All change on Singapore’s MRT but the same old problems with reliability

Billions of dollars of investment are being poured into Singapore’s ageing MRT system, but she still lags behind comparable networks around the region. New tracks and signalling systems will help but are commuters getting a good deal? 

By Victoria Wah

Singapore’s first MRT system covering the North-South and East-West lines will turn 30 next year. To celebrate this milestone, the system is undergoing a series of replacements and upgrades.

According to the government and operators, these will significantly boost rail reliability, hopefully to its 2018 target of 400,000 train-km between disruptions. If that is the case, it will bring the often complained about network up to the rail reliability standard of other sophisticated systems, such as Hong Kong’s MTR.

This target means that, “our trains (will have to) cumulatively travel no less than ten times around the Equator, or more than 4,000 times across the length of our North-South and East-West lines, before incurring a single delay of more than five minutes”, says Desmond Kuek, SMRT chief executive.

Achieving the 2018 target will require significant improvements

But this standard has only been achieved by a handful of operators, and as Lee Der-Horng, a National University of Singapore transport researcher explains, “Having high standards is good, but it is quite a jump from the current performance”.

That said, Singapore’s rail reliability has been steadily improving. In 2015, trains travelled an average of 133,000 km before hitting a delay of more than five minutes. This was a 10,000km increase from the 93,000km clocked in 2014 and has more than doubled the same measure in 2011.

But despite this progress, Singapore’s MRT system still lags behind other top-notch modern cities. In the first quarter of 2016, Hong Kong’s MTR covered a whopping 520,000 train-km before a delay. This is three times the distance projected by the Land Transport Authority for the MRT in the first to third quarter.

Comparisons with the Hong Kong MTR shows there is room for progress, but it also has its issues

And it is not just the distance covered by the MTR which makes Hong Kong’s system more appealing. It is also more trustworthy, with an increase in reliability of three or four times that of the MRT in 2016. Singapore’s 30 rail disruptions were also three times and a half times higher than Hong Kong’s.

Despite the big discrepancies in the overall rail distance and rail delays of the MRT and MTR, Singapore’s MRT system is not automatically a failure. As former Minister of Transport, Lui Tuck Yew, highlights,“ It is not easy to compare service disruption rates across different countries and systems, in part because of differences in age, length of networks [or] loading frequency of services.”



Credit: Land Transport Authority and SMRT

When you delve into the figures, the number of train delays of more than five minutes on Singapore’s North-South/East-West Line has steadily declined from 1.82 per 100,000 train-km in 2011 to 0.73 per 100,000 train-km in 2016. Translated into car-km, that is a reduction from 0.33 delays per 100,000 car-km in 2013 to 0.12 delays in 2016.

Singapore has fewer delays but Hong Kong is more efficient overall

And this is actually less than the number of delays experienced in Hong Kong. The number of train delays of more than (or equivalent to) eight minutes experienced there has increased from three delays per 100,000 car-km in 2014, to four delays in 2016. Meanwhile, the number of significant rail disruptions on the MRT’s main North-South East-West lines has also been similar to those on Hong Kong’s MTR’s domestic rail lines.

Lui Tuck Yew adds that Hong Kong’s MTR domestic rail lines had experienced around three to four major service disruptions of more than 30 minutes in 2012 and 2013. This would be similar to the number of incidences occurring on the North-South and East-West Lines over the same period.

Despite those encouraging statistics, Singapore’s overall transport efficiency still lags behind due to the number of significant delays. There were five major disruptions of more than or equivalent to 30 minutes in 2014, and nine in 2016. Over in Hong Kong, the number of service interruptions of 31 minutes or more experienced on the MTR (excluding disruptions by external factors) steadily decreased from 12 in 2014, to four in 2016.

Upgrades to the MRT line have hindered performance 

There are some other factors to consider in the bigger picture. Although the MRT’s arrival and departure punctuality performances were lower than its Hong Kong neighbour in 2014 and 2015, this was partly due to speed restrictions arising from sleeper replacement works. Upon completion of these at the end of last year, train punctuality is now better than its 2013 record.

On the other hand, overall train punctuality performance on the Hong Kong MTR was maintained at 99.9% for four years straight from 2013 to 2016. This means that although the Singaporean system’s timeliness performance has improved overall, it still lags behind.

Government management and ownership of the networks can be game-changer

The MTR’s stellar performance is mainly attributed to its management. According to Christopher Tan, the senior transport correspondent of the Straits Times, the reason, “MTR can run the system better is that the designer, builder and operator are one and the same party. So, their interests are all aligned.”

This comment offers an interesting insight into the future of Singapore’s system, as a recent switch in ownership of rail assets will see the introduction of a new rail financing framework. In the future, the government will own the MRT’s assets and ensure suitable rail replacements and upgrades. As such, it is hoped that transport efficiency will no longer be hindered by profit goals.

Political pressure has boosted investment 

The government has also been responsive to improvements to the network that the parliament has been suggesting. Eight reports in the last six years have called for action on maintenance and standard checks, better contingency plans in the event of a train breakdown and even a change in management –  prompting billions of dollars in investment. Transport Minister, Khaw Boon Wan, says that these expensive upgrades are necessary as,“We need a quantum leap both in the numbers and in the capabilities of our rail industry, both to up our existing maintenance standards and to cope with a rapidly expanding network.”

According to SMRT’s blog, the North-South East-West lines are currently undergoing re-signalling works and rail replacements that will be completed in 2017. These will reduce the number of train delays or breakdowns and increase rail reliability. The skills of rail engineers and maintenance crew will also be beefed up to ensure better maintenance of the MRT system.

No system will ever be 100% reliable, but improvements are needed

But even after all of these efforts, there will always be delays and breakdowns. Walter Theseira, an economist at SIM University, explains that it is not economically feasible to achieve a state of zero defects because, “the question is whether we have put, or are putting in enough spending on maintenance to bring that probability of disruption down to an acceptably low level”. It remains to be seen how the new measures will affect that opinion.

At the end of the day, the discrepancies in overall rail distance and rail delays make it difficult for Singapore’s MRT to achieve the same standard of transport efficiency as other sophisticated countries, like Hong Kong, much less reach its own ambitious targets. But all hope is not lost, the recent changes in management and improvements in the rail system may still empower the MRT system to soar to a higher level of service.