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Friday, February 14, 2014

MRT reliability key to having fewer cars

MRT reliability key to having fewer cars
(originally published in the Straits Times on 13th February, as far as I can tell from Google scraping of its shitty website which is impossible to find anything on)

"AT A recent Chinese New Year lunch, a senior civil servant suggested that I write an article on why Singaporeans should give up their aspiration to own a car.

Half-jokingly, I said I would - provided there was no major MRT incident for six months in a row. By "major", I meant incidents that disrupt service for more than 30 minutes each time.

The condition is fair and, in fact, it is one standard I think train operators SMRT and SBS Transit should aim for.

While it is unreasonable to expect machines to operate without a single glitch, it is reasonable to expect major incidents to be kept to a minimum. After all, rail systems are inherently robust and durable. And a system that is as new, short and costly as ours should have fewer breakdowns.

For instance, breakdowns on the 125-year-old, 340km, 24-hour New York City subway average one every 260,000km operated.

Singapore's 25-year-old, 180km network breaks down once every 120,000km.

[Ed: Emphasis mine: Singapore's subway is a fifth the age of New York's and about half its extent, yet is less than half as reliable.

Incidentally the New York subway is publicly owned and is run by a public-benefit corporation rather than a profit-maximising listed company.]

What is essential is a proper maintenance regimen, which train operators and regulators must nail down if the country is to promote public transport - which is intrinsically slower and less comfortable than the car - as a choice transport mode.

A major train breakdown impacts passengers travelling on the affected line as well as those in other parts of the rail network. Even minor incidents can trigger this ripple effect, but to a lesser extent.

Not only that, a major incident calls for bus bridging, which can impact bus commuters and road users at large, when bus services are diverted to cater to stranded train passengers.

That is why major incidents have to be minimised. And on this front, Singapore has some way to go.

Disruptions lasting more than 30 minutes each fell from 11 in 2011 to eight in 2012. It remained at eight last year. For incidents lasting more than an hour, the figure went from six in 2011 to four in 2012, but rose to five last year.

This year has not begun well for train operators. Last month alone, there were three incidents lasting more than 30 minutes each. Of these, two stretched beyond an hour. These are not comforting numbers.

Last year, more than 130,000 commuters were affected by disruptions lasting more than an hour, or about the same number in 2012. While the figures are far smaller than the 250,000 inconvenienced by major breakdowns in 2011, they are still significant - representing more than 10 per cent of train commuters.

The crux of the issue is: How do you convince people they should not aspire to own a car, when the probability of them being caught in a major rail disruption is so significant?

It is hard to quantify the cost of a delay, even if you can quantify the value of time. The confusion, the discomfort, the anxiety of not knowing when one can complete one's journey - these make up the anatomy of a delay. And being caught in one on a day when there is an all-important test or interview you cannot be late for can be devastating. Especially so for folk who cannot afford the luxury of a cab, and have to rely 100 per cent on public transport.

Or to put it another way: How can drivers be persuaded to give up their cars when the rail network - the backbone of the public transport system - is in a state where there is one major incident every six to seven weeks?

Consider, too, that even without major incidents, the system is straining at the seams. Packed carriages, crowded station platforms, lower operating speeds and patchy air-conditioning are recurring complaints. Frayed nerves and short fuses have become par for the course.

The car's biggest attraction must be its speed and efficiency. Door-to-door journeys by car in Singapore often take less than half the average time taken by public transport. As long as this huge gap remains, the aspiration to own a car will remain.

The balance, however, tilts substantially in favour of public transport if your points of origin and destination are both on the doorstep of an MRT station.

Not only that, people living near stations are more likely to use public transport. As the rail network expands, more and more of us will live and work within walking distance of a station.

But the increased coverage will be quite meaningless if it is not paired with better reliability. On that score, it is good to know the Government and the transport operators are pulling out all the stops to fix things. It may take a while, but there is optimism that standards Singaporeans have come to expect can be re-established.

And just for the record: The senior civil servant accepted my "challenge". Six months, no more than one breakdown over 30 minutes. The clock begins ticking in the Year of the Horse."

Singapore's approach to promoting public transport: not to make public transport better but to make cars even more unaffordable.
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