Sunday 27 May 2012

MRT breakdown COI: Day 29, Close of Public Inquiry

SMRT 'will learn from mistakes'
Both train operator and transport regulator willing to set things right, says judge at close of inquiry
By Christopher Tan, The Straits Times, 26 May 2012

THE six-week MRT inquiry drew to a close yesterday on a positive note, with the Committee of Inquiry looking forward to improvements that will be made in the wake of December's breakdowns.

In his closing remarks, Chief District Judge Tan Siong Thye said train operator SMRT had shown it was prepared to learn from its mistakes.

'The scale of the two disruptions was, without any doubt, the worst in the history of the Singapore MRT system,' he said.

But people have to understand that even the best system in the world may falter, he added.

'What is important is the willingness to learn and the positive attitude to acknowledge the shortcomings and put things right quickly.'

He said he had seen this willingness in both SMRT and the Land Transport Authority, Singapore's transport regulator.

'Thus there is a silver lining in these incidents,' he added.

Numerous planned improvements have been promised by SMRT and the authority over the course of the inquiry, and Judge Tan said that he hoped public confidence in the rail system - which has taken a knock since December - would be restored.

He has been chairing the Committee of Inquiry along with Professor Lim Mong King of Nanyang Technological University and Director of Prisons Soh Wai Wah.

In the weeks ahead, it will prepare a report to be submitted to Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew.

The judge did have a few harsh words for SMRT though, saying that the operator's overall management of the crises left 'much to be desired'.

But he singled out the company's frontline staff for doing a good job of helping commuters cope.

'We came across many committed and conscientious SMRT personnel,' he said.

Some returned from leave voluntarily to help out, while others 'abruptly left their social events to manage the situation'.

The judge also praised a train officer who comforted an asthmatic commuter in a stalled carriage, and a station manager who drove a disabled woman home and arranged for a maintenance vehicle to transport her motorised wheelchair.

He added that passengers were generally cooperative and orderly.

'They also did not panic. Otherwise, there could have been a stampede with serious, if not fatal, consequences,' he said.

Judge Tan pointed out that even though more than 200,000 commuters were affected by the two breakdowns, there were no serious casualties.

At the end of his closing remarks, SMRT's lawyer Cavinder Bull stood up to say he appreciated that his client's efforts had been acknowledged.

He said that the company wished the media had focused more on some of the positive things mentioned during the six weeks.

Six revelations
The Committee of Inquiry into the MRT disruptions started on April 16 and spanned six weeks. In the course of the sittings, 116 witnesses took the stand, including more than a dozen experts who flew in to give evidence. Christopher Tan highlights six startling revelations that surfaced about the MRT system and the company that ran it.

1. Claws that drop

METAL claws that help to hold up the third rail supplying power to the trains have been dropping since the first MRT line was built in the 1980s. The cases were sporadic and often isolated.

This meant they had no dire consequences until Dec 15 and Dec 17 last year, when a series of claws dislodged, causing the third rail to collapse.

Despite various attempts to secure them - using spring clips, metal cappings and cable ties - the claws continued to drop.

Even the latest generation of 'positive locks' have suffered the same problem.

2. Shoes that won't drop

THE carbon shoes of a train's current collector device - which draws power from the third rail - are designed to break off cleanly if they encounter an impact along the track. This is to prevent further damage to the device and the rail. But somehow, several of them did not break off as designed. The second disruption on Dec 17 is believed to be linked to damaged collector shoes that went undetected after the first breakdown on Dec 15.

3. Wheel flats

FLAT spots on the metal wheels of trains have been identified as one of the top causes of spikes in the level of vibration. The wheel flats occur during hard braking, when the wheels lock and slide along the tracks.

A higher frequency of train runs and wet weather make hard braking more common, along with wheel flats. They are removed with re-profiling machines that reshape the wheel.

Unless spotted and fixed in time, the flats worsen and may cause strong vibrations on the track which can dislodge third-rail claws. Experts say wheel flats can cause vibrations that are 10 times more violent than when the wheels are well-profiled.

4. Cracked rail

BESIDES shedding its claws, the third rail has sustained cracks - some hairline, some wider. They have been found on the power-supplying rail since as early as 2010. These cracks have also led to rail sagging in the past, although never as serious as on Dec 15 and Dec 17.

SMRT and the Land Transport Authority are considering whether to replace the entire third rail.

5. Engineers to the fore

SMRT may have lost some focus on its 'core competence' as well as the people who safeguarded these skills.

In response, chairman Koh Yong Guan is repositioning the firm as an engineering company. He is reviewing the salary scales of engineers and has set up a 'trains board' made up of engineers who will focus their attention on train operations and maintenance.

Members include SMRT independent director Ong Ye Kung, interim chief executive Tan Ek Kia and former LTA deputy chief executive T.S. Low.

6. Communication breakdown

THE inquiry showed up several communication shortfalls, from a damaged handheld radio set in a stalled train cab to customer service teams not issued with walkie-talkies. The radio on board a train was also not working on the night of Dec 15.


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