Should Government take over operations of public transport companies?

Following the series of SMRT break down incidents, poor public transport services and rising transport costs, some members of the public have been calling for the Government, specifically Land Transport Authority (LTA), to take over operations of public transport companies in Singapore, in particularly SMRT and SBS.

The Current State

On the North-South Line (NSL), East-West Line (EWL), Circle Line (CCL) MRT lines and the Bukit Panjang LRT Line are managed by SMRT while the North-East Line (NEL), Punggol LRT Line and Sengkang LRT Line are operated by SBS. Depots of the service lines are also managed by the operating companies respectively.

LTA’s role on the other hand is to plan and build the railways, stations and depots by hiring contractors to complete the construction. Many international construction companies bid on these multi-billion dollar projects proposed by LTA to improve transportation in Singapore.

If you frequent Beauty World or Bukit Timah area near Ngee Ann Polytechnic, you can see that McConnell Dowell – an Australian based construction company – is currently building the Downtown Line and Beauty World MRT Station in that area.

During the planning and construction of a new transport line, LTA will put up application notice for companies interested to operate the new line. An application process occurs and LTA considers several factors to decide which company should operate the new line. In the case of NEL and Downtown Line, it was quoted that SBS was awarded the operating license to foster competition with SMRT.

Call for Government operated public transport

In the recent limelight some members of the public has called for the Government statutory board LTA to operate the public transport instead of SMRT and SBS for the sake of effiency and transparency.

“Finally, why did the LTA not consider terminating SMRT’s licence and taking over operations?” – Prem Singh on More than an internal matter.

It is well known that SMRT is now a public listed company, which means they have to earn profit in order to meet their promises to stakeholders. Being profit-driven company, it became a contrary to what their mission is supposed to be: to provide quality transport services to the public while keeping prices affordable for the people.

Looking around the Singaporean context, you will find that many companies (many owned by Temasek Holdings) are taking on operations of services for the public.

  • Singapore Telecommunications Limited – Public Telecommunications and Internet Service Provider
  • Starhub Limited – Public Telecommunications, TV Cable and  Internet Service Provider
  • Singapore Power Limited – Electricity and Gas Provider
  • City Gas – Electricity and Gas Provider
  • MediaCorp – Television, prints and new media
  • Singapore Press Holdings – Prints and new media
  • Singapore Airlines – Airline and Airport
  • ST Engineering – Engineering for naval, aerospace, electronics
  • PSA International – Port, sea transport and shipping services
  • SMRT Corporation – Public transport (Bus, Taxi, Train)
  • Wildlife Reserves Singapore – Singapore Zoological Gardens, Night Safari, Jurong Bird Park
  • SembCorp Industries – utilities, offshore, industrial

In order for a company to improve and grow is to keep earning money. SMRT is a company expected to serve the public well with public transport services. Yet being too focused on earning money may cause the company to lose track and forget certain tasks which are important too. This is true in the case of SMRT where they kept focusing on profit and probably neglected long term maintenance.

A Company Servicing the Public

It is non-debatable that an organization serving the public, whether it is a company or not, should place public as priority. SMRT has failed to understand this as it became blinded by profit.

There are people who said that as public transport is a service to the public, it should be run by the Government and should be motivated fully by service to the people – not by profit. Debate on this has been similar to those of the Civil Service pay in the Singapore Parliament.

SMRT Train Breakdowns

Take a look back at the growth of SMRT over the past decade. Ridership has been ever increasing with the influx of forigners and tourists. As train lines need decades of planning and building, the best way SMRT can cope with heavy ridership is to increase train trips. The number of train trips has been increased to the extent where trains have to stop frequently between stations to maintain the minimum safety distance between trains. Even with the increased train trips, ridership continue to increase and thus there are still crowded trains. The trains could not hold the amount of commuters and thus broke down.

You may say that SMRT should have more stringent checks. Maintenance work and checks are very difficult as they can only be conducted during night time between 1am to 5am. That is roughly about 4-6 hours in the early morning when it is dark.

Separation of Concerns

When the idea of disbanding companies and letting Government agencies directly operate public facilities and services came to me, I immediately thought of the concept Separation of Concerns (SoC).

In computer sciences, SoC is a very important in order to design and develop a piece of sustainable software as components of the software are only concerned about their own functionality. Similarly, SoC should be the way for the Government and its associated organizations to provide services and operate facilities for the public.

Following SoC, each agency is only concerned about its own operations. This has been working well for the past two to three decades of governance in Singapore.

  • Ministry of Transport (MOT) – oversees the statutory boards, proposing bills and policies.
  • LTA, a statutory board of MOT – plans and build transportation, granting operation licenses
  • SMRT, SBS, ComfortDelgro, and other transport companies – provides management and operation of public transport assets and services.

By taking operations of trains and buses, the Government would have violated SoC. This means that Ministry of Transport, more specifically the Land Transport Authority, has to take care of its own operations as well as operations of bus and trains. Work may suddenly become too overwhelming for the agency alone.

If the Government were to take over operations of trains and buses, and the trains break down, the public would put the blame on the Government. Following that I envision protests, getting the minister to resign, and chaos.

My Stance

Indeed there has been a lot of problems with the operations of SMRT, but that does not mean that we should allow the Government to take over operations. In good faith I believe that Committee of Inquiry (COI) will work hard to give Singaporeans and the Government a good answer to SMRT incident.

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