Go with a smile!

Friday, December 16, 2011

MRT disruptions

In my former workplace there was an IT analyst who quit. I asked him why he quit, and he cited an incident where an IT downtime cost the company millions of dollars in lost revenue and pissed off customers. He said that it happened on my watch, and I don’t want to work anymore in that place because it happened. He didn’t specify what was the exact nature of the relationship between his departure and that incident, so we can only speculate. Hence I’m going to speculate.

When there is a catastrophic failure, employee morale decreases. Some things went wrong, we’re not sure exactly what. Maybe the glitch was caught and corrected, and maybe it will always be a mystery, and some scapegoat is targeted in its place.

I was reminded about this incident because of another recent incident involving 2 major MRT failures in 2 days. The second, involving the stretch of the north south line between Marina Bay and Bishan involves Singapore’s oldest (and unfortunately also the most important) stretch of MRT stations. Among these 11 stations, maybe 6 or 7 are current or future interchanges. You can expect it to be a madhouse in the future. Apparently there was a train stuck in the tunnel for up to an hour, and a window had to be smashed for ventilation. That was an iconic photograph that circulated on Facebook. There was also another photo circulated that spoke of “profit opportunities” for cabbies to be picking up passengers stranded by the MRT stations.

There are immediate causes of these incidents, and no doubt the finger can be pointed at some engineer who was unfortunate enough to be overseeing the incident. But at the same time, those people at the top have to be responsible as well. And in connection with that cryptic comment made by my friend, some questions come to mind about this incident:

Are the causes of the more frequent failures that of faulty decision making at the top level?
One of the most reviled policies in Singapore in the recent years are that of the 5.5 million population blueprint. I was shocked when I heard about it 10 years ago, and unfortunately I did not pull my weight to speak up against it. It’s really hard to imagine the drawbacks of not having all these extra people in Singapore, but the negative effects of such a sudden increase in population are clear enough from the standpoint of public transportation. And it is clear that the MRT infrastructure is straining from having so many stations built in so short a time, and at the same time having to serve so many more people.

If the MRT people underestimated the amount of commuters on the MRT line, it's also the fault of the guys at National Development, or whoever it was compiling statistics to estimate the effect of the increased population on riderships.

Now we have a very potent combination of factors: an aging infrastructure, teething of new systems, and a high throughput. It is extremely bad that all 3 factors came together. The transport operators may have been overconfident that their system, which previously worked so well in the past was able to rise up to the challenge. They may have underestimated the challenges that these factors presented. And maybe the next question is part of it:

Is the profit principle to blame for these failures?
One of the effects of the big move towards “liberalisation” and “privatisation” was the incorporation of SMRT. To be sure, there are many other statutory boards who have been converted into GLCs and who have not stinted on their service quality as a result. But those tend to be the ones who do not enjoy natural monopolies. Companies like SIA, PSA and many others who have to vie for customers are scared of them. In contrast, SMRT is a natural monopoly, or rather, an oligopoly with SBS. M1, Singtel and Starhub can compete with each other to see whose customer service is the worst.

Liberalisation has proven tremendously useful in generating revenue for GIC / Temasek, and probably goes some way towards increasing the revenue of the Singapore government. However, it may drive service level to the bottom – they find the level, what is the lousiest service that they can get away with, and then they will degrade the system to that level. Never mind about the customers, only Temasek and shareholders matter.

We haven't solved the principal agency problem. Thing is, if the executive pay of the upper management in SMRT is pegged to profits, isn't this system creating the incentive for SMRT to get away with scheduling train arrivals as infrequently as possible, and skimping on maintenance?

Are engineers on the ground being unfairly scapegoated?
I’m sure that there have been a bunch of engineers who have been working very hard last night. But after all their troubles in bringing the system back up, will they get a reassuring pat on the shoulder for a heroic effort, or will they see their career prospects within the company evaporate into thin air? Is this breakdown in the system really their fault, or are they made to unfairly carry the can for bad decision making at the top? We all know what civil service culture is like. One department gets fingered as the black sheep. The other departments around them gloat. The other departments probably won’t lend a helping hand until they fall from grace themselves.

Of course, this fingering take a lot of subtle forms as well. These normally manifest themselves as people from other departments offering "helpful suggestions" in order to score points and draw further attention to the failings of the department that has cocked up.

Do the consumers expect too much of the system and make too big a deal about their expectations not being met?
It is exactly the same dynamic now, except that the demanding boss is replaced by the demanding customer. There are people who have demanded that heads roll for this incident, never mind that Raymond Lim’s head has already rolled prior to this. There is a lot of ammo for opponents of the ruling regime to hit at the so-called failures of the PAP government. And there are plenty of political points to be scored by asking people left right and centre to step down. However this is just “accountability”. We don’t need accountability per se. Or rather, what we want is better governance. It’s not that important whether you get rid of the people currently in the present position. What matters is whether you have a better system in place at the end of it.

There are some people who thought that it was very unprofessional for Lee Hsien Loong to put up a notice saying that he's on holiday, and that Teo Chee Hean would be acting Prime Minister, but many other people think that this is a little too small an incident to be involving the PM. I agree. What is truly comical is that at the time of this MRT outage, Lui Tuck Yew, the new transport minister, was in Cambodia giving advice to the Cambodians about how they could learn from Singapore's transport infrastructure.

It is extremely unrealistic to expect that 20 year old systems work as though they were brand new. So the question is, to what extent should their expectations be tempered, and to what extent is this systemic failure? People will become more hostile towards SMRT. But whether that means being more hostile towards the top management, or the people who work in the rank and file, that remains to be seen.

Is the infrastructure old enough that these incidents will just become more frequent in the future?
Ultimately it can be demoralising for the engineer to realise that the disrepair of the system has reached the point where outages and failures are just de reguer and you can't do anything about it anyway. Shit will keep on happening, and you will keep on being blamed for the shit.

So for me, taking all these factors into consideration, I’m not surprised if that other system failure in my old workplace generated an environment that was poisonous enough that it helped make that guy switch jobs.

Saw Phiak Hwa is one of the most reviled CEOs in Singapore. Right now she's facing a lynch mob over the great SMRT breakdown. People are not only angry at her for this incident. Big incidents will eventually happen. But they are angry at her for the general degradation of service level. The rising number of breakdowns. The scheduling of trains at 10 minute intervals at off-peak periods, ensuring that trains running at night would be packed to the maximum. Of the massive jams that people changing trains at Jurong East MRT station have had to endure. Of her cavalier remark that passengers could always "wait for the next train". Of her travelling around in a Mercedes 500 while the people of Singapore got crammed into cattle cars.

Yes, it's true that the subways of Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing have had to suffer more. But we are a city of only 5 million people and we shouldn't have to suffer like the megacities. We all know a time when Singapore actually had a world class transportation system. And we all know that Singapore can do better.


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