The strain of taking the train: Changing commuter habits

The strain of taking the train: Changing commuter habits

While the overwhelming majority of train rides are smooth, recent problems have been frequent enough to persuade some people to change their travel habits by either using buses or starting their commute earlier.

Jurong East crowds NSL
Crowds at Jurong East MRT station during a train service delay on Apr 9, 2018. (File photo: Jeremy Long) 

SINGAPORE: Delays on Singapore's train network have become frequent enough for some commuters to change their routines to accommodate them.

On Thursday (Nov 30), passengers reported delays at Raffles Place station because of a train fault. This was the latest in a series of problems over the past couple of months.

However, such incidents are no longer a problem for tax practitioner Paul Lee, who took the MRT to his workplace on Orchard Road for about nine years, but then switched to travelling by bus. Mr Lee, who lives in Serangoon, said that he decided to switch after finding the trains a bit too unpredictable.

He said that he was given a warning by his employer after delays caused him to be late to work six times in three years.

Before he stopped taking the MRT, he tried taking a different route by train, he said. But this did not help. The final straw for him was a delay on the North-East Line about eight months ago, in which he was shoved into the train by other commuters crowding on to the delayed service.

"My hand nearly got caught in between the doors, and the doors nearly closed on me. I was standing half inside, half outside," said Mr Lee, who has cerebral palsy.

He now takes either a premium bus or public buses. “Taking the bus, I feel like I am in control of the situation. I can take a premium bus, or another straight bus, or switch buses,” he said, adding that he is more relaxed taking the bus. 

Such decisions come against a backdrop of high profile problems on the train network. Earlier this month, 38 people were injured after a software glitch in the East-West Line signalling system caused two trains to collide at Joo Koon MRT station. In October, the stretch of tunnel between Bishan and Braddell MRT stations became flooded, leading to a suspension of services.

Joo Koon train collision
An MRT train collided with a stationary train at Joo Koon station during the morning rush hour on Nov 15, 2017.

There are also minor delays: Train operators SMRT and SBS Transit asked commuters to add 10 to 40 minutes to their travel time more than 10 times in November.


Croupier Ramesh Rajendran is no stranger to such problems. There have been three times when the 30-year-old has been caught up in train delays which were long enough for him to need an excuse slip documenting what happened as proof for his lack of punctuality at work.

While the delays are out of his control and his employer is sympathetic, Mr Ramesh now leaves home half an hour earlier than before, in order to avoid the stress of getting caught in a delay and having to find alternative transport. Still, he finds that the train remains the best way to get to his workplace in Marina Bay Sands. 

mrt delay - excuse letter
Excuse letter given out by station staff. (Photo: Justin Ong) 

“It's not really convenient, with the unpredictable breakdowns and slow-moving trains, but it is still cheaper than other options,” he said.

Some, like Mr Yong Jian Rong have altered their route to avoid the more heavily-used East-West Line (EWL). The 19-year-old travels from Lakeside to Paya Lebar along the EWL for work.

“I still take the train every day as taxi fares are still very expensive. However, I now take a faster route through the Downtown Line, North-East Line and then the East-West Line. The idea is to avoid the EWL as much as possible,” he said.

Meanwhile, although worries about the train service have created doubts among some passengers, there are those who still prefer it to other methods of travel.

Undergraduate Goh Wei Hao, 23, who counts himself lucky for never having been caught in a train delay, said that it is still the best mode of transport for him.

“There's less anxiety waiting for the train because they tell you exactly how long it takes for the next train to arrive,” he said, adding that the many different lines mean that he can get to the same location via several routes.


Deputy chairperson for the Government Parliamentary Committee for Manpower Zainal Sapari urged employers to be understanding about train delays, as the circumstances are out of their control.

"Trust is important in any employer and employee relationship. Most employers would not reprimand their employees if they are late due to train breakdowns because such incidents can be verified,” he said. 

Changing travel habits is not easy, he said, adding that while there may be some knee-jerk reaction in switching away from the train, people will usually revert to their usual mode of transport.

Managing director at logistics firms Logwin Air and Ocean Singapore Jimmy Ler Said that he is forgiving of employees who are late to work because of train delays.

“It’s something many employees face from time to time. We tell them not to rush, because it’s hard to get a Uber or Grab at that time as well, and it would be expensive,” he said. The firm has 120 employees.

He added that it does not make sense to ask employees to leave home earlier to accommodate delays as they may have other commitments such as sending their children to school before work. On their part, when they arrive late, they stay late to finish up their work, Mr Ler said.

“It’s a situation where nobody can do anything, they have no choice, so employers have to be understanding,” he said.  

Source: CNA/ja