Tuesday, January 22, 2008

the ugly side of SMRT

i have just read the annual report of SMRT Corp.

i shall briefly list the business objectives of the group:

- maximise shareholder value
- provide safe, reliable and friendly travel experience at affordable prices
- leverage core expertise in operations and maintenance for trains and related infra
- maximise non-fare revenue through rental, advertising and engineering businesses
- enhance and sustain high standards in corporate governance

let's shelve this for discussion later. Fast forward to the 'track fault' on Monday morning, where train services were stopped from Pasir Ris to Tanah Merah.

pictures gathered from Hardwarezone (tamago and ev0d3vil)

This was what happened - the railgrinder locomotive hit a trailer of something.

The front section was badly damaged, thus it couldn't be towed back easily
(possible rail damage)


Attempt by a normal C751 train to push it towards Tanah Merah Depot failed.
The train had to pull it backwards, towards Tampines and Pasir Ris

And here it was . The train had to accompany the lonely loco as well (see the dead end)

service criticisms
- non-transparency on cause of service disruption. On the screens at the MRT station, i only knew there was a DISRUPTION from PSR to TNM. What's the fault? Why is SMRT always so shy to tell commuters of the actual problem?

- lack of alternative information for commuters in both directions. For the people at the affected stations, there were 70 shuttle buses to link them to Tanah Merah. How about people going to these stations? What were the alternatives? What if my grandmother had to go to PSR, but is in a loss when the screens only displayed DISRUPTION? Posters should be put up at every station, informing what affected commuters can do. For example, take MRT to Bedok, transfer to SBST 17 to PSR, 24 to TNM, 67 to Tampines, etc. Nope, there were plenty of time (7 hours of disruption) but Corp Comms failed to do that.

- an apology did the job. Singaporeans are so forgiving. However to only receive an apology for a 7 hour disruption and the trouble of fare refunds are simply unacceptable.

business objective criticisms
- safe, reliable and friendly. Where is the timeliness? It is a known fact that everyone had a problem of boarding trains during peak hours. Some might even have to wait for 1-2 trains at interchange stations, such as Jurong East on the way to City.

the frequency is an issue, yet officials attempt to cover it up with statistics and figures. However, there is an issue.

from the annual report, passenger trips have increased 11% from 2002 - 389.7m to 434.9m. However, car kilometres operated dropped from 81.4m to 77.1m. SMRTC has been aggressively cutting costs by cramming as much as people into each train and reducing frequencies since 2004, to maximise shareholder value. Thus, what is observed is simply increasing ridership, yet the supply of trains remained the same, and even dropped.

on the buses side, this what SMRT had to say:

service schedules were refined to optimise operating costs. This included school holiday
schedules to match changes in student travel patterns, split-shift duties for services with distinctively high demand during peak hours, and parking of split-shift buses at interchanges to reduce off-service mileage.

this is not innovative. It is only innovative if the group had taken care of the operating fundamentals of the bus subsidiary. In the past 3-4 years, SMRT Buses has only introduced a handful of services for the transport hubs under its charge. In contrast, SBS Transit has overwhelming introduced too many services and initiatives that SMRTB is unable to match. While ridership has increased with additional services and demands on existing routes, SMRTB has not purchased any new buses so far.

the latest service failure showed its vulnerability. SMRTB came up with 40 buses, probably handpicked from a variety of services. It had to call for help from SBST to provide another 30 buses. This is unexpected from a multi-modal operator. It should have additional vehicles to cope with reasonable scaled emergencies. As only 4 stations were affected, this is considered to be reasonable for SMRT to handle by itself.

the Land Transport Review has conveniently glossed over certain areas, especially for rail transport. SMRTC is clearly in need of a structural change to handle the country's needs for decades to come. While it is trying to follow footsteps of overseas operators such as MTR Corp (HK), it is inappropriate for the company to introduce initiatives such as growing non-fare revenue through properties or 'innovative' strategies to improve ridership, when the basic responsibility has not been fulfilled.

this is my personal analysis - Given ComfortDelgro's strength in similar areas, except for its inexperience in running rail operations, many young market watchers are betting on CDG to surpass SMRTC in years ahead. The reason is simple - CDG has managed NEL reasonably well (look at the frequency) and has a strong bus subsidiary (SBST). On the other hand, SMRTC has managed to dress up its operating costs by cutting back frequencies of trains and buses. Not to mention the poor state of SMRTB, which is better off as TIBS Buses in 2002.

public transportation has been a bugbear of lower and mid class citizens for a long time. If MOT/LTA does not nip the problem in the bud, this bugbear will very soon balloon into an election issue.


ThugChic said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
singapor3 said...

Please name any country or place that have a perfect track record of ZERO accidents.

Kaffein said...

To singapor3:
All I can say is each month, Connex of Victoria state publishes it's serviceability.

If it does not meet the KPI targets or if disruptions occur and impact customer, it pays back with free tickets.

Sheesh, go back-packing or travel around to see the world. After which, let me know what YOU think. Don't let the ST brainwash you.


Edgar said...

hi, could you indicate which specific Annual Report and which page was the bit about SMRTC 'aggressively cramming' passengers into less frequent trains in, so that we can read it for ourselves?


zhiming said...

Hi edgar, a clarification. What you've quoted is my interpretation of the data given in the AR.

Iftekhar said...

While some people will interpret your blog post as nothing more than bitching, and that you are being "ungrateful" to the Lee family for all that they have done and what have you, I think your post is brilliantly erudite and well-reasoned. You've convinced me.

I hope you keep it up. It's voices like yours that may finally enfranchise your people.

For the record, I'm from a third-world country (I am "foreign talent") which has a public transport system that is literally in shambles. Compared to that, Singapore is freaking heaven. So I, personally, do not have complaints.

Although having used the MRT for only the past 6 months, I have realized that the morning peak hour services do really need some review. People are liable to get hurt on these trains.

But again, I have seen and lived in far worse. And Singapore, to me, is a case study in razor-thin bureaucracy perfected... and administration that would make the British of yore green with envy.

Just something for you to be proud of while fighting the good fight. :)

zhiming said...

Hi Iftekhar, thanks for your kind words! I'm aware different people hold different views of this issue. Therefore i don't actively seek a common consensus to my opinions.

when compared to other transportation systems, Singapore has already done well. But it can be even better, just like what our government leaders always do - compare the extreme ends of a scale (the very good and the very bad) in their arguments.

One thing i never expected though, was that my opinions were picked up by fellow bloggers. I'm fully open to that, however I wished I've delivered my opinions more robustly (it was written just before I went to sleep).