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Reliability of MRT key to having fewer cars on roads

By ST_Opinion on 23 Feb 2014

Attached Image 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.
The condition is fair and, in fact, is one 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.
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.
And if a mode of transport cannot be as comfortable or speedy as the private car, it should at least be reliable.
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. The total number of disruptions lasting more than five minutes in 2011, 2012 and 2013 were 393, 396 and 309 respectively.
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. In January 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.
You could calculate the economic impact of such delays, but that would be irrelevant in today's argument. 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 folks who cannot afford the luxury of a cab, and have to rely 100 per cent on public transport.
The unhappiness over an MRT delay is arguably deeper than say, a bus delay, because of the high expectations commuters attach to rail travel. The frequency and punctuality of trains now far exceed standards attained by buses.
Also, in some cases, a rail breakdown entails passengers walking on tracks or in tunnels - which can potentially be hazardous.
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.
Professor Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, went as far as hypothesising that another major MRT breakdown, "combined with declining trust in public institutions", could result in "the perfect combination for a riot or two".
He said that in an Opinion piece for this paper last April. Last week, he followed up with an article on how car ownership and usage rates seem to be dipping in the West - and why Singaporeans should take a leaf from that trend.
I concur with his observations. But the reasons for the disenchantment with the car in the West are worsening congestion, parking woes and a growing environmental consciousness (especially among the young). These are not strong motivations here. In fact, they often do not apply. Compared to most major cities, the roads here are relatively free-flowing and parking is aplenty. And environmental concerns do not yet seem to rank high among people here - young or old.
But the car's biggest attraction must be its speed and efficiency. Door-to-door journeys by car in Singapore is often 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. According to the Land Transport Authority's latest Household Interview Travel Survey, among people who live within 400m of an MRT station, 71 per cent take public transport. The percentage drops to 67 per cent if the distance is 800m. And for those living beyond 2km of a station, only 55 per cent take public transport.
As the rail network expands, more and more of us will live and work within walking distance of a station. By 2030, the network is expected to almost double to 360km, and 80 per cent of households should be within 10 minutes' walk to a station (up from around 60 per cent today).
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.
by Christopher Tan

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bellboy Feb 23 2014 09:18 PM

As usual, another insightful article by Chris Tan.


My 2cents is that there is more than 1 key to get fewer cars on the roads.
A few others will include :
- increasing cost of car usage
- increasing the rail network (already in progress)

Knoobie Feb 24 2014 09:03 AM

As usual, another insightful article by Chris Tan.


My 2cents is that there is more than 1 key to get fewer cars on the roads.
A few others will include :
- increasing cost of car usage
- increasing the rail network (already in progress)

Increasing the cost of car usage and ownership is also "already in progress".


I believe the underline purpose of the article from Chris Tan is to address that despite the high COE, why is there still so many people buying cars to add to the traffic conditions in Singapore. Which was clearly stated that the reliability of the train service has a huge part to play.


Of course, availability ("increasing the rail network") will be a pleasant thing as well. Over the past 10 yrs, we can see the vast amout of train stations added. But as the reliability and comfort comes into question, it does not seems encouraging enough for people to choose this option.

Heartbreakid Feb 24 2014 09:29 AM

Our system doesn't get it right because our railway reliability is in question so much so that it is not convincing enough for those who drives to take public transport. If the reliability and efficiency are good, natural people will choose the wiser way to travel.

Bonafidestack Feb 24 2014 09:53 AM

I think this is a chicken and egg qns.  Govt want us to stop buying cars and take public transport, People in Singapore want public transport to function well so that they can rely on it.


And i think it is impossible to stop us from buying a car. But can stop us from using it so frequently. We currently living in this 1st world country and competing with the others, when we see our counterparts have cars, we will also want to have one. So now the thing we should consider is how to minimize on the car usage. That should be the focus.

Matoonia Feb 24 2014 10:33 AM

If the public transport really so good, we will not even need all the monetary disincentives or penalties to own a car. People will automatically switch to public transport. But last heard, our public transport crowded, break down etc, how to tahan?


as we speak, again this morning train fault along North South Line. How to count on our public transport?

StreetFight3r Feb 24 2014 10:58 AM

There is no way that people will stop "aspiring" to buy cars. Even if our public transport system is efficient, people will still want to own a car. The rich will not want to take public transport, in fact, many of them own more than 2 cars per household.


To counter this, COE increases, and the middle income earners struggle to afford to buy a car, but the rich will always be the rich. They will still be able to own cars and the COE system will only work against the middle income earners.


The lower income earners will be resigned to taking public transport or ride a motorcycle. To counter the sudden growth of motorcycles on the road, our brilliant government has cleverly increased the COE of motorcycles. Great move! Well done SG.


And to get back to the main point, no. I do not think people will ever stop aspiring to buy a car. People will only be unable to afford one, thanks to the high COE.

Vinceng Feb 24 2014 01:56 PM
Christopher, I suggest you ask that senior civil servant and other senior civil servants in the transport ministry to give up their cars and take public transport to work. This will put them in touch with what is happening at the ground level and better understand the constrains. The BIG question is "Can the public transport system cope, especially during the morning and evening peak period, if more people give up their cars?"
Vinceng Feb 24 2014 02:27 PM

That senior civil servant is also biased in his statement on asking the writer to ".... write an article on why Singaporeans should give up their aspiration to own a car."


Foreigners and Permanent Residents, who make up at least 1/3 of the population in Singapore, also make up a significant number of car owners, and contribute to traffic congestion.

Mustank Feb 25 2014 02:23 PM

decentralising the city centre into the heartlands will decrease the need to travel


how i wish chris tan will take up this point

LiuDeHua Feb 25 2014 03:29 PM

decentralising the city centre into the heartlands will decrease the need to travel


how i wish chris tan will take up this point


Will not decrease the need to travel. Will only reduce congestion in the CBD areas. 


I live in Bishan does not mean I will work in Bishan mah.

Dwee Mar 06 2014 09:54 AM

A low income earner like me is struggling to maintain my car. I will only give up driving when reliability and comfort of the public transport is compromise...

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