MRT “Flood-Gate” disruption: Minister Khaw’s damage control goes downhill

Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan in an MRT. Image: TODAY.

The MRT train system in Singapore seems to be beset by just about any problem these days.

Dump the hope that fixing up old tracks would permanently end public transport woes - different issues pop up every now and then, with some severe enough to cripple services for several minutes to hours.

Past incidents have shown that MRT services were hampered by track faults, power trip, loose platform doors, defective trains, fire, an aluminium foil balloon (I’m not making this up) and, most unfortunately, a tragedy involving the death of two SMRT staff.

So when a flood following heavy rain forced the hours-long closure of services along sections of the North-South Line in October, one can be sure that the absurdity has reached yet another tipping point.

Sure enough, “MRT Flood-Gate” warranted enough official attention that Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan had to step in to — sort of — intervene, while SMRT CEO Desmond Kuek and chairman of SMRT Corporation and SMRT Trains Seah Moon Ming unreservedly apologised and took full responsibility for the weekend incident.

Minister Khaw: “Sorry but…”

It is not to suggest that Khaw stepped back and delegated the burden of contrition to SMRT senior officials alone.

As he had remarked: “We are all sorry (the disruption happened) … Whatever follow-up action which needs to be done, has already started. Nothing has been covered up. The incident has pushed back the recovery of public confidence in us.”

It would have continued to be Khaw’s sincere show of regret over the episode albeit the subtly of that sentiment.

But that pretty much went downhill when he attempted to shift attention to rails and train signalling systems getting better:

At the beginning, I said to give me four or five years. We are at the mid-point now… We wanted to close the gap with Taipei’s benchmark of 800,000 km without incident … We have made serious improvements, we have exceeded next year’s target (of 400,000km) and that’s why I was confident enough to say let’s go for 1 million.
But I knew Singaporeans couldn’t relate because they still hear delays here and there because of resignalling.
I did say the resignalling would have tonnes of problems. I said so in public, to bear with us. So even when you evaluate our performance in resignalling, we have done well. That’s why I’m concerned when media reports conflate the two projects (improvements to existing lines and resignalling) and draw wrong conclusions.

Here’s what went wrong with Khaw’s damage-control.

1. Downplaying the bigger problem

In what was supposed to be a press conference to address the flooding at the North-South Line as well as some “deep-seated cultural issues” within the SMRT organisation, Khaw pointed to how concerted efforts have helped to improve rails and train signalling systems, and thus, fulfilling a 2018 goal of 400,000km.

However, the key issue isn’t even about train delay due to resignalling glitches, but rather, a flooding of tracks which was caused by badly maintained anti-flooding systems. If anything at all, the latter appears to have very little to do with the former.

Besides missing the point, it is baffling that Khaw decided to highlight one area of improvement to eclipse other disparate troubles that hit MRT services over the years.

Yet, this point is stingingly clear: the delays and disruptions aren’t just caused by malfunctioning resignalling — and no amount of positive spin on that could make the bigger picture any more rosier.

Firefighters clearing the flooding at the North-South Line in October. Image: SCDF.

2. Employ a previously used but flawed argument

That Khaw fumbled in explaining the situation at such a critical time is not surprising since he relied on the same, weak argument to mitigate the severity of the matter at hand.

His modus operandi — to claim that the problem is not as bad as it seems — is simply to focus mostly on the MRT’s resignalling project, then lamented that the mainstream media is not reporting fairly on the progress made.

This defence appears to restrict Khaw’s definition of service reliability to one or a few stated criteria.

But as The Straits Times’ senior transport correspondent, Christopher Tan, pointed out, reliability has to go beyond just improving resignalling and train travel distances before breakdown, and examine the impact on commuter experience in areas such as staff response during delays, timely and accurate information, and coordination between rail operators.

“…more effort is needed to ease the pain of commuters who are not well represented by the (rail reliability) statistics, such as those who rely on the North-South and East-West lines during peak hours,” Tan writes.

“Focus on people’s experience, not just numbers, in the drive for greater reliability.”

Moreover, he exposed the fallacy of Khaw’s assertion:

Rail reliability numbers track the distance or train-km travelled before a breakdown happens, even if they do not capture the severity of each incident. The expansion of the rail network in recent years has expanded the denominator. And when the denominator is bigger, the resultant ratio looks rosier.

3. Blaming the media

It wasn’t the first time that Khaw insists that the public’s negative perception of MRT services is exacerbated by misleading media reports - during a forum in July this year, he was explicitly blunt of alleged unfair coverage:

I don’t like the media reporting … Even our main media have turned tabloid. Yes, exciting and so on … frightening figures, headlines.
But I thought they were being unfair to the teams … working their guts out on this re-signalling project. They think it’s so easy, you know, like holding a pen and writing a few articles and get the signalling done. I wish it was so simple. If it was so simple, they don’t need us. We can ask the reporters to run the train system.

Still, the truth remains that Khaw’s claim of better train operations conflicts with actual grievances of commuters.

Minister Khaw at an SMRT press conference which addresses the October flooding at the North-South Line. Image: Mediacorp.

Additionally, not reporting disruptions and passenger unhappiness is egregious self-censorship the mainstream media could ever commit.

Furthermore, The Straits Times editor, Warren Fernandez, noted of “the complexities… in the re-signalling process even as normal operations have to continue. We have reported on that, but we also have to report on the difficulties that crop up along the way, and the impact they have on commuters facing disruptions.”

In fact, these reports do serve well as public service.

“I don’t think the media has (exaggerated) recent train delays and breakdowns. If anything, these real-time updates help me to plan my commute,” one commuter commented.

4. Lack of unanimity with SMRT over who’s to take blame

Even when it comes to parties who are to take responsibility for the October service disruption, Khaw could not seem to agree with SMRT officials.

As both Desmond Kuek and Seah Moon Ming unequivocally took the blame on behalf of the entire organisation, Khaw chose to assign fault to the only team that really matters:

The SMRT team in charge of maintaining the flooding system at Bishan has failed us. It’s so simple that it should not have happened…It’s as embarrassing as that. (We must) nail down who is responsible. It’s a localised team in Bishan. Something must happen to the staff.

Good.

But how about treating the flooding matter as a component of the larger scheme at work, and deal with “deep-seated cultural issues” in SMRT — as Kuek had so said — instead of just hinting the replacement of direct teams?

Crowds at Jurong East MRT Station in November 2015, following a service disruption. Image: Corey Sta Maria.

5. Suggests that commuters do not judge MRT fairly

No matter the unhappiness of commuters, Khaw thinks that they have not judge MRT services rightly.

Basically, he expects the public to scrutinise the situation within the context of the overly emphasised resignalling issue — failure of which means “Singaporeans couldn’t relate” because they did not see that SMRT has “done well” in resignalling performance.

With such an indictment from the Transport Minister, is it any wonder that people continue to be furiously upset over Mr Khaw?

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