Let’s not expect our MRT to be the Shinkansen

By Ginnette Ng

GRAPHIC: AMY ONG

As we make our long daily commutes back to Pulau NTU, students might find themselves with an extra task these days – to factor in potential transport delays in their journey to the West.

If good fortune is not on your side, a one-way trip to school via public transportation could be as long as a Marvel movie. It is no wonder many of us lament about the Singapore Mass Rapid Transit (SMRT) Corporation just as much as we do about the heat and humidity nowadays.  

We have all seen the harsh comments on Facebook directed at SMRT or our Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan. After all, the infamous SMRT Feedback parody account on Facebook came to fame amid the first train disruption in 2011, and still takes jabs at SMRT when a new incident occurs.

The public has not forgotten that investigations revealed SMRT’s maintenance lapses in its operations two years ago. Even so, no amount of internet memes will transform the 30-year-old tracks into the Hogwarts express. We will simply have to grin and bear it.

SMRT has said most of its recent delays have been from testing out new software and signaling systems in the older North South Line (NSL) and East West Line (EWL). These upgrades are necessary to support the increasing number of commuters who depend on the MRT every day. Daily ridership is now at a record high of 3.1 million since operations began in 1987, according to the Land Transport Authority.

In fact, train delays are not uncommon in cities around the world. In London, the Underground stations may be closed for several months at a time due to renovations. New York City’s famous City Subway network has also scheduled maintenance works that close several stations every week. In 2019, the L line will see a 15-month shutdown that will inconvenience a quarter of a million commuters for necessary servicing and upgrades.

Much like Singapore, replacement bus services are used during those extended periods. Commuters complain about the inconvenience but they often have no choice but to make do.

While these solutions have worked in these cities, our public transportation network is not extensive enough to do the same at the moment. We only have our train and bus networks to rely on despite the fact that public transportation ridership has been increasing for 12 consecutive years. Meanwhile, even Hong Kong – which has the best metro system in the world – also has trams, ferries and mini-buses.

The narrative we have all grown up with about Singapore being clean and efficient and moving from the Third World to the First World has raised our expectations of this city-state. We used to swell with pride whenever tourists praised our world-class transportation. Now we are just annoyed and disappointed, as I am, together with the primary school students who did not make it to their oral examinations two weeks ago.

For now, it seems we will have to make do with these temporary MRT delays. Unless Magneto is with us, we can only learn to adapt and move on to Plan B or C. That could mean relying more on bus routes or train replacement buses, or giving in to Uber’s unrelenting advertising for a more comfortable ride to your destination.

In an ideal world, I would not have to pay $30 for a ride to school to avoid missing my finals, but I will not hold it against Singapore for not being a utopia.

The trains may be slower, but a good distraction like Netflix or Viu will make time pass a little faster. And for those of us who are devoted to our studies, there is no shame in catching up on lecture readings while on the go.
Until the new system stabilises in the coming months, we will have to take SMRT’s word for it –  that our trains will eventually be as efficient as we once remembered them to be. Meanwhile, we can only hope that the light at the end of the tunnel will come soon.