Commuters’ nightmare: Why SMRT needs an overhaul

Delays have been part of the Singaporean commuter life. Is it time for new plans and perhaps, new SMRT management?

By Oliver Ward

Recent delays caused major disruption during peak travel times across the city. The major disruptions included the closure of the North-South Line (NSL), along with parts of the East-West Line (EWL) due to a signalling fault within the new signalling system. Initially, the SMRT warned commuters that their journey would be delayed.


Then they advised commuters to find an alternative mode of transport to the city.

The problem took two hours to fix and disgruntled commuters had to endure an overcrowded bus replacement service, or fork out around double the usual fare for an Uber or Grab car.

The delays are all too familiar to the Singapore Mass Rapid Transit (SMRT) system. They prompt fresh calls for an overhaul of the leadership and raise serious questions about the SMRT’s competency.

Angry commuters vented their frustrations. Richard Tan, 46, said, “this shouldn’t be happening during peak hours… A fault shouldn’t cause an entire line to shut down”.  IT manager, James Tay also added, “It is getting unbearable”.

Users on Twitter expressed their exasperation with the SMRT service.

The SMRT has not improved its breakdown response

The Public’s frustrations are justified. Technical problems have plagued the system for years. In 2015, a spate of incidents caused both the NSL and EWL to close. In the first quarter of 2015, there were no less than five major disruptions which caused a closure of service for more than 30 minutes. The volume of serious delays by more than 30 minutes is increasing annually.

(Source: LTA)

Again, in April of 2016, a power fault led to a major breakdown of services on the NSL and EWL lines. On this occasion, commuters were left stranded for two hours. This came shortly after an incident where two maintenance workers died while carrying out work on the tracks.

Despite the frequency of delays, the SMRT is still inadequate in its response to service breakdowns.  Commuter accounts described rude staff offering little assistance. All of these incidents are from a company which received awards for its supposed transparency and good labour practices.

Singapore is crying out an efficient and reliable mass transit service. Limited space means that Singapore cannot sustain a car dominant transport model and needs a reliable mass transit system in place to support a car-lite society. Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan has expressed his desires for Singaporeans to embrace public transport, but the Transport Ministry must do more to ensure the population has a system of mass transit to rely on.

The SMRT’s lack of transparency only adds to the disruption and public grievance

After each breakdown and incident, the SMRT would feed the public the same lines and the latest disruptions were no different. If the service is new or recently updated, they blame the disruption on initial teething problems, if the line is older than 25 years, they blame any fault on an ageing line. These go-to responses undermine the public’s intelligence and severely damage public trust in the capabilities of the SMRT and their leaders.

Last July, Khaw defended the SMRT’s decision to withhold information regarding train malfunctions. The SMRT secretly returned 26 defective trains to the Chinese manufacturers to fix several hairline cracks that had developed in the carriages. Khaw publicly agreed with the SMRT bosses’ decision. He said it was not “a major event” and that releasing the information would have caused undue panic.

Firstly, if the event was not major, it is unlikely the SMRT would have taken 26 trains out of circulation to undergo extensive repairs at the manufacturers’ facility in China. Secondly, the SMRT service was impaired by the removal of these 26 trains, and therefore the SMRT owes the public an explanation for the impacted service.

The working culture of hiding problems from consumers at the highest levels of the SMRT is damaging public trust in the company, and could also lead to serious breaches of safety going undisclosed to the public.

The government response to the faults has been revealing

In 2016, Khaw announced that the government would invest more heavily in preventative maintenance, along with hardware replacement and updates. The Land Transport Authority (LTA) also received their own engineering team for the first time last year.

If we compare the Singaporean transit system with Tokyo’s, the deficiency in service quality becomes apparent. In Tokyo, mechanical disruptions are rare. Trains are reliable and punctual, even at peak times. This is achieved on train lines which are more than double the age of Singapore’s modern lines.

Their system is built to handle failures. They have multiple track systems, if one fails, it causes minimal disruption as the whole train can simply switch to another system.

The Tokyo train system also employs a rigorous maintenance program. The maintenance program regularly strips the whole train down to the level of individual parts and engineers meticulously clean and polish each component.

Talented and dedicated engineers maintain the Tokyo transit system.  Visitors to the engineering departments in Tokyo say they could not tell a new wheel from a reconditioned one. Singapore did not have its own engineering team dedicated to the LTA until a year ago; it is clear that the government has neglected the engineering side of maintenance for some time.

The SMRT is changing its attitude towards engineering and maintenance

The number of SMRT engineers increased from 191 in 2012 to 328 in 2016. The SMRT also built a new S$5 million (US$3.7 million) Maintenance Operations Centre to keep watch over the entire network and cut response time to faults.

Despite these improvements, there is still a reactive approach towards failures among the leadership. Investment in an all-encompassing and thorough maintenance program like the one in place in Tokyo would refocus the service towards fault prevention rather than response.

The Workers’ Party called on the government to be more forthcoming with preventing faults. They want to see performance indicators introduced, which show the percentage of train and track parts which have not been recently replaced.

This would be beneficial, but given the level of SMRT transparency, the current management is unlikely to introduce the indicators. If they are unwilling to inform the public about the return of 26 trains to the manufacturer, they are unlikely to disclose which parts are in need of replacement. Currently, this information is only used to look back on and analyses faults rather than forecast upcoming problems. The SMRT needs an overhaul in the way faults and maintenance are perceived. This will only come from a radical reshuffle in the way the company runs at a management level.

With the population forecast of 6.9 billion by 2030, Singapore needs to go through this overhaul now. Disruptions will only get worse if the SMRT system is still operating in a reactionary manner by 2030. Public transportation is a basic amenity and measurement of a country’s progress, Singapore cannot afford to fall behind.