Singapore: Commuters frustrated with train company’s lies
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Singapore: Commuters frustrated with train company’s lies

Beneath the idyllic exterior of the cosmopolitan city-state lies a grim reality: the trains don’t work. Well, most of the time they do, but every two weeks or so, they cough, sputter and grind to a halt, leaving tens of thousands of commuters stranded. Breaking down, it seems, has become the new normal. But what irks commuters even more are the lies.

On a rainy Friday night (Feb 19), SMRT did it again. According to the company’s Twitter feed, train service on the East-West Line (green) between Jurong East and Joo Koon was suspended for an hour from 5.43 pm to 6.42 pm. But commuters had a much different experience.

SMRT claimed that only the train service between the Jurong East station and the Joo Koon station was disrupted but commuters disagreed.

SMRT said that a free bus service was available. But what does available mean?

Then, at 6.02 pm, SMRT said that the train service had resumed. Commuters called bullshit.

Then SMRT said again that service had resumed, at 6.42 pm. Still bullshit.

This is not the first time that SMRT has refused to communicate truthfully with commuters about its train breakdowns. Its attempts to downplay the severity of these breakdowns and its failure to fix recurring problems with the rail network first came under the spotlight in 2011 when train service was disrupted for close to half a day on Dec 15 and Dec 17.

Since then, SMRT has tried to repair its image with ad campaigns and attempted to diffuse public outrage by showing diligent SMRT employees hard at work. It has said that it is committed to improving the reliability of its public transport services but it has yet to reduce the frequency of train breakdowns.

Moreover, this persistent lying has not only irritated commuters, it has also prevented them from making appropriate plans. One commuter said: “Exactly the point. The lies. People had the opportunity to look for alternative means or simply stay in town longer to avoid the situation but SMRT keeps downplaying the situation. Despicable.”

When it was reported that SMRT’s CEO earned $2.5 milion in 2015, questions were asked about whether he deserved it. In January, it was reported that SMRT’s profits from the train service jumped three-fold. It is likely that more than half of this profit will be paid out in dividends to shareholders rather than reinvested into improving the train service.

Meanwhile, Singaporeans remain powerless in the face of the government’s unwillingness to impose heavy penalties on the train company. This is despite the fact that SMRT’s incentives are skewed towards profit-making rather than maximising service reliability.

SMRT may be likened to an errant employee who constantly goes on leave unannounced and then lies about it. When Singaporeans find out, they can’t fire it. Instead, it seems that the more handouts we give it, the more it loses the incentive to work. We have become a welfare state for SMRT and have eroded its work ethic. It’s a tragic irony.