Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Coordinating nothing

Where was the Coordinating Minister when you needed him? He was not to be found anywhere near the NE Line train stations. To be fair, he did blog about it, albeit from afar. But the real question is: as the Transport Minister, why did he allow SBS Transit (SBST) to put into place a new train on a Monday morning? Clearly, there was no risk assessment conducted, or if it was done, it was slipshod work. Any astute engineer or manager, or transport minister worth his salt will know that, as the saying goes, anything that can go wrong will go wrong. And it went horribly wrong on the first day of school and work after the weekend. 41,000 commuters were reportedly affected, yours truly being one of them. The risk would have been considerably reduced if the introduction of the new train was done on a Saturday morning or better still, a Sunday morning.

It would have turned out to be a big mistake if students, who have studied so hard for the last ten years, missed their national exam papers. As it was, students were left scrambling to get to their exam venues. According to reports, many managed to do so, though some only in the nick of time while others went to other exam centres, Any right thinking person with a sense of the risk involved in commuting would have delayed any change to the MRT line in this period. And the risks have proven to be quite significant over the last couple of years. Mr Khaw is the Coordinating Minister. He is the Transport Minister, and he has Mr Ng Chee Meng, Second Minister of Education in charge of Secondary Schools, working for him. Clearly, he has failed to join the dots. Mr Fixit nearly dropped his pants for all to see.

We expect more, Mr Coordinating Minister. Not just making appearances here and there and everywhere like a movie star or some celebrity. This just won't do. I hesitate to think of the ire of parents should their children have missed their exam papers yesterday morning because somebody did not do his job by coordinating well.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Ask the crowd

Beeline - now that's a brilliant idea that I wished I had thought of. I don't really know who originated it, but Singapore's iDA and LTA appear to be leading the effort (and the business) of providing chartered transport (mostly mini-buses for now). This is yet another challenge to the entrenched taxi service companies such as Comfort and SMRT Taxi for the rush hour crowd. As the fare is much more than the conventional bus, SBSTransit, and the train services run by SMRT, should welcome it as it takes some of the load off the morning and evening rush hour crowd. Some commuters have reportedly given up their taxi commute, which reportedly could go as high as S$20 a trip for a fraction of what Beeline charges. What's more, routes can be created and withdrawn based on commuter demand based on cell-phone bookings. It's something like Uber and Grabtaxi, only this is for a bigger group of travellers who don't mind mingling in a bus. As it is a booking-only service, seats are guaranteed with limited pickup and dropoff points, which is one of its attractions.

The writing is already on the wall. Minister Khaw talked about leveling the playing field between conventional taxi drivers and services like Grabtaxi and Uber, but there is no need to level anything here for the bus companies. Once again, the services that will be affected most are the taxi companies, although not by as much compared to Grabtaxi and Uber-like services. Conventional taxi companies much embrace technology that is becoming prevalent, and they must improve their apps, not just pay lip-service (as in whispering into the ears of one Khaw BW) to it as it appears to be doing now.

Monday, October 5, 2015

May the best taxi service win

Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan would like to evaluate upstarts GrabTaxi and Uber to ensure that there is a level playing field. I suppose that means that GrabTaxi and Uber (G&U) should not have an unfair advantage over the incumbent taxi companies. In my opinion, what it really means is that the government, through regulations, wants to up the costs of G&U. That, or it wants to banish, or at least suppress, this innovative transport solution. Once this is done, the taxi companies will deem the competition to be fair.

This is ridiculous. For as long as there has been taxi companies such as ComfortDelgro, SMRT, etc. operating their fleets of taxis, there has really been no real competition. The taxi prices are really collusive, dressed up as free-market competition, never mind that the hop-on fare differs from one taxi company to another. You really don't get to choose which company's taxi you hop onto in a taxi queue. You are expected to take the next one that comes. It is expected of you. Of course you can refuse the next taxi which, in your view, charges more, but that means that you are left to rue whether you should have passed it up because it seems to take forever for the next taxi to appear, and you are beginning to run late. It is an absolutely unsatisfactory state of affairs, to say the least. Of course you can call for a cab, but you have to pay for the service. The problem is, part of the booking fee go to the taxi company (I suppose for providing the calling service). The net effect is the increase in the cost of taking a taxi. Now what if you can get a taxi to come to you by using your phone? That's the value proposition of G&U. Hop-on fee starts at S$8 and the total cost you incur may come out to lower or higher than if you had taken a conventional cab. It doesn't matter. The important thing is, G&U will estimate the price of the trip and you can either go ahead with the booking or not. That's real competition for you, not the wayang competition that the authorities are so fond of dressing up as competition. You get to choose. Sounds familiar?

I say, let things be. If G&U get a bad reputation because of reports of mis-conduct, people will hear about it and it will spell the doom of their business. I don't think you really need the government to come in to play the referee. It will be a total waste of tax-payers' money. What existing taxi companies should do is engage G&U in real competition. Offer the value proposition that has made U&G so popular, or better them with something more innovative. Not hide behind Minister Khaw's apron in the name of fairness.

You say there is a mobile apps from ComfortDelgro taxis? When I last check, it wasn't available on my Windows Phone. Uber is and has thus acquired me as a customer.

Here's how to become a Uber driver in Singapore.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Fine who?

It is reported that the SMRT will be fined S$5.4M as penalty for the massive train breakdown on 7 July 2015. The breakdown, simultaneously, of both the East-West and North-South lines affected more than 400,000 commuters on their way home after a long day at the office. According to investigations, the breakdown could have been prevented but because of the lapse in maintenance by SMRT. In fact, according to the Land Transport Authority (LTA), the problem that eventually caused the breakdown was known two months beforehand, but SMRT did not think it was serious enough to give it its utmost attention. I suppose the LTA thought this was gross negligence of the highest order and thus imposed the huge fine.

Frankly, many commuters, myself included, wonder if they ultimately have to foot the S$5.4M bill when SMRT raises fare citing "rising costs", etc, etc. I don't think anyone is applauding this news. Fines have been imposed in the past but these did not lead to significant improvements in maintenance nor reduce instances of major breakdowns. The LTA thinks that it must now impose a penalty that will cause the maximum pain. But pain for who? The way I see it, the person in-charge of the SMRT, the CEO no less, should step up and resign. I have written previously that Mr Lui Tuck Yew shouldn't have resigned, but he did. He is an honorable man worthy of everyone's respect. The head honcho of SMRT today is still sitting behind the CEO's desk. For him, and his senior management team, it will merely be an exercise in factoring in the $5.4M into the budget for next year, and reporting a slightly less profitable year, but still probably a profitable year.

Will the S$5.4M lesson be learnt? I doubt so unless there is a change at the top. Mr Kuek famously said that he still had work to do to right the wrong, but it has been almost 3 years to the date when he assumed the position of CEO. What has he been doing all these three years that he still needs more time? How long? Another three years, or until all the trains breakdown simultaneously? Like Mr Lui (though unnecessarily), he should step up to step down. Nobody is demanding that he perform hara-kiri, though that's really up to him.

If there is no change, only time will prove that this latest exercise in moving numbers on the balance sheet will have little bearing on the integrity, or lack of it, of the operations of the SMRT system. Frankly, truly, really, I have greater trust in the bus system today. And we should thank Mr Lui for this.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Leaving the Post

3 years ago when I last blogged, I praised Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew for taking an active role in addressing the transportation problems facing the country, which was more than we can say for the highly-paid CEOs. Then, as now, Singapore's public transport system is still nowhere near as reliable as its commuters expect and demand. The latest gigantic snafu on 7 July 2015,  the North-South and East-West lines broke down at the same time must have been the straw that broke the camel's back. No, no, no, the CEO of the transport company is still in place. He claims that he still has work to do to right the wrongs plaguing our SMRT transport system. Well SMRT has been at it for more than 3 years, and the next breakdown around the corner. It  initially didn't even have clue as to what caused this last great breakdown. How pathetic.

Now Minister Lui has stepped up to take the ultimate responsibility. He announced that he will not be contesting in the next Generation Election, which may only be a month away. The public has not been told why exactly Minister Lui wants to step down. The usual "he has done well... valued... couldn't get him to stay...regret...etc." reasons have been given for public consumption. But Mr Lui has been refreshingly frank about what the reasons were NOT about - it was not to spend more time with the family, it was not about looking for new challenges, etc. etc. I appreciate Mr Lui for being frank, something that has characterised his approach to issues. That is why he shouldn't have resigned. We have one less person in the top echelons of power to champion the public cause, for daring to do the audacious in almost nationalizing the transport system and then parcelling it out for REAL competition, unlike the wayang that had been going on in transport policies and practice for the last 30 years. Yes, the public has questioned the justification of publicly-listed bus company, SBS Transit, using tax-payers' money to fund their commercial business (the BSEP). However, when seen in the context of the subsequent change in transport policy of letting private enterprise bid for the operation of public transport, it is beginning to look like a master stroke.

I think for these and more, Mr Lui has more than earned his pay. He should have stayed to ensure that these plans are executed properly. But he trusts that there are others who can do so well enough. And for these, we thank you, Mr Lui.