In an in-depth feature on Nov 18 titled “How politics and bad decisions starved New York’s subways”, the New York Times chronicled incidents of derailment, fire – both injuring dozens of commuters – and trains stalling in tunnels without lights or air-conditioning.
Even without these incidents, reliability has plummeted to its lowest since the city’s last transit crisis of the 1970s, the paper reported. Maintenance expenditure has fallen – there has not been enough money to hire technicians, but ironically, the salaries of managerial staff have risen to almost US$300,000 (S$403,000) a year.
On the back of this, ridership has been rising. Last year, the average weekday figure hit a high of 5.7 million, before dipping by 2 percent this year.
Mr Eddie Guo, a 58-year-old Singaporean who has lived in New York City since 1999, tells The Straits Times: “I certainly do not recall stations being so packed that it may, on really bad days, take two to three trains before I could get on.
“I had also never seen crowds backed up from the platform into the stairs before.”
Mr Guo, director of the United Nations Office of Internal Oversight Services, adds that he now commutes by river ferry, which he describes as “a real pleasure”.
The New York Times wrote that “the problems plaguing the subway… were years in the making”. The report made it clear that the woes stemmed from poor policy decisions.
After the system recovered strongly from its 1970s pit – on the back of heavy investments and political will – apathy set in. After all, reliability had improved by 30-fold, ridership was never stronger, and the operating financials went from deficit to a healthy surplus.
The city then started diverting money away from the metro to fund various other causes, including a ski resort which was not doing well, instead of, say, raising taxes. Over the past two decades, US$1.5 billion was diverted, according to the New York Times.
DROPPING THE BALL
Herein lies a powerful lesson for Singapore, whose system is barely one-third the age of New York’s 113-year-old metro.
Singapore’s system ran relatively smoothly in its first 15 years. It was, in fact, hailed as one of the most reliable systems in the world.
But something happened in the 2000s. SMRT, the sole transit rail operator then, got listed on the stock exchange. A new management started focusing on shareholder returns by growing a retail arm. Train ridership began soaring as Singapore’s population exploded.
In 2001, a year after it was listed, SMRT paid main shareholder Temasek Holdings a special dividend of $540 million. By last year, it had paid out a further $1.2 billion or so in dividends to shareholders. So, in total, it paid out $1.74 billion, which was more than half its net earnings in the 15-year period.
Meanwhile, replacement plans for ageing assets got pushed to the back burner. For instance, an upgrading of the signalling system was announced in 1997, and was slated to be completed by 2002. That project got off the ground only last year, and will now be completed by the middle of next year – 16 years late.
Like New York, Singapore dropped the ball. Even though SMRT had not cut back on spending for repairs and maintenance, it was not translated to improvement in service or engineering robustness.