Thursday, December 22, 2011

Kicking up a fuss ensures MRT standards kept high

Dec 20, 2011
By Joel Cooper

ANGER, frustration, dismay. All of these emotions were etched onto the faces of passengers left in the lurch by the past week's MRT breakdowns.

But as I looked at the pictures of stranded commuters, my main feeling was one of deja vu.

I come from London, a city that sits on top of the world's oldest underground rail network. In my hometown, getting stuck on a train that grinds to a halt for no apparent reason is an all-too-frequent experience. Just last year, passengers reportedly had to be led to safety down dark tunnels two days in a row due to power failures and a defective train.

Sound familiar? You bet. Yet there is one big difference between these incidents and Singapore's spate of MRT breakdowns - the reaction. In Britain's case, there were a handful of newspaper articles, but little public outcry. Here, we have had calls for SMRT's chief executive to resign and the Prime Minister announcing an inquiry.

This difference in attitudes has led some of my Singaporean colleagues to ask me whether I think that the public has overreacted to the current travel woes.

My answer is no.

Why shouldn't people demand that standards be kept high? Breakdowns like these might still be rare, but unless commuters keep up the pressure and refuse to accept poor service, they could easily become more common.

The last thing that anyone wants is a situation like in London, where delays happen so often that travellers simply shrug their shoulders as if to say 'just another hold-up'.

Not that the Tube is so terrible. Unlike the MRT, it has no shortage of alternative routes built into its vast underground network. So commuters struggling with one delayed line can often simply hop onto another without having to leave the station.

It's also a lot easier to forgive the occasional hiccup when you remember the Tube is nearly 150 years old in places and has a 408km labyrinth of track - all of which must be painstakingly maintained.

Compared with the clapped out, ageing London Underground, the MRT is like a brand new toy fresh out of its box. If it does not work perfectly, who can blame the customer for asking for his money back?

With only 146.5km of track, the network is also still quite small, which ought to make it easier to maintain. In general, SMRT and SBS Transit have clearly done a good job of this. Singapore is known throughout the world for its smooth and efficient transport network - which is why the scenes of stranded passengers are such a shock.

But as the network grows older, fatter and more unwieldy, I hope that standards do not start to slip.

After all, a lot is at stake. The Tube may be unreliable at times, but who goes to London for the trains anyway? For most people, it's more about having themselves photographed outside Buckingham Palace or Big Ben.

Singapore is in a very different situation. Being orderly and well run is one of its biggest selling points abroad. Whether you are a holidaymaker hoping for a hassle-free break, or a business traveller wanting to get to meetings on time, the Republic's efficiency is a major draw.

It would be a real shame to see this hard-won reputation eroded. One thing I enjoy about living in Singapore is not having to leave for work early in case of delays. In London, I always allowed at least an extra 15 minutes of journey time for things like cancellations, power failures or the classic British excuse for late trains: 'leaves on the line'.

Here, I can plan my journeys with almost pin-point precision because I know I won't have to wait longer than about five minutes on an MRT platform and, once I'm aboard, nothing will break down.

Of course, last week's setbacks have made me and many other commuters question whether we can still take these things for granted. There will always be the occasional technical glitch, which most of us can tolerate. But if it starts to happen too often, passengers' confidence and goodwill could end up being drained.

Unsurprisingly, research has shown longer train journeys are more stressful for travellers than short ones. This could even have implications for the economy. Commuters nearing the end of lengthy trips perform worse in simple tasks such as proof reading, according to a 2006 study by academics from New York's Cornell and Polytechnic universities.

So, no. Singaporeans are not overreacting to the troubling spate of delays. If you want the best service, you sometimes have to make a fuss. The fact the public has developed such high standards for the MRT shows just how fast and well run it still is. Long may that continue.

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