Of the two parties in the dock, SMRT’s response seemed more terse and defensive. It pointed out that reports had shown that the December incidents were largely due to bad luck: a confluence of “isolated and latent material defects” in the rail component that failed coupled with the “coincidental existence” of two other adjacent defective components. The company insisted that while it needed to improve, its maintenance regime had “worked well in the past 25 years”. Its re-statement of the obvious – that there are “challenges” arising from the “aging…MRT system and…rapidly increasing ridership” – might have raised questions of whether it should have done a better job preparing to meet these trends.
On the other hand, LTA came across as being more contrite and keen to rectify past faults. It sought to convey in detail how it would work with SMRT to improve contingency plans and maintenance regimes. Significantly, it stated that it would shift to a more proactive regulatory approach to “safeguard commuters’ interest”, addressing an oft-heard criticism that it had been too passive towards its charges in the past. On 16th July it announced that it would fine SMRT $2 million – the maximum penalty – for the two disruptions in December, astutely adding that the monies would be given to the Public Transport Fund for needy families.
Commuters would certainly be hoping that LTA keeps to its promise. Given that SMRT’s response reeked of an attempt to deflect blame, it seems necessary to have a proactive and stern regulator to keep it (as well as SBS Transit, the other main rail and bus operator) in line. Before the December incidents, LTA’s relatively limp responses to commuter complaints about the public transport operators seemed to be due to regulatory capture: with the government’s majority stakes in both the main operators, the latter’s interests (and profits) appeared paramount to commuters’.
With the tide of public anger unstoppered since last December, LTA’s political masters at the Transport Ministry are likely to back a stricter approach to the operators. Despite the justifiable anger at LTA and the Transport Ministry, they should be given a chance to show that they can turn things around.
But they also need to ensure that LTA has the proper tools to do its job. The maximum $1 million fine for a disruption seems fairly trivial in light of the seriousness of the December incidents, and the ministry should consider raising it. It should also consider a “zero-tolerance” approach to regulating safety and standards, by setting a detailed code of transgressions and penalties, and enforcing these sternly to keep the operators on their toes. LTA’s current code seems to be vague and soft.
Whether that would hold in the longer term is another issue. That the COI, with its narrow focus on technical and procedural failings, did not delve into broader structural issues may have been a missed opportunity. It did provide some hints, such as suggesting that SMRT should return to its roots as “principally an engineering and operations company”, which seemed to refer to criticism from some quarters that the company had been too focused on chasing profits through avenues such as advertising. That seems like sound advice, and the LTA should make sure that the public transport operators adhere to it. Commuters will certainly be watching closely.
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