SMRT: Has it been railroaded?

It has been more than half a year since SMRT experienced its first major network breakdown at peak hour in the central area.

Possibly its worst breakdown, the unprecedented circumstance took SMRT off guard, causing chaos in densely populated Singapore as roads filled up with confused commuters and worse, those stuck in packed trains in tunnels panicked, with some even smashing train windows as the situation did not change for hours; arguably a quirk in Singapore's organised operations.

While months have passed and SMRT has clearly had a time of reckoning, with then CEO Saw Phaik Hwa stepping down, getting slapped with a maximum fine of SG$2 million by the Land Transport Authority and also going through a drawn out inquiry in court.

Being one of the key transport providers in the country, it is business as usual for the train network, and its revenues continue to rise. However, has its reputation as a company been damaged, and if so, what's the real cost in the long run?

According to Sonya Madeira Stamp, managing partner, Rice Communications, while the events of last December have damaged SMRT's reputation, continued incidents and minor line disruptions (including those plaguing rival SBS Transit's NEL) have bolstered SMRT's assertion that some level of disruption to train travel is inevitable.

"The public has become somewhat inured to these incidents, as evidenced by muted public response to these outages. However, SMRT's latest earnings announcement showing a 4.7% increase in profits, coupled with SMRT's requests for fare increases, can only create more negative sentiment," she says.

However, the recent commitment of the company to realign its focus on engineering excellence is a positive sign that the company is now working to restore its basic trust driver," says Luke Lim, chief executive officer, AS Louken.

"If done successfully and consistently, it may be able to quickly regain its "trusted brand" status. The recent effort of SMRT in using social media to update commuters of breakdowns promptly is commendable."