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SMRT told to be mindful of its core businessJoyce Hooi05 July 2012The committee of inquiry (COI) pointedly noted in its series of recommendations yesterday that SMRT needed to focus on its core business of train operations.This recommendation featured in a list of 21 “unanimous” engineering- related ones made by experts and endorsed by the COI, following the two severe train service disruptions last December.“The COI is of the view that SMRT should be an engineering-focused organisation which recognises that its core business is in train operations,” it said in a report of more than 400 pages.The committee pointed out a number of things that appeared to be at odds with this aim, including the fact that up till June 2010, no senior staff member with a strong technical background had been asked to attend all SMRT board meetings.“At the senior level, the SMRT board also appeared to be lacking in engineering expertise as they had no engineering or train-focused representation until 2010,” the COI said elsewhere in its report, under its recommendation on SMRT’s maintenance regime.This recommendation comes in the wake of speculation that SMRT had focused on its retail segment at the expense of its engineering and train operations in the years leading up to the December service disruptions.In January this year, Tampines GRC MP Irene Ng cited a similar concern in Parliament: that SMRT may have focused more on maximising profits through retail than on train maintenance and service.In response, Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew said then: “It would probably be remiss of me to affirm your statement that they focus more on commercial (interest) rather than on maintenance. I have no basis for supporting the hypothesis.”The train operator’s role as shop landlord began in earnest in 2002 under retail veteran Saw Phaik Hwa’s leadership when she came over from duty-free chain DFS to be SMRT’s CEO.Ms Saw grew SMRT’s operating profit from rental income to almost $57 million by FY2011, up from an insignificant amount before 2003. Her tenure at SMRT culminated in her resignation in January, following the worst train service breakdowns in SMRT’s history last December.In its report, the COI mentioned the need for SMRT to recognise focus on its core business and the train operator’s maintenance issues in the same breath. It highlighted certain problems which suggested that “more has to be done to step up the maintenance aspect of SMRT’s train operations”.These include various elements that broke down during the December disruptions - such as the failure of a train battery to provide emergency power, the non-functioning urgent message system, and a software glitch on the Multi- Function Vehicle (MFV) or rail diagnostic vehicle.Elsewhere in the report, the COI noted various shortcomings in SMRT’s engineering and maintenance culture.“There appears to be a lack of competent mid-level engineers in SMRT who can think strategically, lead and organise maintenance work effectively, as well as learn from experience,” it said.The COI also said that while the preventive maintenance regime appeared robust “at face value”, there appeared to be a “gaping disconnect between what was formally on record and what was happening on the ground”.As an example, the COI mentioned the emergency battery for several train cars involved in the Dec 15 disruption. While the battery was documented as maintained, it “failed at the very moment when it was needed the most”.The issue of maintenance also contributed to the catalyst for the Dec 15 disruption: a defective fastener on a third rail support assembly (TRSA).“It appears that no annual inspection of the TRSA has been carried out all these years,” the COI said. It added that if the checks had been done, the defects could have been detected and the Dec 15 disruption avoided.
In summing up SMRT’s need to be mindful of its core business, the COI said that such a mindset would “go a long way towards ensuring that the severe disruptions that occurred on 15 and 17 Dec, 2011 will not recur”.
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