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Economic costs of train breakdowns hard to add up but unlikely to be high: dons

Reasons given include the lack of a national minimum wage and the composition of the labour force that is mainly white collar

Commuters getting stuck at Khatib MRT station after a fault on the new signalling system being tested crippled the North-South Line for nearly two hours during the evening peak on June 28.


THE cost of recent rail disruptions on the Singapore economy is not easy to quantify, and even if it were, may not amount to much, according to two dons.

Calculating the cost of the breakdowns would be a "huge research project", said professor Lee Der-Horng of the National University of Singapore's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in response to BT queries. "There is definitely economic loss but quantifying this is not straightforward."

According to Prof Lee, one reason for the difficulty is that Singapore does not have a minimum wage that can be used to work out the minimum economic loss.

Separately, Park Byung Joon, senior lecturer at SIM University's School of Business, told BT that the impact on productivity and the economy can be measured, for example, by taking a one-hour delay for 1,000 people and multiplying it by the national wage average of the group, from the lowest, say for a cleaner, to the highest, say a CEO.

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But he pointed out that the result was the "lower bound", or the smallest value, as it does not calculate other costs, for example, of someone not being able to attend an important business deal.

Dr Park also said that it depended on the frequency of the breakdowns and whether the same group of people is affected. "This kind of disruption cannot be helpful to the economy. But if it happens in an infrequent way, for example, once in three or four months, even if we lose two hours in a particular day, there are many ways to make up for it."

And even with a couple of hours lost, Dr Park wonders if that has much of an impact because, as he puts it, "how many hours are we truly productive anyway?".

And since Singapore has mainly white-collar workers and is not heavily reliant on labour for manufacturing, "it may not show up substantially in the overall economy".

But ultimately, the inability to perform data analysis means that the costs are not measurable. "We don't have enough data to detect significant difference," he said.

The new signalling system for the North-South MRT line recently wreaked havoc on commuters' travel plans. The system was implemented to allow trains to run closer to one another so as to improve service frequency and passenger capacity.

Train operator SMRT has been conducting regular performance checks. But problems affecting train and platform doors, and train delays at stations or trains stopping between stations have caused various service faults.

Last week's disruptions were particularly bad because they occurred during the morning and evening peak hours, and the Land Transport Authority (LTA) and SMRT have warned the public to expect the problems to continue even as they work to resolve the issues.

Prof Lee said that he can "understand and acknowledge the complexity of the upgrading project", adding that subway breakdowns around the world are common. "But this should not be the reason to keep seeing breakdowns. Maybe the timeline to implement the system is overly aggressive."

Dr Park sees it in a different light. "I would say it is more of a nuisance. I don't think it will impose any significant threat."

In the meantime, the disruptions continue to take a toll on commuters.

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