Cars, trains and reliability

Which mode of transport can you depend on more?

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Which mode of transport can you depend on more?


With all the recent news about rail breakdowns in Singapore, one question pops to mind: Are cars more reliable than trains? 

It is a tough question to answer, since breakdowns are measured a little differently for cars and trains.

And while a car breakdown will definitely have a direct impact on 100 percent of its occupants, a rail breakdown will affect only a portion of public transport commuters (a pretty big portion if it is something like the July 2015 breakdown of the North-South, East-West lines).

But let’s attempt to make the comparison anyway. The MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) here has one disruption for every 133,000 train-km clocked. The LRT (Light Rail Transit) has one every 42,000 car-km clocked (car means railway carriage).

Train-km is probably the better measure, since usually when there is a fault in one carriage, the entire train has to be withdrawn from service.

Our LRT lines have one-car and two-car trains. To make it simple, let’s assume it’s a 1.5-car system. So we divide 42,000 by 1.5, which gives us 28,000 train-km.

So, we have 133,000 train-km for the MRT, and 28,000 train-km for the LRT. These are 2015 figures, which are the latest available at the time of writing.

How many kilometres can a car go before breaking down? This varies vastly, of course. It depends on the car you drive.

I shall take my Toyota Wish as an example. It has clocked nearly 140,000km without breaking down.

There was a puncture once, and another time when I left the hazard lights on for too long and the battery went flat.

But I would consider these as “external” factors, and not mechanical faults attributable to the car itself. (For the rail system, external causes such as bad weather or when commuters’ feet are stuck in the platform gap are excluded in the tally.)

So, my car is already more reliable than the train system here. I know of Wish owners who have clocked more than double my distance without a breakdown. So, we can probably say the Toyota Wish is more reliable than the train here.

There is no verifiable data on how cars on the whole perform here. But the Automobile Association of Singapore (AAS) once said it attends to around 45,000 roadside assistance calls per year.

Assuming the other motorists here who are not AAS members have the same breakdown experience, we would have 200,000 cases each year.

That works out to be one-third of the car population needing some form of assistance each year. Either that, or some motorists need repeated assistance. It is a startling figure. One that is hard to believe, actually. Because if you are on the road, you will rarely notice a breakdown. You see plenty of traffic accidents, but very few breakdowns.

But if we examine the nature of the call for assistance, a clearer picture emerges.

The AAS says nearly 40 percent of the cases are battery-related. Presumably, flat batteries. Punctures and flat tyres account for nearly 20 percent. And 1 percent are from people who run out of fuel. So, only 40 percent are truly mechanical in nature.

Flat batteries and flat tyres are responsibilities of motorists, not manufacturers. And if a motorist has a flat battery or flat tyre, they are likely to discover it at the start of a journey. Which may be why you don’t see many breakdowns on the road.

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Evidence overseas backs this up. According to the Automobile Association of Britain, the top causes of breakdowns include flat batteries, lost keys, flat or damaged tyres, alternator fault, starter fault, people putting wrong fuels into their cars, snapped clutch cables, worn spark plugs, and wiring/ electrical problems.

Now if you examine that, very few are attributable to the car itself. Namely, alternator fault, starter fault, snapped clutch cables (not applicable here because most cars in Singapore are automatic) and wiring/electrical problems. So, cars which break down because of mechanical flaws are far fewer than the startling figures above suggest.

We assume, of course, that these problems arise despite regular maintenance. Just as we assume the rail network’s problems arise despite regular maintenance.

But what distance do cars clock before they break down? According to Business Insider, several cars in America can go 320,000km before a breakdown.

Those which are most likely to do so include the Honda Accord, Odyssey and Civic, Subaru Legacy and Outback, Nissan Maxima (Teana) and Toyota Camry. Others listed are models not available in Singapore.

It quoted used car portal iSeeCars, which supposedly analysed 30 million used vehicles to arrive at its conclusion.

On the other hand, Warranty Direct, an extended warranty and roadside recovery specialist in Britain, says one-third of cars will break down within 12 months.

That is another shocking figure, and one that was probably inflated to encourage consumers to buy an extended warranty product. The study was apparently based on a sample of 50,000 cars between three and 10 years of age.

The company says reliability varies widely from manufacturer to manufacturer. For instance, the chance of a Honda Civic breaking down within 12 months is 8 percent, but that of a Renault Grand Scenic is 61 percent.

The average is probably in between the findings of iSeeCars and Warranty Direct. So, let’s halve the iSeeCars mileage before breakdown to 160,000km. Now, even at 160,000km, the car would be more reliable than our MRT system and far, far more reliable than our LRT system.

Train systems elsewhere are harder to beat, though. Hong Kong’s MTR, for instance, clocks 520,000 train-km before a disruption. And Taipei’s Metro goes for an astonishing 800,000 train-km before a glitch.

In these two cities, the car is clearly no match for the train. And it shows in the car ownership data.

As of 2011, there were 59 cars per 1000 people in Hong Kong, compared with 117 in Singapore. Taipei had 250 cars per 1000 residents, but the annual mileage clocked per car was half that of Singapore’s.

Neither city applies hefty taxes, a quota system or road pricing to deter car ownership or driving. Yet, people there are happy to choose the train over the car. Of course, parking is a real hassle in Hong Kong. In Singapore, parking is plentiful. But that’s another story.

So, which is more reliable – the train or the car? The simple answer is, it depends on which country you are in, and what car you are driving.

In Taipei, the car is no match for the metro, which clocks 800,000 train-km before any disruption.
In Taipei, the car is no match for the metro, which clocks 800,000 train-km before any disruption.