Friday, 27 April 2012

MRT breakdown COI: Day 8

Same woes surface for both train disruptions
Operations control staff member 'overwhelmed' by second breakdown
By Royston Sim & Maria Almenoar, The Straits Times, 26 Apr 2012

THE very problems that SMRT staff faced in the first major disruption to the train service last Dec 15 cropped up again two days later, when another disruption occurred.

One employee told the Committee of Inquiry (COI) in no uncertain terms yesterday that he was overwhelmed by the second disruption on Dec 17, and put this down to being understaffed.

He is from the Operations Control Centre (OCC), the nerve centre for the North-South and East-West lines located in Victoria Street.

The Circle Line and North-East Line have their own OCCs.

More than 220,000 commuters were stranded in the two December disruptions on the North-South Line, the first lasting five hours, and the second, seven. On both days, a section of the third rail sagged, damaging the current collector shoes of nine trains, which stalled.

The COI's questioning yesterday, Day 8 of the public inquiry, focused on the Dec 17 disruption; besides three OCC staff, 11 station managers took the stand.

SMRT chief controller Quah Siew Chee, 52, said that in an emergency situation, the OCC cannot handle operations on both the North-South and East-West lines and their extensions.

'No, we can't cope,' he said, in response to a query from the COI chair, Chief District Judge Tan Siong Thye.

He then added that keeping staff numbers to an operational minimum was economical, but it also meant the OCC could not be expected to run things effectively when major incidents came up.

'This kind of experience doesn't come often, but at the OCC, we're just like soldiers waiting to fight a war. You cannot tell Mindef you don't need soldiers because we have no war,' he said.

He said he joined the OCC as a train service controller in 1994, and that now, 18 years on, the number of passengers and the number of trains in the system have shot up, but staff numbers have stayed almost the same.

Mr Quah told the COI that he was not briefed about the Dec 15 incident before he began his night shift that stretched into the morning of the Dec 17 disruption.

He added that his bosses had not said anything about the sagged third rail and damaged current collector shoes, and that it was probably because SMRT engineers were still trying to figure out what had gone wrong on Dec 15.

The questioning then turned towards the command structure in the OCC and who directed operations.

OCC manager Tan Juke Boon told the COI that senior staff members knew their own roles, so there was no need for someone to step up and give orders.

Judge Tan's next battery of questions were aimed at sussing out the relationship between the OCC and the Land Transport Operations Centre (LTOC) run by the Land Transport Authority.

The manager said, however, that when incidents are not critical, the OCC staff would just resolve these first and then alert the LTOC later.

'Sometimes we get bogged down by the LTOC... They ask us for details, but our focus is on recovery,' he said.

The day's proceedings also uncovered a breakdown in communications between the OCC and the managers of stations on Dec 17, just like on Dec 15.

On Dec 17, train services, though limited, had resumed around 11am.

Novena station manager Alan Fong said he was not told about this by the OCC, so for about two hours, trains arriving at Novena were allowing passengers to alight, but not to board.

Mr Fong said he was told that train services had resumed only around 1pm.

He was asked whether his communication sets were working and whether the information could have been relayed to his colleagues at the station.

He said 'no' to these two questions.

Since last December, however, SMRT has put some measures in place to handle disruptions.

One of these is that it has stocked the Somerset, Orchard and Novena stations with leaflets on the bus services plying the area for distribution to affected commuters.

Somerset station manager Chan Keng Ping said his station did not have these leaflets in December, but received about 1,000 copies more than a month ago.

Another improvement now being tested by SMRT is a prototype directional sign which can be used to show large crowds of commuters the way out of the station when there is a train disruption.

Orchard station manager Ron Teo, 55, said the existing signs are heavy and difficult for station employees to move into position single-handedly.


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