Friday 25 September 2015

SMRT to be fined S$5.4 million for 7 July 2015 train disruption

Disruption that affected 413,000 commuters could have been prevented, says LTA
By Neo Chai Chin, TODAY, 23 Sep 2015

Rail operator SMRT will be fined S$5.4 million for Singapore’s worst train disruption, which affected 413,000 commuters two months ago, the Land Transport Authority said today (Sept 23).

The operator was fully responsible for the July 7 incident and had fallen short in maintenance — failing to address water seepage in the tunnel between Tanjong Pagar and Raffles Place stations, for example — the LTA found.

“The incident could have been prevented if SMRT had rectified the tunnel water seepage as required under LTA’s Code of Practice for maintenance,” the authority said.

The fine is more than double the S$2 million imposed for the two disruptions in December 2011 that affected 221,000 commuters.

In the days following the July breakdown of the North-South and East-West lines for more than two hours during the evening peak period, market analysts worked out the highest fines that could be meted out possibly. One analyst suggested a figure of S$50 million.

With the fine now decided, a transport expert and netizens are wondering what’s next, should a similar disruption happen again.

Under the Rapid Transit Systems Act, operators can be fined up to S$1 million or 10 per cent of their annual fare revenue for the affected line, whichever is higher.

LTA chief executive Chew Men Leong said it decided to impose a “high” financial penalty because of the seriousness of the incident and the number of commuters and motorists inconvenienced. The fine will go to the Public Transport Fund to help needy families.

The disruption was caused by the intermittent tripping of the rail power system at multiple locations by a safety mechanism. The water leak and inadequate maintenance resulted in extensive salty deposits on the insulator and track-side equipment.

This significantly reduced the effectiveness of the insulator, which led to a higher-than-normal voltage between the running rail and the ground. The abnormal voltage, coupled with the usual voltage fluctuation as trains move, activated the safety mechanism and tripped the power system.

SMRT’s records show that it detected seepage in the tunnel section in question in mid-June, but only tended to the leaks in end-July, said the LTA, which had engaged overseas experts to help trace the power trips’ root cause.

The extent of deposits on the track-side equipment showed that maintenance was inadequate. SMRT also failed to inform the LTA of intermittent traction power tripping “in a timely manner”, said the regulator.

Transport analyst Park Byung Joon noted that the fine was the largest ever, for a disruption that was also unsurpassed in scale. “I think it’s about right,” said the adjunct associate professor at SIM University. “If a similar incident happens again, I think the fine has to go up even higher.”

Still, the July 7 disruption occurred despite previous fines of S$1 million or more, and the message from the regulator would have been “quite clear”, said Dr Park. “The point of the fine is not to give a financial punch to the operator or hurt the survivability of the operator, because that’s not in the interest of anybody. Even if we increase the fine to S$10 million or S$20 million, the message to the operator would be the same,” he said.

“It may be time to think about having other schemes than fines alone.”

The LTA has asked SMRT to provide a detailed response and rectification programme to address its findings. SMRT has also started replacing all third-rail insulators since the incident, beginning with those that have shown signs of electrical resistance weakness.

The regulator is doing more frequent audits of SMRT’s and SBS Transit’s maintenance processes and has asked the operators to follow up on issues identified from its audits of their maintenance of tunnels and tracks for the North-South, East-West, North East and Circle lines. Another audit is underway, said the LTA.

Responding to media queries, SMRT acknowledged the fine and said it has stepped up efforts to systematically address the issue and minimise the possibility of a recurrence. “SMRT will continue to work closely with LTA in renewing the (North-South and East-West lines) to attain higher service and reliability standards for all our commuters,” said Mr Patrick Nathan, SMRT vice-president (corporate information and communications).

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