In hard-hitting remarks about the state of Singapore’s rail reliability, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said on Monday (May 30) that “complacency and certainly distracted management” led to the current state of affairs, as he outlined areas the rail operators need to shape up in.
At a forum on infrastructure maintenance on Monday, Mr Khaw set an “audacious” target for local transport operators SMRT and SBS Transit by 2020: The Taipei Rapid Transit Corporation’s (TRTC) scorecard of clocking 800,000 train-kilometres before hitting a delay that exceeds five minutes. The current performance of the two local rail operators in the first quarter of this year averages out to 160,000 train-km.
Pointing to how TRTC had studied Singapore’s rail network in its early years, Mr Khaw, who is also Coordinating Minister for Infrastructure, said: “We were then an exemplary MRT player and a subject of study. Unfortunately, maybe due to complacency and certainly distracted management attention, we lost our earlier mojo.
“At the moment, I would describe the cup as ‘three-quarters empty’. But I appreciate the efforts of our colleagues who have made the cup ‘one-quarter full’. I am confident we will have a full cup in due course,” he added.
TRTC is the second role model — and a more prolific one — that Mr Khaw has said Singapore’s rail network should emulate. In October last year, shortly after he took over the transport portfolio, Mr Khaw had said Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway’s performance of about 300,000 train-km between disruptions was a target for Singapore to catch up with.
On Monday, Mr Khaw said that having been in politics for more than two decades, he believed in under-promising, so as to over-deliver. “However, when organisations (need) to be transformed, I think we need to do the opposite: Set clear stretch targets, motivate the troop, aim high and work our butts (off).”
He added: “If we fail in absolute terms, it could still be very significant. But if we work hard at it, with a little bit of luck, we may achieve these audacious targets.”
Mr Khaw also pinned down what he learnt about TRTC’s method to achieving their “remarkable” train reliability performance, from a study trip two weeks ago led by the Land Transport Authority (LTA). TRTC had an organisation structure where employees at all levels had strong ownership of service reliability. The operator’s engineering excellence shows in the way it captures and analyses data about the state of the network’s hardware, allowing it to carry out timely replacement and preventive maintenance. Workers are also passionate about their jobs, which speeds up response when incidents crop up.
Mr Khaw set a target of 200,000 train-km between delays by year end and 400,000 train-km by 2018. He also said the LTA will develop a system that gives an overview of asset requirements across all MRT lines in the next three years. “This will enable us to systematically assess the asset condition and (let them be)reviewed by both operators and LTA,” he said.
He added that a review of the operators’ incident response and recovery procedures is under way. Also in the pipeline is a new centre to boost currently “minimal” testing and repair capabilities for electronics in the rail network.
For now, staff from the LTA and both operators will be sent to workshops in Taiwan to improve their asset maintenance practices and engineering.
Mr Khaw said: “This will allow our operators to jump-start their review of their maintenance programmes and reliability efforts. There’s no point reinventing the wheel. Please chuck away whatever ‘not invented here’ syndrome. We have no time for reinvention anyway … our commuters can’t wait.”
Transport analyst Lee Der-Horng, from the National University of Singapore, said the difference between TRTC’s and Singapore’s rail reliability performance lies in operations. Employees there have a strong sense of ownership and strive to be perfectionists at work, he noted.
But he pointed out that as wages in Taiwan are also comparatively lower, it frees up resources to be channelled towards other areas of need.
Dr Walter Theseira, a senior lecturer at UniSIM, felt that tackling major disruptions would be more important in keeping commuters happy.
“Major disruptions that take down the entire system or parts of it and require commuters to find alternatives such as bus bridging are much more of an inconvenience than just momentary delays of a few minutes,” he said. “The public continues to be sceptical that quality has actually improved because the frequency between major disruptions has not improved.”