Bertha Henson: A smarting SMRT

~ by Bertha Henson ~

No one should be surprised that SMRT got whacked by the COI over the train disruptions. The way the COI went at it during the hearings, it was clear the panel thought very little of the checks SMRT made and its emergency preparedness.

What’s surprising is the SMRT response to the report which have been variously reported as “harsh”, “mincing no words” etc. It defended its maintenance system, and talked about how it matched up to other standards.

Of course, it said, it could have done more. Hmm…so is it accepting the report or not? Or is that taken as a given?

What is also surprising is that the LTA was taken to task in a gentle manner.

Today newspaper had this point as well: National University of Singapore (NUS) transport expert Lee Der Horng felt that the COI could have gone further in examining the LTA’s role.
Noting that the “whole report has one purpose – to assure us that the system is safe and reliable”, Associate Professor Lee said: “The incident was preventable but was not prevented. It is disappointing that SMRT did nothing, things that were supposed to be checked were not checked.”

He added: “And all this while, where was the LTA? They are the regulator and should know the system better than the operators – if not how do they regulate? I would question if the regulators have the corresponding technical capabilities to be able to regulate.”

It makes you wonder what sort of role LTA should play as developer and regulator – and whether as MP Cedric Foo suggested, the two roles should be separated. Apparently, the MAS works this way – it would be good to know more about this.

The Transport Ministry said it accepts the COI report and will give a fuller response next week. I hope it will be a blow-by-blow response, from why it was tardy with follow-ups on maintenance, the gaps in its inspection regime and what it role it plays in drawing up evacuation plans.

This is rather more important than drawing up a whole new set of fines for train operators who fall down on the job, as the LTA said it would do. I mean, you can fine a commercial operator to the hilt, cane them, jail them, hang them. But nobody punishes a regulator.

In fact, the regulator should have even higher standards and accountability. It is the body the public places its faith in. We trust that the civil servants in regulatory bodies will do a decent job of protecting the rest of us from commercial predators and private interests.

That’s what they are there for. In fact, BT noted that MP Irene Ng had asked the Minister if SMRT seemed more concerned about making money (for shareholders) than maintaining the rail system (for commuters). That was in January. Going by the COI report for SMRT to focus on the engineering aspects, I suppose her guess was right.

So really, everything will boil down to that perennial question: the balance between private profit and public service

I wonder how much all this will cost the SMRT? I don’t mean the penalties, but getting up to speed as the COI wants. It’s already said it would replace the claws…How many more engineers will it need? More machinery, like that very sorry-looking lone train inspection vehicle that was left to rot? Or as Chris Tan says in ST – maybe technology to detect sagging third rails, high speed cameras?

Looks like plenty of money needed to add new infrastructure, and more to come up with checks that will have their engineers looking at every rail line. I suppose SMRT board is very busy now working out new administrative structures, setting out new budgets. The good thing is, it DID do well in terms of turning empty space into retail space…so maybe money from one side can finance the other…

On a separate note, I was so so glad to see the ST graphic on what happened to cause the breakdowns and how third rail, claw, fastener, collector shoes hang together. Finally, enlightenment!

This article first appeared on Bertha Henson's blog. Bertha Henson is a former Associate Editor of The Straits Times.