A Plea to SBS Transit and LTA


Do Not Neglect Social Media

The North-East Line (NEL) is operated by SBS Transit (SBST). When the disruption occurred on 4 June, LTA notified the public through Twitter. Even SBS Transit’s competitor SMRT pitched in to help and got flak from angry commuters for disruptions not of their own making. And yet, all is quiet on SBS Transit’s Twitter account. Its fledgeling effort in using social media seems to have been abandoned, as the last tweet was in September 2012.

Isn’t it the duty of a public transport operator to notify the public of service disruptions through all popular channels, including social media? In fact, prompt information dissemination via social media was assessed in Exercise Greyhound last November. It is also unfair to the social media teams at LTA and SMRT to pick up the tab for SBS Transit and bear the brunt of commuters’ frustration.

Instead, SBS Transit prefers to spend money to notify the public of NEL disruptions through its SMS alert service and iris app. According to SBS Transit’s parent company ComfortDelgro’s annual report in 2012, there were 28,000 subscribers to the free SMS alert service. More than 800,000 iPhone and Android users also subscribed to receive push notification through the iris app.

Despite the impressive numbers, SBS Transit’s presence on social media is effectively zero. Its Twitter account is inactive and it does not have a Facebook page. Perhaps, the backlash from social media can be scary. In this regard, its media-savvy big brother SMRT can teach SBS Transit a thing or two.

Incident Response Still Lacking

If the authorities know that disruptions are unavoidable, why is incident response still a mess? The NEL disruption on 4 June exposed SBS Transit’s poor execution of its incident management plans. According to witnesses on the ground, the disruption began as early as 7:54pm, but the public was only alerted an hour later. Confusion reigned over conflicting information. Station announcements said that NEL service was disrupted in one direction but the media warned that service was not available in both directions between Outram Park and Harbourfront.

For all the service disruptions that the public has endured, wouldn’t the train operators have accumulated a wealth of operational experience by now? Ever since train service reliability was called into question by the Committee of Inquiry, the authorities have doled out a stream of reassuring news that is comforting only to busy professionals who never had to take public transport. Here is a rewind of the happy chorus to those who missed it:

  1. LTA reviewed the train operators’ incident management plans;

  2. LTA conducted random surprise audits at train stations to ensure that frontline staff are ready to deal with service disruptions;

  3. LTA and the train operators held two tabletop exercises in February and April 2012 that involved representatives from the Singapore Civil Defense Force, the Singapore Police Force’s Transport Command and the Traffic Police;

  4. The climax is the Ground Deployment Exercise, a three-year cycle that requires operators to conduct component exercises in the first two years, followed by a physical deployment in the third. LTA conducted Exercise Greyhound with SMRT in November 2012, simulating a broken rail on the East-West Line (an uncanny precursor of the rail cracks to come). Incident management plans were put to the test and learning points shared with both SMRT and SBS Transit.

Sure, improvements were made after spending all that time and taxpayers’ money. But is it effective? Why are there still gaps between expected versus actual performance? It is much too early to open the champagne and bask in the afterglow of self-congratulatory reports and premature grades. Ask the weary souls who take the trains everyday, they make better judges.

Instead of results, the public is treated to the usual rhetoric:

“It is essential for us, as a responsible public transport operator, to be well prepared for such contingencies given the number of commuters who will be affected. This exercise is helpful to us to identify areas for closer co-ordination with other external parties and agencies so that we can better manage the situation to minimise inconvenience to our passengers.” – Mr Gan Juay Kiat, Chief Executive Officer of SBS Transit, said after the second tabletop exercise in April 2012.

“Many commuters had expressed frustration that SBST had not sufficiently provided timely and accurate information on the travel delay… There is room for improvement in SBST’s incident and public communications management, and LTA will work with them to improve this.” – Mr Chew Hock Yong, Chief Executive of LTA, said after the NEL disruption in August 2012.

Sounds familiar? Won’t be the last time you hear them.

The Silence Is Telling

As on 7 June, three days after the latest NEL disruption, SBS Transit has not posted any official statement on their website or held a press release. No preliminary findings were shared, no apologies were made and no explanations were offered. Only a familiar assurance that the incident will be thoroughly investigated by the authorities.

Why is SBS Transit silent on the number of commuters affected by the NEL disruption of 4th June? Both SMRT and SBS Transit must adhere to the Operating Performance Standards (OPS) set out by LTA, which determine the severity of disruptions as the total number of persons denied from taking the usual train service exceeding an aggregate of 20,000 pax. In cases where train operators fail to meet the OPS, LTA can exercise regulatory action, including a maximum fine of $1 million per incident. Since SBS Transit began train operations in 2003, it has been fined only once; $400,000 for a major disruption that affected 117,000 commuters on 15 March 2012.

The Root Cause

Is the NEL disruption on 4 June caused by stress corrosion cracking (SCC)? The LTA-SBST Joint Team found that SCC is the cause of NEL disruptions in March 2012, August 2012 and January 2013. However, SCC is not a system-wide problem, according to the Joint Team’s assessment then. Four months after the February report, the Joint Team has not updated whether they found the source of the corrosive agents in the August 2012 and January 2013 disruptions. Although the authorities have not disclosed the cause of the 4th June disruption, a common pattern is emerging. All four disruptions (March 2012, August 2012, January 2013 and June 2013) are power faults that occurred on the same stretch of tunnel between Harbourfront and Dhoby Ghaut stations.

Fines No Enough?

In January, LTA brandished the enforcement stick at train operators, threatening to impose a fine if service disruptions lasting more than 30 minutes occur more than once in any 4-week period. So will LTA carry out its threat for the NEL disruptions on 16 May 2013 (signalling fault) and 4 June (power fault)? Not to mention the four rail cracks on the North-South/East-West Lines in April and May. And the backlog is piling up. Months later, LTA still has not announced any regulatory action for the following NEL disruptions, which were serious enough to warrant the activation of bus bridging services:

  1. Power fault affecting 58,000 commuters on 10 January 2013

  2. Brake problem affecting 26,000 commuters on 20 December 2012

  3. Power fault and signalling fault on the same day 17 August 2012. The two disruptions took almost the entire day to repair. Again, SBS Transit did not report the number of commuters affected.

What is the point of acting tough? We are not baying for blood, but LTA should bring a sense of closure to the investigations that it has promised the public.

In retrospect, are the fines an effective deterrence? Did the fines improve train service reliability? Ultimately, did the fines benefit the public? Yes, the fines are donated to the Public Transport Fund, but it is not only the needy who are inconvenienced by the disruptions. The recent rail cracks have shown that million-dollar fines cannot prevent major disruptions. Raising the fine quantum by pegging it to a percentage of fare revenue will worsen the financial burden on the train operators, with no intended benefits. Perhaps the only beneficiary is the Public Transport Fund, of which the train operators are already active contributors (the goodwill is especially handy when raising fares).

Collecting the trip fare fund at the MRT station after every disruption poses a second round of inconvenience to commuters. Wouldn’t it be a more sincere gesture (and less work) for train operators to declare free travel days after a major disruption? To the train operators, the financial pain is akin to a fine, but the public benefits directly. This proposal is not new, the Australian metro has done it. With their multi-million net profits, the train operators certainly can afford free travel days.