Sunday 25 December 2011

MRT breakdown chaos 2011

PM Lee orders inquiry as trains break down again
North-South Line disrupted for 7 hours; LTA orders thorough visual check for 2 lines
By Ignatius Low, The Straits Times, 18 Dec 2011

The Government will commission a formal Committee of Inquiry to look into the troubling spate of SMRT breakdowns, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday.

The move comes as SMRT's North-South Line broke down again for seven hours yesterday morning, affecting 94,000 commuters heading into town on the last weekend before Christmas.

This was the second major disruption on the North-South Line in less than 36 hours, prompting the Land Transport Authority (LTA) to order an unprecedented shutdown of two SMRT lines for a thorough visual check of all trains and tracks.

As a result, the North-South and East-West lines will be open to commuters at 10 this morning, much later than their usual 5.30am start time. About 250 buses will provide free parallel services between the stations on both lines until the trains start rolling.

Yesterday's disruption started at 6.50am, eventually knocking out train travel in both directions between Marina Bay and Ang Mo Kio.

Northbound services resumed at about 9am, but southbound services were only gradually restored throughout the morning, regaining normal state at 1.48pm.

LTA and SMRT said that yesterday's breakdown had the same root cause as Thursday's - a misalignment between the track and the 'collector shoes' on the trains that draw power from it.

This time, it was two faulty sections of the track near Orchard station that caused as many as seven trains to stall.

Several trains had to be towed out of the tunnels and about 500 passengers had to disembark from their stalled train and walk 150m through the tunnel to Somerset station.

'Had it just been a one-off matter and then the matter is solved, then I think the operating agencies can take care of it,' said PM Lee, who is officially on leave but returned to LTA's headquarters yesterday afternoon to be briefed on the situation.

'But when the incidents happened again this morning, and the same thing, that meant that it wasn't a random thing. There's something more basic which has caused it and which we haven't quite pinned down yet.'

This is why the Government will appoint a Committee of Inquiry, which will study and publicly present evidence as to why the disruptions happened and how to make the system more robust and reliable, he said. It will be appointed within 'a couple of weeks'.

A Committee of Inquiry is a high-level probe typically chaired by a judge. In recent times, such committees were set up to look into the Nicoll Highway collapse and the escape of the terrorist Mas Selamat Kastari.

'We are taking it very seriously. I think public safety is an absolute,' said Mr Lee. But he also noted that the recent breakdowns were not primarily a safety issue.

'We are not talking about trains derailing or colliding with one another,' he said. 'It's an issue of operation, of providing the service without interruption or mishap. And I think given a bit of time, we will be able to solve it.'

Mr Lee also touched on criticisms that SMRT failed to give timely information to commuters about the breakdown, saying that it is something that LTA and SMRT will have to discuss and improve.

'The immediate concern will be with the people who are affected, the passengers who are in the trains who are trapped,' he said.

'And you have to let them know: Please wait or please walk, which do you want them to do?'

Minister for Transport Lui Tuck Yew paid a personal visit to the Toa Payoh, Newton and City Hall stations yesterday to see for himself whether SMRT had improved communications and crowd control procedures since Thursday night's breakdown.

'Overall, my personal impression today compared to what I read on Thursday when I was in Cambodia was that there is some improvement,' he said at a press conference in the afternoon.

The train operator stepped up the frequency of its announcements yesterday and recalled more staff - clad in easily identifiable yellow vests - to assist commuters at affected stations.

'SMRT has obviously taken on board some of the lessons that it learnt from the initial incident,' said Mr Lui. 'It has given better and more timely information, although I would say there is still some way to go.'

MRT breakdown chaos
Thousands stranded as network grinds to a halt from Marina Bay to Braddell
By Ignatius Low, The Straits Times, 16 Dec 2011

UNFAMILIAR scenes of chaos and confusion unfolded last night in train stations across central Singapore after the MRT network suffered what is likely to be the worst breakdown in its 24-year operating history.

Just before 7pm, thousands of commuters riding home during the evening rush hour were plunged into total darkness as trains on the North-South Line suddenly lost power and ground to a halt.

Many reported waiting for up to an hour in the stifling heat of windowless carriages, where the air-conditioning had also failed, before eventually being rescued by SMRT staff. Some train windows were smashed to let in air.

Commuters then had to walk through the train tunnels to the nearest station in order to exit and find their way home.

In all, 11 stations from Marina Bay to Bishan were affected - the result of what SMRT called 'a power rail problem'.

They included the busy City Hall and Raffles Place interchanges, as well as the three stations on the bustling Orchard Road shopping belt.

As the extent of the problem became clear, SMRT shuttered the affected stations completely and told commuters to find alternative routes to their destinations.

The Singapore Civil Defence Force also dispatched ambulances and other emergency services to some stations.

'It was pretty much a traumatising experience,' said Ms Oh Shu Fen, 23, who works in a bank. She was stuck in a train that stalled between the Dhoby Ghaut and City Hall stations.

'There were no lights and ventilation, and it got so dark that at one point of time, the only sources of light were from mobile phones.'

Recruitment manager Joyce Zhao, 38, said: 'We just waited and waited, expecting the driver to tell us what had happened and what action they were going to take.

'One lady fainted in the train - it looked like she couldn't breathe. Civil Defence officers tried for 10 minutes to revive her, but they couldn't. They put her on a stretcher and evacuated her in the end.'

Back at the stations, confused customers waited to hear what to do next.

'None of us knows what is happening - we are all just asking one another what is going on and what we can do,' said Madam Bulan Salim, 63, a legal secretary.

'I don't know what time I will reach home. A lot of people are still waiting on the platform because the TV screen still says the next train is arriving in two minutes.'

Human resources manager Sarah Lee, 44, said: 'I think the situation is being badly managed. There is not enough manpower to direct and provide information. The announcements are unclear. I've been walking up and down the station trying to find out what is going on.'

At about 9pm, the stations reopened and southbound services resumed. But there were no northbound services between Marina Bay and Bishan for the whole night.

Meanwhile, SMRT raced to provide extra buses, which struggled to deal with stranded crowds who formed long queues for buses and taxis.

At Newton station, IT support officer Loy Kok Nien, 36, said he waited about two hours for a taxi or bus.

'All the buses are full. I have already missed five to six buses heading to Toa Payoh because they were too packed,' he said.

Those who managed to get on a bus or taxi found their trips slowed by traffic congestion.

'I waited for almost 45 minutes before my bus arrived, but even after I got on it, there was a massive traffic jam on the roads,' said public servant Jed Senthil.

Mr Ng Eng Heng, a 49-year-old hotel supervisor who waited more than an hour to get a bus home, lamented: 'The fares have gone up and they tell people to take public transport. Yet, the breakdowns are becoming more frequent.'

Last night's SMRT breakdown was the second in as many days, occurring even as the train operator sent out a press release to say that its Circle Line service - which had been disrupted for 40 minutes on Wednesday morning - was back to normal.

In September, a faulty cable on the Circle Line also affected train services. At the time, the entire line was stalled for four hours in the morning, affecting about 26,600 commuters.

Netizens flooded online websites such as Facebook and Twitter with angry messages and photos - they described the breakdown and complained about the unreliability of the train service.

A dramatic picture of an MRT train door with its windows smashed open by a fire extinguisher quickly went viral and was widely circulated.

Other frustrated commuters formed long queues at train stations to wait for fare refunds.

'We sincerely apologise for the inconvenience caused,' said SMRT in a statement issued at about 9pm last night.

'Preliminary investigation shows that around 40m of the power rail had been damaged between the City Hall and Dhoby Ghaut stations.

'SMRT staff are now on-site attending to the fault. We will work round the clock to repair the damage, and hope to get the northbound train service for this stretch up by tomorrow morning.'

SMRT must make this right: Transport Minister
He wants operator to get to the root cause of Thursday's breakdown

By Leonard Lim & Jennani Durai, The Straits Times, 17 Dec 2011

TRANSPORT Minister Lui Tuck Yew yesterday expressed disappoin
tment with how SMRT handled Thursday's massive shutdown on the North-South Line, calling it an 'extremely serious disruption' that compromised commuters' safety.

He made it clear he wanted no effort spared in getting to the bottom of what has been labelled the worst incident in the 24 years the MRT system has been operating.

'I don't see this as a typical service lapse,' he said. 'This is a very, very serious disruption and better take heed, learn the lessons, improve on the systems.

'Therefore, I've told SMRT chairman Koh Yong Guan when I spoke to him that I hold the board and the management team responsible for making it right.'

A deeper look was also needed at whether there were underlying issues in the rail network that had to be fixed, he said.
Given the five hours of chaos which affected services at 11 stations, he said that the most important thing now was to restore confidence in the reliability of Singapore's rail system.

'I know commuters are angry and concerned, and justifiably so, because their well-being was at risk,' he said, acknowledging the outpouring of public anger in the wake of the breakdown.

Speaking to reporters at Changi Airport last night after cutting short a work trip to Cambodia, he said: 'We need to go down and determine the root cause of this. What is it in the maintenance regime that can be improved, that can be made more robust and comprehensive, so that if this is indeed a preventable incident, how could we do so.'

He said he had spoken to SMRT Board chairman Mr Koh to register the Government's concern over the operator's handling of the incident.

The minister is also convening a panel of relevant experts to do a thorough review of the MRT system, especially the lines run by the SMRT.

Earlier in the afternoon, the SMRT said in a press conference that the disruption had been traced to a misalignment of the electrical connections between four trains and a 40m section of the tracks between Dhoby Ghaut and City Hall stations.

But transport analysts questioned if the trains' higher frequency in recent times to deal with population growth had added to wear and tear.

Mr Lui said he was concerned that commuters stranded in the four affected trains were kept uninformed about what was going on.

There were hardly any updates till more than 30 minutes into the shutdown. Some commuters fainted, lights were intermittent, and one man even used a fire extinguisher to smash a train window for ventilation.

'Especially for the commuters in the affected trains, I do not think that timely and accurate information was given to them as to what was actually happening, how long it would take for them to be rescued, and what SMRT was going to do in order to bring them to safety,' said Mr Lui.

Many other commuters who went into train stations after the disruption complained that announcements of the breakdown were made only in English. Direction signs to bridging bus services were also virtually non-existent.

Mr Lui noted these shortcomings.

'For the other commuters whose travel journeys were affected, I think we can also expect improvement in the information that is put to them, so that they can plan their journeys better.'

Referring to the SMRT press conference earlier in the day, he said he would hold the management to its commitment to improve on the area of communications.

There was also a need to look at whether Standard Operating Procedures on how to deal with passengers in affected trains are 'sufficiently comprehensive' and whether they were adhered to, he said.

He added that he told SMRT's Mr Koh that the 'SMRT board and management must make every effort to get to the bottom of this, to improve on their procedures and how these incidents are managed'.

Mr Lui, who was supposed to return to Singapore today after attending the Asean Transport Ministers' meetings but cut short his trip, said he followed the events of Thursday night closely from Cambodia.

Also weighing on his mind, he said, was exactly what was behind the spate of rail breakdowns.

From January to October, there were 17 disruptions on the North-South and East-West lines, and eight on the Circle Line.

Mr Lui said: 'Are these a series of isolated, unrelated incidents, or is there a deeper underlying, more systemic issue or issues that we need to tackle?'

Hence, he decided on the panel of experts, including overseas ones, that will be assembled to do a 'thorough' review of the country's MRT system, especially the lines run by SMRT.

Maintenance, incident management and service recovery will be among the issues the panel will look at.

'By next week, I hope to assemble this team and have the appropriate terms of reference for them to work on,' he said.

He hoped there could be some findings by early next year.

SMRT chief Saw Phaik Hwa 'staying put' to fix things
By Cheryl Ong, The Straits Times, 19 Dec 2011

Embattled MRT chief exec
utive Saw Phaik Hwa said on Sunday that leaving the company now was not the right thing to do.

Her comments followed calls from some members of the public for her resignation after last week's major breakdowns on SMRT's train services.

'As CEO of SMRT, I am naturally responsible. Being responsible does not mean walking away from these faults. It means doing all I can to get the problem fixed,' she said in a statement issued on Sunday.

The 57-year-old has become a lightning rod for criticism after a five-hour breakdown last Thursday, described as the worst in the company's 24-year history, and another on Saturday that lasted seven hours.

On Saturday, about 80 people gathered at Hong Lim Park, where calls were made for her to step down. The Speakers' Corner event was organised by socio-political blog The Online Citizen (TOC).

But, making clear that she was going nowhere before she fixed the problems, Ms Saw said: 'No good leader will leave the field when the battle is on. I am staying put now to do my work, and put everything right.'

She apologised for the inconveniences commuters have had to put up with because of the service disruptions.

'Personally, I empathise with and understand the commuters' emotions. If I were in their shoes and had to experience the inconveniences, discomfort and frustrations they faced in the last few days, I would be equally unhappy and angry. I am truly sorry for that.'

Before taking the top job at SMRT, Ms Saw spent 19 years at duty-free retail chain DFS Venture Singapore as a regional president overseeing 1,000 employees in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Under her leadership, SMRT's net profit grew from $56.8 million in 2002 to $161.1 million this year.

Rail ridership has also gone up, averaging a combined 1.79 million a day in September.

Learn from other operators: Analysts
By Feng Zengkun, The Straits Times, 18 Dec 2011

Train operator SMRT's procedures for dealing with service breakdowns need an overhaul, said transport analysts in the wake of yesterday's disruption, the third in the past week.

They added that it has much to learn from operators in other cities with extensive train networks, such as Hong Kong, New York and Taipei.

Scenes of chaos and confusion played out during the five-hour shutdown at 11 stations on the North-South line on Thursday, and while yesterday's breakdown seemed to have been better managed, commuters were still left feeling upset. Many wished they knew what to do in such situations.

Dr Park Byung Joon, programme head of the Master of Science in Urban Transport Management at SIM University, noted that in Seoul for example, the operator's website has very detailed guides on what commuters can do during service disruptions.

In London, all train station staff have to be familiar with evacuation plans, sign a checklist every six months and take part in a mock evacuation at least annually.

Dr Park said such protocols would do much to avert the confusion that followed Thursday evening's disruption.

'I'm not sure if SMRT has a manual or not, but obviously it didn't work,' he said.

Transport analyst Tham Chen Munn added that openly conducted drills would help to restore confidence in the operator.

'These electrical faults are bound to happen. What we need are empowered staff who can handle such situations with ease, and not the frustrating and chaotic 'waiting for further instruction' approach that happened on Thursday evening,' he said.

Others said that more could be done to adapt the trains for such incidents.

In Hong Kong, train carriages have ventilation windows that can be opened by passengers if they are stuck in a tunnel.

During Thursday's breakdown, commuters trapped in the stalled trains complained of feeling suffocated because of poor ventilation.

Mr Lau Kaiming, 27, an industrial engineer who has lived in Singapore and Hong Kong, said emergency doors and clear exit signs in the Hong Kong trains also help to reassure passengers and instil confidence.

Ms Chye Shu Wen, 21, who is studying in London, said staff in the city remind passengers frequently of evacuation procedures.

'Keep calm and carry on, and move out of the tunnel by keeping close to the tunnel walls,' she said of the drill.

She noted that SMRT may be less prepared because of Singapore's relatively untroubled history with trains.

In Singapore, the most common security announcements remind commuters to report suspicious packages.

'But trains in London were actually bombed in 2005, which caused the evacuation reminders to increase by a lot,' Ms Chye said.

Mr Daniel Tinker, 32, a teacher who moved from New York to Singapore three months ago, said trains' power back-up systems are maintained regularly in the Big Apple. During Thursday's breakdown, commuters complained about power supply being completely cut off, leaving some carriages unlit.

Mr Tinker was affected by both breakdowns on Thursday and yesterday. 'I'm quite surprised that this happened again... In New York, I don't think I've ever experienced a breakdown as bad as this one,' he said.

He noted that the problem may be worse in Singapore because of the lack of multiple train lines plying the same routes.

'And if that's the case, then the system has to be even more reliable if people are to take mass transport,' he said.


New York
- Decals in every train carriage to advise passengers on fire, medical and train-fault evacuation protocols

- Detailed guides and graphics on operator's website on evacuation procedures, such as train-to-train or tunnel evacuations

- YouTube video of live demonstration of evacuation

- Emergency Response Unit stationed across four train depots to fix track problems

- All station staff have to be familiar with evacuation plans, sign a checklist every six months and take part in a mock evacuation at least annually

Hong Kong
- Ventilation panels in every window in case trains are stuck in tunnels

- Exit signs point to emergency doors that can be opened by passengers

- One train officer per carriage door at train stations during peak hours

- Emergency exit doors with clear instructions on how to open them

A centre with a mock train where officers are taught evacuation procedures and which the public can use to simulate emergency exits

- All train employees have to attend an annual evacuation training

- This includes table-top and field drills, and debriefs

All employees issued with a pocket-size manual for emergency management

NTUC Deputy Sec-Gen to head investigation on MRT breakdowns
By Maria Almenoar, The Straits Times, 22 Dec 2011

SMRT's board of directors has appointed NTUC Deputy Secretary-General Mr Ong Ye Kung, an independent director of SMRT, to head an investigation team to find out the cause of last week's train disruptions.

This team will comprise external experts and internal resources, who will look at the adequacy of SMRT's emergency responses and what needs to be fixed.

This will be an internal investigation, separate from the Committee of Inquiry announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

SMRT's board in a statement on Thursday also apologised to commuters and said its immediate focus was to do 'everything necessary to regain the confidence of our commuters and the public by ensuring safe, reliable operations and improved communications processes'.

The board also added that the disruptions have shown that SMRT need to improve on their emergency response and management procedures as well as how they communicate with commuters.

SMRT's chairman Koh Yong Guan said: 'The board will spare no effort and resources to ensure that SMRT earns back the confidence of the commuters and public.'

Mr Ong, 42, is also the Chairman of the Employment and Employability Institute (e2i). He has also held positions in the government, including that of Principal Private Secretary to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Do the ride thing
Don't get mad, get satisfaction. Here are 10 ways the SMRT can make up for the recent train disruptions
By Natasha Ann Zachariah & Denise Cheong, The Straits Times, 24 Dec 2011

Train commuters are hardly 'loving their rides' these days, with the recent breakdowns and messy communication. Life! speaks to public relations experts and commuters to come up with 10 things SMRT can do to show it is truly sorry.

1 Give free rides
Let commuters get back what they lost, for free. For every day the trains were down, give free rides in a gesture of goodwill. If SMRT wants to go the extra mile, make SMRT taxis free for a day too.

2 Make a heartfelt apology video
A flat-out 'I'm sorry, we screwed up' video by SMRT CEO Saw Phaik Hwa played on loop at all train stations could also do the trick to appease angry commuters.

3 Give out limited-edition stored-value ez-link cards
Give out limited-edition, specially designed, ez-link cards, with apology messages on them. Of course, make sure they are topped up with at least $10 to compensate riders.

4 Give the hero a medal
The man who broke the glass - and breaking protocol in the process - to help his dizzy wife sounds like a hero in the making. Give the guy a prize for having the guts to do it.

5 Remove or hold off price hikes
With SMRT failing to deliver on its tagline, Moving People, Enhancing Lives, train rides are no longer value for money. The company should rethink its price hike in October, as well as future attempts to raise prices, even with its taxi fleet.

6 Get the SMRT chief to get down to work
Nothing says 'I'm sorry' better than SMRT chief Saw rolling up her sleeves and getting to work. Commuters propose having her welcome them at the station on Christmas and New Year's Day, while they go about their holiday visiting.

7 Get Saw to resign
Three strikes and you're out. Maybe the straight-talking Saw should take one for the team and hand over the reins to someone the public votes for.

8 Compensate workers who had their pay docked because of the breakdowns
The 'I was late because the train broke down' excuse did not quite cut it with some bosses. Some workers had their pay docked because they did not make it to work on time because of the breakdowns. SMRT could offer to reimburse them for the hours they were not paid for.

9 Give out survival packs to commuters
Hand out survival packs which include water, sandwiches and torchlights for the tunnels and, of course, a set of fully charged mobile phone batteries so that commuters can Facebook and tweet their experiences live.

10 Do nothing
We are Singaporeans, so we whine, pout and gripe when things things do not go our way. Some compare the situation to other cities such as London, New York or Paris, which are often plagued with train breakdowns or strikes - and they don't kick up quite the fuss we do. Maybe it is time to chill out and go with the flow.

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