between 20011 and 2014 and problems were apparent straight away, but three years had to pass until a decision was taken to ship them back secretly to the manufacturer. However, the issue was soon revealed by the press, as were the massive costs. Chew Men Leong is believed to be fully responsible for the attempted cover up.

As if this wasn’t enough, while in recent years the Singaporeans have experience a de facto decrease of wages, the cost of transportation tickets has risen. In 2014, the public was outraged to discover that that newly-introduced concession fares did not offer good value for the majority of users.

Can it be fixed?

Passengers usually list better integration between the bus and rail networks and improved reliability as the most important issues that need addressing. If the Ministry of Transport wants to reach its target of 75% of peak time journeys completed on the public transport by 2030, they will have to also double the size of the rail network. Enhancing the bus service will involve additional 1000 government funded buses, as well as designated bus lanes and a “give-way” order for other motorists.

Making the transportation system more eco-friendly and passenger-centric will also involve more covered walk-ways, improved accessibility for the disabled, and the construction of 700 km of cycling lanes.

Some believe that in order to improve services, rail and bus routes should overlap in a way similar to that seen in Hong Kong, where competition between private operators is benefiting passengers.

However, none of the above can be achieved if transportation companies are not financially viable. Last month, Desmont Quek, the CEO of SMRT, made comments clearly stating that the root of the problem lies in privatisation of public transport.

“Despite the steady increase in non-fare earnings, this trend of declining profitability is expected to persist under the current financing framework as the additional capital expenditure and increased depreciation would exert additional pressure on the future cash flows and profits of the SMRT train entities,” said Quek.

In this instance, it seems that a privatised public service will always compromise the needs of the public to protect the interest of the shareholders. “Private corporations lack the incentive to invest in the long-term maintenance of a public good,” commented Kishore Mahbubani of Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy last year.

The recently unveiled new financing model has private contractors running the service, while the infrastructure falls mostly under the government’s remit. Time will show if it will help battle rising operational costs and poor reliability.