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Photo: Uma Venkatraman Twitter

Train breakdowns: Is dishonesty really the best policy?

Another train breakdown, another delay, another inaccurate estimate given. Please. Why can't we just be honest about it?

Every time the train service breaks down, SMRT will euphemistically call it a “track fault” or a “train fault” (never SMRT’s fault?). It will then attempt to give commuters the information they need to “plan ahead”. Unfortunately, SMRT’s estimates about the duration of train delays are about as accurate as their train service is reliable during rainy weather at peak hours—which is to say, not very accurate at all.

Every tweet SMRT sends out about a train delay will usually be followed by a reply from a commuter pointing out that the delay has exceeded their estimate. Just take the August 29 delay along the East-West Line for example.

At 1.13pm, SMRT tweeted:

“[EWL]:Due to a track fault,pls add 10mins train travel time from #JurongEast to #Redhill.(Not linked to new signalling project).”

Soon after, a commuter replied:

“Been stuck between Pioneer and Joo Koon for 20 mins”.

At 1.42pm, SMRT tweeted again:

“[EWL] UPDATE: Pls add 15mins train travel time from #JurongEast to #Redhill due to a track fault at #Redhill. Train svc is available.”

And right on cue, a commuter pointed out:

“What about the delay at Joo Koon.... 25 min delay there.”

Or how about the August 30 delay? SMRT says the delay will only take 15mins but commuters ask:

“you different world isit why your 15 mins and my 15 mins"

“Sure 15 mins. More like 45 mins"

“What give 15 mins lead time, i have already given 1 hour if my precious time.”

And as for the September 10 delay, SMRT says “Pls add 15min” but commuters point out:

“15 mins per station”

“@smrt please be transparent and announce the breakdown before people reach the interchange”

“Delay 25 min already still not moving, garbage excuse la”

“No announcement of what's happening in the train. Horrible, SMRT really needs to at least communicate!!!”

“Sorry, where are those buses? No one tells anything on the station (Botanic Garden). Waiting here for more than 30 mins. So unprofessional.”

When the North-South Line broke down (again) yesterday, SMRT asked commuters to “add 20mins travel time” when in fact there was no train service at all.

“It's not adding 20 minutes. It's totally no service at all. Can't you guys be more clear about it.”

“20mins? There are no trains at Somerset and long taxi queues. Once again SMRT you have let us down.”

“No train service at Toa Payoh to Marina South Pier in both directions”

This has gone on for a long time now so surely whoever is responsible for providing these estimates must have realised how consistently wrong he has been. SMRT has, of course, not fired him, presumably because it is not against company policy to fib the delay estimates. Commuters, after all, cannot boycott SMRT. But if this is not evidence of a blatant disregard for the welfare of commuters, I do not know what is.

Accurate estimates are ultimately the most vital information commuters need to mitigate whatever inconvenience and economic loss they may have suffered as a result of the delay. Unfortunately, SMRT persists in misleading commuters. Why? This is surely unjustifiable from a public relations perspective. Misleading customers is a sure way to attract their ire, as the sarcastic tweets and snide retorts well show. It is also unjustifiable from a national economic perspective. Every minute a working adult spends idling on a train instead of at work does not merely mean lost income for him, it also means lost economic activity for the nation. Surely the words, “Moving People, Enhancing Lives,” mean more to SMRT than corporate profit. Surely SMRT realises that it serves a vital function, not just for its shareholders, but also for the nation.

Why then does SMRT continue to mislead? The answer cannot be that SMRT itself does not know how to accurately estimate how long a delay will take. If that were true, why does it always give an underestimate? And why hasn’t it learned any lessons from the numerous delays in the past? It is statistically impossible for SMRT to underestimate the delay every time and yet it seems to be doing just that. If the reports by commuters are true, what we have here is not a series of innocent mistakes. It is a pattern of egregious behaviour. But the question remains: why does SMRT persist in its dishonesty?

Perhaps it is very simply because it can. The mainstream press may go as far as to report heavily on train breakdowns. It may even quote commuters who claim that SMRT has not given reliable estimates. But the mainstream press remains unwilling to verify those claims and investigate the numbers (even tabloid media do investigative journalism). Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan’s attempt to place pressure on the mainstream press with his off-the-cuff remark that they have turned tabloid merely compounds the problem.

SMRT’s and the Transport Minister’s self-interest here is problematic. By providing overly conservative estimates, both ensure that there is no public record of the full extent of train delays. When called upon by the people to account for the frequent train breakdowns, it becomes possible for SMRT to downplay the severity of the problem and for the Transport Minister to claim that rail reliability has improved by three times. Even if this were not true, who could question it?

Thus, without access to any authoritative evidence pointing to a pattern of inaccurate information, commuters continue to lack concrete proof that they have been misled intentionally. At best, commuters can only rely on their own limited experiences and the anecdotal experiences of others. As a result, we have no statistics—the god we Singaporeans so worship—and therefore we feel a powerless frustration.

Yet, providing reliable estimates are vital to regaining the trust of commuters. Since train breakdowns have become the normal, and since it appears that frequent breakdowns will continue to be the norm for a few years more, the next best thing SMRT can do is simply to be honest. Singaporeans will catch on sooner or later, lack of statistics be damned, and when that happens, the damage to SMRT’s and the government’s reputation will be irreparable.

Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. The people must hold SMRT and the government that grants it its monopoly to account. SMRT appears to care more about ensuring that they continue to look efficient on the public record. Thus, they do not apologise; they repeatedly downplay the severity of train delays; they do not admit when the train service breaks down entirely (they simply say that bus services are available); and sometimes they do not even report train disruptions when they think they can get away with it. We must show them otherwise.