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Sunday November 19th 2017

Ten recommendations to improve on our train fiasco

Ten recommendations to improve on our train fiasco:

1. Replacement – replace the current CEO Desmond Kuek and his ex-army team with people from the proper rail industry. The current top management team apparently lacks the technical experience in managing a complex train transport system and their inexperience shows in many aspects of running a rail business. This is also rather hard to believe as many of our industries are headed by foreign talents why not the crucial train system that affects millions?

2. Servicing – continue to close certain stations earlier so our maintenance team has more time to do their regular servicing – there is this belief that the technical crew is only given less than 5 hours daily to do their job and sometimes corners are cut to finish up fast. I believe Singaporeans will understand when certain short-term sacrifices need to be in place to achieve the longer-term good. In Sydney where I lived for a few years, many lines were closed during the weekend to allow for regular maintenance and free bus services are available. Yes many of us were inconvenienced over the weekend but we all knew that it is for a greater good and Sydney Rail delivers with very little down-time.

3. Overhaul – there is also talk of a complete shut-down of certain lines for a few weeks so that the rail can be totally over-hauled especially for the older East-West and North-South lines. This is not a bad idea though it will inconvenience hundreds of thousands of commuters but it is only for a few weeks and we ought to look at this idea seriously so that commuters will know that the train operators mean business. The two oldest train lines are almost 30 years old and there will be a certain amount of fair wear and tear made worse by the former CEO who sacrificed maintenance expenses for profits. The current regular break-down is so bad anything that remotely represents improvement will be warmly embraced by commuters. The two lines run over 100 km in route and it will take a while to completely over haul the system but it may ultimately solve the problem for good.

4. Slowing down – one gets the feeling that the government wants to open up the remaining of the down-town line quickly to ease the load off the crucial bottle-necked East-West line but is this wise as even during the opening day, the down-town line experienced a embarrassing operational fault.  We now have 119 stations in operation running on 5 lines over 198 km of route with an average ridership of about 3 over million daily. It is wise to perhaps let the five lines run for a few more years before we open up the rest of the other three new lines.

5. Cultural issues – CEO Desmond Kuek mentioned twice about cultural issues that plagued the team – once when he joins SMRT and then 5 years again later when the Bishan station was flooded. He didn’t elaborate further though there is speculation that the maintenance team may be rife with internal conflicts and rivalry. Back in the days of former CEO Saw, we witnessed the widespread replacement of the local engineering team with cheaper foreign imports to fatten up the books but the consequences far outweighed the temporary financial gain. There is apparent management lapse here and I agreed with Minister Khaw that the buck stops at the top when it comes to low morale issue among the staff. It is something that can be managed better and perhaps SMRT can bring in a top psychologist to fine-tune this area.

6. Rewards – there is so much bad stuff going on within our rail transport system that there is nothing positive that is linked to them. Why not start a campaign to highlight and reward good staff? There are still good rail people out there sweating their guts out every night while we sleep to ensure that the trains run properly the next day. Train station staff also put in the extra effort to properly control disgruntled commuters caught yet again by another train break-down. We as commuters ought to put in the extra effort too to appreciate the train personnel for doing a job that often comes unappreciated. The next time we see a station personnel at work let us smile at them or better still  say a hearty thank you so that they feel appreciated.

7. Population growth – very little was mentioned during yesterday ministerial session about the explosive population growth that caused our trains to be jam-packed. It is no wonder that our infrastructure suffers a serious blow-back as our train lines are not supposed to take in so many people in so short a time. Our population growth shot up from 4.59 million in 2006 to 5.6 million in 2016 largely fuelled by foreigners keen to work and live in our country. There is little planning for such a steep population growth which adversely over-load our transport, health and educational facilities.  The foreigner population growth has slowed down somewhat recently with a stable 0.527 million permanent residents and a more fluctuating non-resident foreign population of 1.6 million comprising mainly construction work permit holders (42%) and employment/work pass holders (23%).  More can be done to further slow the foreign influx by making it tougher for businesses to hire foreign job seekers especially if the locals can do the same job. I am sure that the recent frequent break-down has alot to do with the rapid population growth.

8. Remuneration – Minister Khaw has mentioned during his ministerial statement that the salary remuneration of staff from the top to the rank-and-file will be reviewed in the aftermath of the disastrous Bishan station flooding. It may be worthwhile to consider remunerating staff especially the maintenance team base on the frequency of break-down eg.  if there are fewer major train faults for that month the maintenance staff may get a merit bonus and nothing if the faults exceed a certain minimum threshold. There is currently hardly any incentive for the maintenance team if trains operate slowly or not. Many may simply just put in their fair share of work for the day, go home and wait to collect their monthly salary. A special incentive for a low-default month may actually put back some spark into the maintenance team’s morale.

9. Tripartite the second – when minister Khaw mentioned about SMRT, LTA and MOT working together as one many will no doubt recalled our failed tripartite alliance for the labour movement whereby the government, employers and workers ideally come together as one entity working for the common good. We all know by now that in practice this is a huge myth of untruth.  In fact, it is not unfair to say that the transport fiasco arose because there is a lack of proper check and balance. LTA acting as the regimental teeth oversees the transport services bearing in mind that the one who is in charge of LTA is another former military guy ex-Rear Admiral Chen Men Leong who oversaw the naval portfolio. Desmond Kuek as the Chief of Defence Force from 2007 to 2010 would likely oversee Mr Chen in his naval portfolio before he joins SMRT as CEO. There is some conflict of interest here and many have speculated that it would be difficult for Chen being the chief of LTA to rein in Desmond Kuek who is formerly his boss as chief of army.

10. Army general – there is the current craze to place in ex-army general in all kinds of top portfolio – from ex-NOL CEO Ng Yat Chung to PM-wannabe Chan Chun Sing. Though our army generals have came in with glowing academic and military achievements without actually fighting in a actual war, their foray into the non-military sector has being nothing but encouraging. Ng Yat Chung lost our priced shipping asset NOL to French CMA CGM in a $3 billion deal and has eventually turned it around to be a profitable entity. Army generals may not be the best personnel to be placed in commercial enterprises that need proper ground experience and skills set. There is a world of difference when it comes to running a military setup that does not put profits as pre-requisite for the job and one that places alot of emphasis on public interest and profits.

Written by: Gilbert Goh

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