It’s got to happen some day. The trains are going to break down.So this morning I experienced what was to be my first train service delays in Singapore. I woke up to a text message from the (thankfully free) text alert service informing me of severe delays on the North East Line. And I was surprised. I’ve read all about the delays and disruptions on the news and I’ve never thought that I would experience it. Also, I was wondering if there’s something at work here that decided that it would be a good idea to have delays on a line I just wrote about yesterday. As I waltzed towards the station, I couldn’t really see anything wrong. No signs nor any indication that a train service delay was actually happening. I thought there would be more signs than this. The only time I could detect something amiss was when the train arrival screen was blank.
I was curious. What contingencies could they have in place to handle such delays? Turns out that there wasn’t much.
The purported free shuttle service “in case of train disruption” didn’t seem to apply, probably because this was a train service delay. It was a matter of terminology I supposed.With trains running at ten minutes interval and packed to the brim with irate commuters who just wanted to be on their way, how could this be called a disruption? So what were my options? I was duly informed by the staff on station that the next train was coming.
So after having failed to board three trains towards Harbourfront I decided to go the other way. I planned to take the line to Serangoon where I could change to the Circle Line and be rid of all this NEL mess. (Look at the System Map. I was travelling from Farrer Park to Labrador Park.) The only problem was that I would have to traverse half the Circle Line and I reasoned that since I was probably going to be spending a very long time standing up in the packed and delayed trains, I might as well do it in relative comfort. So that’s what I did.
What’s the main problem here? The problem is not the delay happening. The crux of the problem lies in the lack of alternative modes of transportation and the lack of preparedness to deal with these kinds of situations. As the train network grows older, breakdowns are going to happen. The fabled smooth running of trains is not going to last forever. Alongside with alleged shoddy business practices and maintenance on the part of a certain train operator, I don’t see how we can expect not to have delays. Unless we are going to be like the Japanese we had better learnt the fuck to deal with it.
When the North East Line first opened, the biggest bus service operator who happened to run the line decided to terminate or alter all the bus services that ply alongside the train line. This is where the lack of alternatives takes its toll during times of service disruptions or delays. There is simply no other way to get to your destination. Taxis are not part of the argument here and they shouldn’t have to be.Then there is a lack of information. You cannot expect people to know that there is anything wrong when you have hardly any signs in the station to say so, save the uncanny, infrequent and frankly unintelligible (sometimes) announcements on the PA once in a while about train arrivals. What are the other options that you can provide other than to ask passengers to wait and try their luck at boarding another overcrowded train?
Unless Singapore want to try and emulate the Japanese (which the operators are not doing that well right now), we should perhaps look elsewhere to improve on the situation. I’m going to look through my London lens and write about how they deal with delays.
Tube delays in London are pretty common. My first tube ride in London was part suspended because they found a body under the train. Not the best form of welcome for a newcomer.First, there needs to be a better way to know that there are delays. The stations need more information and there could perhaps be a website that detail the train delays. The stations should show delay information for all the lines, irrespective of their operators. Have they forgotten that there are passengers who actually change lines? Even better: there should be an API of sorts to access data so that applications such as Google Maps can display the information. There should be a unified and consistent use of terminology to describe the service status. In this way, customers will know what to expect from a Minor Delay versus a Severe Delay.
Secondly, we need those bus services back. London underground has such an extensive network that there is more than one way to get to a destination. If you add in the bus services, the number grows peachier. Yes you’ve got to take longer to get to your destination or you’d have to change more but you’d get there in the end anyway! Singapore doesn’t have the spatial or temporal luxury to have built up such an extensive network and thus we need those buses!
Finally, be nice and allow people’s tickets to be accepted on any other bus services to get to their destination, that is if the bus services actually return.
I was frustrated with the whole situation not because the train broke down –I’m sure they’ve tried their best and shit does hit the fan — it lies in the fact that even after having breakdowns happen before, they are still not able to handle it properly. They can try to prevent such incidents from happening but I don’t see how Singapore can emulate the, perhaps, hedonistic perfection of the Japanese any time soon. So please, have some better contingency handling in place. And let people know! Deal with it!
P.S.: I hope readers go away with this conclusion: I did not, for once, write that London has a better metro system than Singapore — I wrote that London is better prepared for screwups. I think that Singapore has, apart from probably the Japanese, one of the best metro systems in the world. It’s unfortunate that the people who run the network still have this idea that screwups are not going to happen. It has happened before, again and again. Prepare for it, rather than to deny its possibility.