by Tan Chu Chze
TRAIN breakdowns break our trust in the system. The Ministry of Transport knows this, and is on the move. Yesterday’s (April 12) parliamentary debates saw progress in addressing the problem of trains breaking down too much… or in G-speak, ‘rail reliability’.
That said, ‘reliability’ is actually not a very straightforward idea. Worse still it is not something easily achieved. Sure, we are familiar with the word and use it often. But, it actually brings together a whole lot of different ideas.
In fact, that is the original concept of ‘reliability’. In its early use, the root ‘rely’ meant ‘to gather or assemble’. ‘Reliability’ is thus the product of assembling parts and things together. What things exactly? Let’s break it down.
The dictionary defines ‘reliability’ as being “consistently good in quality or performance; able to be trusted”. Here we can already see two ideas being fixed together: consistent performance, and trustworthiness. We think of these two notions as somewhat the same – if not flip sides of one idea – when really they are not.
Consistent performance is easily measurable. Following this we can derive a specific definition for ‘reliability’: that is, having stable and consistent results. Or in other words, a predictable outcome. If for the past 20 years your train to work arrives at your station at exactly 7am every morning, then your train system is reliable. It consistently produces the same result all the time.
The same applies for a train system that always fails. If you have never experienced your train arriving to your station on time, then your train system is (technically speaking) still reliable. It also consistently produces the same result – just that this result may not be the one you want.
This is where the other part of ‘reliability’s meaning comes to play. For a more complete sense of ‘reliability’, there must be some feeling of trust in relation to the predictable results.
This aspect, though, is not so easy to measure. How do you quantify a person’s confidence in a result or outcome? How do you capture an entire society’s faith in something like a train system’s performance? Or what happens when your train has an occasional but major breakdown?
Herein lies the difficulty with phrases like ‘rail reliability’: it is a term easily mistaken for measuring one aspect of ‘reliability’ when it was designed for the other. Take a close look at how it is defined by the Land Transport Authority (LTA):
‘Rail reliability’ is measured by “the average distance travelled by trains during the time between rail delays” – excluding delays less than five minutes long and delays caused by “external factors”.
Yeah it’s a bit dense right? Basically ‘rail reliability’ is a measure of how far trains travel before having a significant delay. According to the current statistics, we can expect about one delay every 133,000km travelled by all the trains in the system. Another way of looking at it is that you can commute on all the MRT lines end-to-end about 870 times before you will experience one longer-than-five-minutes-non-externally-caused delay.
The Straits Times was on the mark in noting that these measurements do not translate to a sense of trust among commuters. Despite the improvements in rail reliability numbers, there seems to be a regression in rail reliability feelings…
And how do these sentiments fare vis-a-vis further improvements toward rail reliability? And only the measurable kind? Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan just announced yesterday a new target average of 200,000km before a delay, plans for of new technologies to be implemented, and even a Rail Academy to train engineers. Clearly, the ministry is doing its part to improve rail reliability. And you can trust that these promises will be kept especially by a minister who has proven himself reliable.
The question is: will all this effort calm the beast of a disgruntled patronage? Will we be able to rely on these measures to put together the bits and pieces of ‘rail reliability’?
Perhaps the “good and consistent” results we are looking for will take more patience than we have right now. Besides, the Ministry’s current measures can only be proven later in the journey. The best we can do is trust that they point in the right direction.
Featured image by Sean Chong.
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