Wednesday 18 October 2017

MRT tunnel flooding: SMRT maintenance team failed us, says Khaw Boon Wan; Suspected falsification of records, pumps at Bishan not maintained for almost a year

North-South Line flooding was preventable: Khaw Boon Wan
He says SMRT team in charge of maintaining anti-flood system at Bishan failed commuters
By Adrian Lim, Transport Correspondent, The Straits Times, 17 Oct 2017

An MRT tunnel flooding incident which left a section of the North-South Line (NSL) inoperable for 20 hours earlier this month was "preventable", and the SMRT team in charge of maintaining the anti-flood measures "has failed us".

Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said this yesterday during a press conference together with officials from the Land Transport Authority (LTA) and train operator SMRT, which runs the NSL.

"Our findings are that the anti-flooding system there had been poorly maintained... The SMRT team in charge of maintaining the anti-flood system at Bishan has failed us," he said, adding that the incident "should not have happened" and "we are all sorry that it did".

Apologising to commuters, SMRT and SMRT Trains chairman Seah Moon Ming took a bow, as SMRT group chief executive Desmond Kuek and SMRT Trains CEO Lee Ling Wee looked on.

Mr Seah said the incident will have an impact on the bonuses of the SMRT maintenance team. Mr Kuek said SMRT was taking full responsibility and looking into tackling remaining "deep-seated cultural issues" within the company, despite progress on instilling a positive work culture.

"Indeed, many of our major disruptions in the past have been attributed in some part, or all, to human error or failure. We regret that this is so," said Mr Kuek.

Investigations after the Oct 7 incident found that a storm water pit in the tunnel between Bishan and Braddell MRT stations - designed to collect and pump out rainwater - was likely close to full before the recent flooding incident.

It was also found that due to the maintenance lapse, sludge and debris had accumulated in the lower compartment of the water pit, which could have affected the operational capabilities of pumps and float switches. They were to be inspected and maintained last month, but this was postponed as the maintenance team claimed it could not get a slot for track access during engineering hours.

The failure of the float switches resulted in water flooding the tunnel between Bishan station and the underground Braddell station. The water had to be manually pumped out through the night, with help from the Singapore Civil Defence Force and PUB.

NSL services in both directions, between Ang Mo Kio and Newton MRT stations, were down from 5.30pm on Oct 7, and resumed only at 1.36pm the next day. A quarter of a million commuters were affected.

Mr Lee said SMRT will conduct checks on water pumps and flood sensors more rigorously - on a monthly basis instead of every quarter currently. The flood-prevention devices that failed were last inspected in June.

SMRT will also work with LTA to improve the redundancy of flood prevention measures, including additional radar sensors to activate pumps. On top of alerts sent to the operations control centre, SMS messages will also be sent to SMRT staff when water in the storm pit reaches a certain level.

The pump control panel will also be re-located so that track access is not required to manually activate the water pumps, said Mr Lee. LTA added that it will send the failed float switches for further testing.

Mr Khaw said that MRT tunnels are designed to handle Singapore's weather and cope with very extreme storms. "(The) bottom line is that MRT tunnels should not be flooded. Full stop," he said.

MP Sitoh Yih Pin, chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Transport, said he hopes SMRT can strengthen its system of "checks and balances". "It cannot be that just because one department or a group of people didn't check the water pump, the whole system fails," Mr Sitoh said.

Mr Seah said SMRT has added more staff to its inspectorate teams, which check all work done and reports independently to an audit and risk management committee.


The incident on the evening of Oct 7 was preventable. It should not have happened. We are all sorry that it did... Our findings show that the anti-flooding system there had been poorly maintained... The SMRT team in charge of maintaining the anti-flooding system at Bishan has failed us. Basically, MRT tunnels are designed to handle our weather, and can cope with very extreme storms, far more severe than what we experienced in the last two weeks... (The) bottom line is that MRT tunnels should not be flooded. Full stop.




It may not end up as one person. There will be a whole process of disciplinary proceedings and investigations that we will have to allow to take its proper course.

- SMRT GROUP CHIEF EXECUTIVE DESMOND KUEK, when asked about the company's removal of a senior executive over the tunnel flooding incident.


We are sorry for the inconvenience caused to all our commuters... SMRT has failed to prevent this incident from happening. SMRT takes full responsibility for this incident. SMRT wants to, and aims to, make things right for our commuters. We are very determined to put in all necessary resources to improve maintenance and to cut down disruptions and train breakdowns.


‘Deep-seated cultural issues’ partly to blame for train disruptions: SMRT Group CEO
TODAY, 16 Oct 2017

While rail operator SMRT has been focused on improving train infrastructure over the years, mistakes have been made and there are “deep-seated cultural issues” within the company that have contributed to the major disruptions since 2011.

SMRT’s president and group chief executive officer Desmond Kuek acknowledged this on Monday (Oct 16), in his first public comment following the massive flood-induced train disruption on the Oct 7 and 8 weekend.

Mr Kuek said: “Indeed many of our major disruptions in the past have been attributed in some part, or all, to human error or failure. We regret that this is so.

“Much progress has been made with the inculcation of a positive work culture, but there remain some deep-seated cultural issues within the company that has needed more time than anticipated to root out.”

He did not elaborate on what these issues are, but said that it would be “wrong to paint everyone in SMRT with the same brush”, because most employees are “incredibly committed, professional and commuter-focused”.

Mr Kuek also acknowledged that there have been mistakes made over the last five years and apologised repeatedly to commuters for the inconvenience caused.

“Regardless whether our issues are viewed by others as inherited, structural or cultural, we make no excuses,” he said. “I take full responsibility for all that has happened under my watch as the overall group’s chief executive.

Besides Mr Kuek, SMRT’s chairman Seah Moon Ming, SMRT Trains’ chief executive Lee Ling Wee as well as Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan also apologised to the public for the Oct 7 incident that saw train services halted for more than 20 hours, affecting some 250,000 commuters.

Mr Seah said: “We know we have disappointed you and affected your life with each MRT service disruption.”

He added that the team is “fully committed to resolve the engineering and maintenance issues”.

“I ask for your patience and kind understanding, to allow us to work towards providing you with a better and smoother commuter experience.”

Meanwhile, Mr Khaw pinned the blame squarely on SMRT and called for action to “nail down who is responsible”.

“The bottomline is that MRT tunnels should not be flooded,” he said.

Several days after the weekend outage, the rail operator restructured its engineering and maintenance teams. In an internal memo sent out last Thursday, it stated that it had replaced a senior staff member involved in system maintenance.

The SMRT circular, a copy of which was seen by TODAY, said that Mr Siu Yow Wee has been appointed, with immediate effect, to take over Mr Ng Tek Poo in running its building and services division.

Mr Ng was previously SMRT’s vice-president for maintenance, while Mr Siu was its director of station operations for the North-South Line and East-West Line.

At the press briefing on Thursday afternoon, Mr Kuek said that the restructuring was “for greater accountability and focus”.

He assured the public that the rail operator would “redouble efforts to instil a strong culture of operational discipline in our workforce”, as well as strengthen engineering and maintenance capabilities to serve an ageing and expanding MRT network.

‘Old system’ of penalties and fines led to adversarial relationship between regulator and operator: Khaw
Transport Minister states preference but said LTA board will decide on penalties for the Oct 7 flooding incident
By Valerie Koh, TODAY, 17 Oct 2017

While the Land Transport Authority (LTA) will decide on penalties for train operator SMRT, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said he prefers to avoid the “old system of penalties and fines” provided by the existing licensing framework.

“If you ask me, my preference is not to go back to this old system of penalties and fines because it created a very adversarial relationship between the regulator and the operator,” said Mr Khaw at a joint media briefing with SMRT on Monday (Oct 16).

The acrimonious relationship between both parties was a stumbling block to achieving excellence, he said. Mr Khaw took on the transport portfolio in Oct 2015, a month after SMRT was fined S$5.4 million for the Republic’s worst train disruption that affected 413,000 commuters in July 2015. In July 2012, SMRT was fined S$2 million for two disruptions in December 2011 that affected 221,000 commuters.

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.

“Two years ago, the immediate reaction was — who’s to blame?... In such a relationship, it’s always, ‘I’m not responsible, it’s not me, it’s a design problem.’ Then (the) design (team) says, ‘No, this is (a) maintenance problem.’ And everything just ding-dongs,” said Mr Khaw.

In the past two years, he has worked to bring regulator and operator together as a team to address major and minor problems together, he said.

The aviation industry pioneered such a working relationship, forming joint committees to investigate aviation incidents, he added.

The LTA will mull over the facts of the case and the mitigating factors to mete out penalties for the flooding incident between Bishan and Braddell MRT station on Oct 7.

“For this particular issue, that’s for the LTA board to decide,” said Mr Khaw.

Days after the flooding incident last week, it was reported that SMRT replaced a senior staff member in the maintenance team. Mr Ng Tek Poo, the vice-president for maintenance, was replaced by Mr Siu Yow Wee, the director of station operations, with immediate effect.

At the media briefing, SMRT chairman Seah Moon Ming said he made the decision to remove the team leader immediately, without naming anyone. Team members and their superiors will also see their bonuses being cut.

“Because he is the head of this particular function, we removed him from his responsibilities there. It allows us to investigate the entire workflow and processes and culture in that sub-unit in a more open and transparent way... but (he) may not end up as (the only) person,” said SMRT group chief executive Desmond Kuek.

Internal investigations continue but SMRT has pinpointed several weak areas: The level of accountability by supervisors, the level of ownership over “what is not working well”, and the openness in reporting issues on the ground. These are areas in which the operator will be improving, pledged Mr Kuek.

SMRT maintenance staff bonuses will be affected
By Adrian Lim, Transport Correspondent, The Straits Times, 17 Oct 2017

The SMRT maintenance team which failed to properly maintain a flood-prevention system at Bishan MRT station will have their bonuses affected.

SMRT chairman Seah Moon Ming said this yesterday at a press conference which revealed that a maintenance lapse led to a flood in the tunnel between the Bishan and Braddell MRT stations and rendered services along a stretch of the North-South Line (NSL) inoperable for 20 hours on Oct 7 and 8.

SMRT group chief executive Desmond Kuek said a senior executive had been redeployed so that an investigation into the team's entire workflow, processes and culture could be done in an open and transparent way. "It may not end up as one person. There will be a whole process of disciplinary proceedings and investigations that we will have to allow to take its proper course," he added.

Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said MRT system reliability has improved, going by the longer average distances trains are clocking before encountering a delay of over five minutes. But he acknowledged Singaporeans could not relate to the improvement. This is because two ongoing projects - improving existing MRT lines, and upgrading the NSL's signalling system, which has faced teething problems - have been "conflated".

Apology a ‘turning point’ for SMRT, workers’ morale a concern, experts say
By Kenneth Cheng and Louisa Tang, TODAY, 17 Oct 2017

Transport analysts have expressed hopes that the apologies by leaders of SMRT and Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan for the recent service disruption on the North-South Line will mark a “turning point” in the company’s train operations.

They also highlighted that the morale of SMRT employees would be a major issue that the rail operator has to handle.

At a media briefing on Monday (Oct 16), the SMRT and Land Transport Authority (LTA) released their findings on why and how MRT tunnels along a part of the line were flooded after a downpour on Oct 7, causing a shutdown of train services at six stations that affected about 250,000 commuters.

Mr Khaw blamed the SMRT team in charge of maintaining the anti-flooding system for the incident, but urged fairness for rail workers who have been “working their guts out” to raise MRT reliability. SMRT’s top management said that the bonuses of the team at fault would be affected.

Experts interviewed by TODAY had mixed views about imposing penalties on the company under the licensing framework, with some pointing to systemic issues that have not been ironed out by SMRT president and group chief executive officer Desmond Kuek in the few years that he has been at the helm.

Mr Khaw said at the press briefing that his preference was not to return to a system of penalties and fines because it created a “very adversarial” relationship between the regulator and operator, but added that the decision rested with the LTA.

Under the Rapid Transit Systems Act, operators can be fined up to S$1 million or one-tenth of their yearly fare revenue for the affected line, whichever is higher.

Dr Walter Theseira, a transport economist from the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS), said that the main problem with the framework is that when an operator is penalised, money meant for train operations is taken away.

Although the framework allows for the operator’s licence to be suspended or revoked, he noted that it is not easy to find a new operator with similar expertise to run a rail line.

“It’s a complex problem, and part of what Minister Khaw is alluding to, is that he ultimately wants to look at whether these penalties are productive, in the sense that (the public) gets what they want — better behaviour or more attention to maintenance,” Dr Theseira said.

Professor Lee Der-Horng, a transport researcher from the National University of Singapore, said that retaining the expertise of rail workers and keeping morale high is important, and this team of workers is “critical” to operations.

But in the case of the latest incident, which was due to “human error” as a result of poor maintenance, the penalties should be decided based on the regulatory framework, he added.

On Monday, Mr Khaw also stressed the importance of “troop morale” in battle, saying “no amount of weaponry and good leadership can win the war” if those on the ground are demoralised.

On this, Assistant Professor Zhou Yi from the Singapore Institute of Technology said that the morale of rail engineers is of concern. He also wonders how many Singaporeans will be willing to take on such jobs in future, given the declining pool of young people choosing the engineering vocation.

Dr Park Byung Joon, an urban transport expert from SUSS, said that maintenance and inspection work can be boring, and this, too, can affect the workers’ morale.

As for the work culture at SMRT, Prof Lee said Mr Kuek's reference to “deep-seated cultural issues” in the company pointed to even “deeper” issues.

“He’s not a new CEO; he’s been in the office for many years. This means there are certain things even he himself, as a CEO, is not able to overcome," added Prof Lee. "If he couldn’t get it done, then who can?”

Dr Theseira noted that the incident appeared preventable to some extent. There were “most likely multiple failures in the system that caused this to happen”, he said, which hammers home the importance of SMRT management taking responsibility for the incident.

Addressing the technical problems, Asst Prof Zhou, who is also deputy chair of the Institution of Engineers, Singapore’s railway and transportation technical committee, said that poor water quality could have caused the float switches to fail, tripping up the water-pumping system.

The LTA and SMRT said that the bottom of the stormwater sump pit at Bishan was lined with sludge and mud, but these did not reach the levels of the float switch.

“The float switches are contact sensors. If the water is quite dirty, there might be certain issues with the sensors after many years,” Asst Prof Zhou said.

He suggested that the company employ technology and data analytics in a bigger way. These tools, for instance, can detect the areas with very high water levels or which are critical, and SMRT can raise the frequency of checks accordingly, for “smarter” maintenance planning.

Commuter Koh W M, 35, a brand director who was caught by the breakdown of train services on Oct 7, questioned why it took a while for SMRT to offer answers.

“It’s a sore point for a lot of commuters. So the apologies today make no difference to me. It’s something that has come too late,” he said.

Madam Grace Lee, 59, who works in finance, said that while the operator is putting in place more measures, there was no “excuse” for it not to do the quarterly check on the pumping system in September as it disclosed on Monday.

“When it’s time to check, they should check, and not postpone it and wait another month,” she added.

The faulty pumping system was supposed to have been serviced in September, SMRT said, but this was postponed until Oct 12, because staff members claimed they could not find a time slot to get on the tracks.

SMRT, LTA have to get to root of the problem
Overtures to appease public must be coupled with steps to ensure flooding does not recur
By Christopher Tan, Senior Transport Correspondent, The Straits Times, 17 Oct 2017

If something fails, no matter why, you take responsibility. Let's take responsibility first, then find out why.

That was SMRT chairman Seah Moon Ming's stance when asked why the rail operator had removed its vice-president of maintenance just days following the tunnel flooding on Oct 7 and 8, despite the fact that deeper investigations were ongoing.

Earlier, he said that bonuses of the maintenance team and its bosses would also be affected.

Mr Seah's response sends a strong message to SMRT staff.

Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan, who chaired a briefing yesterday on the flood-induced breakdown on the North-South Line, said he prefers a no-blame culture, with all sides working as one to solve problems.

He noted that it would be left to the Land Transport Authority (LTA) as to whether to impose a financial penalty on SMRT for the incident. But if it were up to him, Mr Khaw said "my preference is not to go back to this system of fines" because it "creates an adversarial relationship between operator and regulator".

Both men apologised for the incident. But the overtures to appease the commuting public - with Mr Seah bowingbriefly - would not be complete without concrete steps to prevent similar incidents from ever recurring.

SMRT and the LTA must get to the bottom of why the flooding happened in the first place.

Yes, preliminary findings point to weak maintenance. Two float switches which controlled the pump system at Bishan did not kick in. The theory is that one or both had failed well before Oct 7, which led to an underground reservoir - between Bishan and Braddell MRT stations - designed to hold water from six hours of heavy rain being full or nearly full before the downpour on that fateful day.

Citing calculations by water agency PUB, the LTA said Oct 7's torrential rain would have filled only 13 per cent of the reservoir, which isthe size of two Olympic pools, if it had been empty. And it would have been empty, or near empty, if the pump system had been working.

According to SMRT, the pumps and switches were last checked in June. The next scheduled check was to be on Oct 12.

But five days before that, on Oct 7, two switches failed - one linked to the operation of three pumps in the reservoir, and the other to alert SMRT's operations control centre when water reached a critically high level. The probability of two switches failing at one go is extremely low. The LTA is convinced that it is down to poor maintenance, and SMRT is not refuting that.

But LTA deputy chief executive for infrastructure and development Chua Chong Kheng said it is still unclear what exactly caused the switch which controlled the pumps to fail. The components have been handed over to the authority for further investigation.

Accumulation of sludge in the reservoir was suspected, but SMRT Trains CEO Lee Ling Wee said post-incident photos showed the sludge level to be well below where the switch is situated.

Whatever the eventual findings, steps must be taken to make the system even more resilient now.

For one thing, the operation of all three pumps should not be tied to one float switch. Even though each of the three had its own float switch, a fourth switch detects low water levels to prevent the pumps from overheating when there is little or no water in the reservoir. This fourth switch, which overrides the rest, was the one that malfunctioned.

The system would have been more robust if the fourth "stop" switch was removed, and each individual pump had its own low-water cut-off. Many modern pumps have this in-built feature.

As Mr Khaw pointed out, two pumps would be sufficient to empty the reservoir even in heavy rain. Having three thus seems to provide sufficient redundancy. But to have all three tied to one switch undermines this redundancy.

Be that as it may, now that accountability has been addressed, it is time to take the added responsibility by fixing a system that has clearly shown to have failed, for whatever reason.

* SMRT to hire 40% more rail engineers, set up teams to audit maintenance work
By Adrian Lim, Transport Correspondent, The Straits Times, 24 Oct 2017

To boost train reliability, SMRT will grow its ranks of rail engineers by 40 per cent in the next three years, and form special inspection teams whose key job will be to audit maintenance works.

A chief maintenance officer - a new position - was also appointed at the start of the month to take charge of all maintenance functions. SMRT has not publicly revealed who this is.

The slew of measures to improve MRT reliability was spelt out by SMRT chairman Seah Moon Ming yesterday, as he told staff that there was a "long road ahead" in the drive towards "rail excellence".

"We must win back the public's trust and confidence in SMRT," said Mr Seah in his first remarks since last week's press conference on a recent tunnel flooding incident.

"That is why we need engineers with a high level of competency... This will help identify problems and gaps early and, more importantly, enable solutions to be implemented effectively."


He was speaking at Nanyang Technological University at one-north campus to some 250 SMRT engineers who are attending a postgraduate certificate course jointly run by SMRT and the University of Birmingham.

The three-year course, launched in October last year, will develop the capabilities of SMRT engineers.

SMRT has 500 rail engineers now, an increase of over 150 per cent from 2013. It plans to add 200 by 2020, for a total of 700, to boost its engineering capabilities ahead of the launch of the Thomson-East Coast Line, which will open progressively from 2019.

Mr Seah said that even as SMRT works with the Land Transport Authority to upgrade older rail lines and improve maintenance, engineering expertise will be needed to build resilience in the network.

With more "fail-safe" and "fail-soft" features in the event of a breakdown, safety is not compromised and there will not be a total failure, with back-ups in place, he said.

SMRT will also set up readiness inspection teams, which will report independently to an audit and risk committee, Mr Seah said. SMRT is expected to give more details later.

MP Sitoh Yih Pin, chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Transport, said the inspection teams will perform on-the-ground checks to ensure train operations function smoothly.

Despite the reliability woes, engineering maintenance manager Rishan Balaskanda, 26, was undeterred when he joined SMRT three years ago. "As an engineer, you are always looking for a complex challenge to pursue... As a Singapore transport network (provider), (SMRT) plays a major role in keeping the economy moving," he said.

What's LTA's role in equipment maintenance?

I am deeply troubled by Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan's statement that "the SMRT team in charge of maintaining the anti-flood system at Bishan has failed us" (Flooding in MRT tunnel preventable, says Khaw; Oct 17).

One wonders what role the Land Transport Authority (LTA) plays as regulator and asset owner, now that it has completed the transfer of operating assets from SMRT to itself, which presumably includes the ancillary equipment.

The LTA had assured the public that it would conduct "asset condition surveys" to ensure that older operating assets were in acceptable condition at the point of transfer.

This presumably excludes the anti-flood system, as that is fairly new, having been installed in 2011.

However, it has now been found to be "poorly maintained" despite quarterly checks.

How, then, has the LTA ensured that the other pieces of equipment that were transferred were in proper condition and, subsequently, if maintenance had been carried out appropriately?

Does the LTA take a proactive role in auditing SMRT's maintenance of equipment, now that the equipment is owned by taxpayers, or is it reactive, mostly taking SMRT's word that the equipment had been serviced, and investigating only when things go wrong?

Shawn Lee Chieh Loong
ST Forum, 18 Oct 2017

Rail operators' duty to maintain rail assets: Land Transport Authority

We thank Mr Shawn Lee Chieh Loong and Mr Chin Neep Hing for their letters (What's LTA's role in equipment maintenance?, Oct 18; and Maintenance won't help if design is flawed, Oct 21).

Under the New Rail Financing Framework arrangement, SMRT remains responsible for providing reliable and well-maintained rail services, which include ensuring that rail operating assets are in good working condition, replacing faulty components and establishing a comprehensive maintenance regime.

As owner of the rail operating assets, the Land Transport Authority carries out regular audits of the rail operators' maintenance records and on-site inspections, and has flagged maintenance lapses to SMRT for rectification.

The LTA also regularly meets SMRT to assess its maintenance plans, and has highlighted components due for replacement.

To provide stronger oversight, the LTA set up a dedicated "Rail Assets, Operations and Maintenance Group" last year to oversee condition assurance and stewardship of our rail operating assets.

However, primary responsibility ultimately remains with the rail operators, which must ensure that the assets are in a condition befitting their age or else compensate the LTA for them.

The MRT tunnel flooding on Oct 7 was caused by the multiple failure of redundancies and buffers built into the storm water pump system.

First, the malfunction of the "stop" float switch prevented pumps in the storm water pit from activating to discharge water collected.

Second, a separate and independent "alarm" float switch also failed to alert SMRT of high water levels accumulating in the storm water pit.

Third, the storm water pit, which is sized to contain six hours of continuous rainfall, was already full and, therefore, unable to cater to the further rainwater that afternoon. It should have been empty if it had been properly maintained.

From a design perspective, it is very unlikely that both the "stop" and "alarm" float switches would have failed concurrently, which underscores the importance of regular maintenance and checks. The design of the float switches is also not unique to the Singapore rail system, and is widely utilised in many other submerged pump applications.

The LTA has always been committed to working closely with all our rail operators to improve their maintenance processes.

Chua Chong Kheng
Deputy Chief Executive (Infrastructure and Development)
Land Transport Authority
ST Forum, 26 Oct 2017

A unified approach to fixing rail woes
Stop the finger-pointing adversarial approach. Instead, the Government should get LTA, transport operators, commuters and the media to work together to tackle MRT problems.
By Christopher Tan, Senior Transport Correspondent, The Straits Times, 26 Oct 2017

Last Tuesday's front-page picture of SMRT chairman Seah Moon Ming bowing in apology while his two chief executives looked on impassively spoke volumes.

The photo in The Straits Times and accompanying story were widely shared on social media.

The image showed a difference in thinking between the older gentleman, aged 62, and his younger helmsmen - SMRT group CEO Desmond Kuek and SMRT Trains CEO Lee Ling Wee, both in their early 50s.

Mr Seah clearly felt bowing was a necessary act of contrition for the disastrous first-time flood-induced breakdown of the North-South Line on Oct 7. But Mr Kuek and Mr Lee clearly did not.

Singapore does not have a corporate culture of bigwigs bowing when something goes wrong. This is in sharp contrast to Japan or South Korea, where the entire entourage of top executives would have bowed deeply.

The picture of Mr Seah bowing alone set the stage for what Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan was to say later at the press conference held jointly by SMRT and the Land Transport Authority (LTA), the public transport regulatory body, on Oct 16.

To a question on whether SMRT would be fined for the flooding - which disrupted service on a large section of the line for some 20 hours and which inconvenienced more than a quarter of a million commuters - Mr Khaw said he would prefer not to "go back to this old system of penalties and fines".

"It created a very adversarial relationship between the regulator and the operator," he said.

"When you have this acrimonious relationship, it is very difficult to achieve excellence."

The minister's sentiment has merit. Unity is strength, after all.

And when faced with a seemingly indomitable task of improving reliability on our rail network, the last thing we want is disunity between key stakeholders.

But there should be a distinction between unity and accountability.

Unity - or working together on a problem - surely does not mean breaches go unpunished.

The relationship between regulators and the regulated should rightly be an uneasy one.

Otherwise, regulatory capture might arise. This is when the public sector tasked with regulating a private entity acts in a way that advances the interest of the company, instead of protecting public users. The theory was developed by the late Nobel laureate, economist George Stigler.

It is a risk governments worldwide have failed time and again to address fully.

For the flooding incident, it is clear that maintenance lapses were to blame, even if the design of the pump system was questionable.

But it cannot be that the maintenance crew and its supervisors are the only ones facing the music. SMRT as an organisation, starting with the top management, should shoulder the responsibility too. Otherwise, an apology - with or without bowing - rings rather hollow.

SMRT has already removed and redeployed its senior executive, Mr Ng Tek Poo, who was in charge of maintenance and systems. Mr Kuek explained that Mr Ng was removed so that an investigation into the team's entire workflow, processes and culture could be done in a more open and transparent way.

Also, the SMRT maintenance team, which failed to properly maintain a flood-prevention system at Bishan MRT station, will have their bonuses cut.

But whose place is it to judge the culpability, if any, of Mr Kuek and his lieutenants?

In Singapore, the operators are mostly left to clean house on their own and decide where the buck stops, except in 2011 - the year two massive breakdowns led to a public inquiry and a management shake-up at SMRT.

Ironically, SMRT's network has experienced worse incidents since then, including Oct 7's flooding. Surely, top honchos who are credited when things go right should share the blame when they go awry. In Hong Kong, top MTR executives face pay cuts if rail services are disrupted severely or repeatedly.

On its part, the LTA, as regulator and builder of the MRT system, should stand up and admit that the pump circuitry at Bishan can be improved. (The older lines were built by MRTC, which was one of the predecessors of the LTA.)

There are three pumps, each activated by a float switch as the water level rises and a fourth kill switch that can prevent all three pumps from working. This fourth switch failed that fateful day, along with another component that would have set off an alarm at SMRT's control centre.

The existing design undermines the redundancy and resilience of the flood prevention system. A resilient system would have been more forgiving of human errors.

If Mr Khaw wants SMRT and LTA to be more united, both sides, not just one party, must openly admit to flaws. The Bukit Panjang LRT (BPLRT) is another example of this one-sided relationship.

Even if SMRT is far from blameless for the 18-year-old line's unending woes, the LTA has not admitted openly that the LRT line had design shortcomings.

It took Second Minister for Transport Ng Chee Meng to say in Parliament earlier this month that the BPLRT's design was adapted from an airport inter-terminal transfer system.

With just a tinge of exaggeration, such an adaptation is almost akin to using a baggage carousel system as a travelator. In an airport transit system, the tracks are relatively straight. But in a housing estate, you want the line to serve as many blocks as possible, and so there is bound to be a lot more twists and turns. Hence the trains' power-collecting system for the latter will have to be designed to withstand repeated sharp turns.

It has taken 18 years for this admission to surface.

Would the problems have been fixed earlier if previous leaders had openly acknowledged the design flaw? After all, being able to fix a problem has to start with admitting that it is a problem in the first place.

Of course, not all the problems with the BPLRT are to do with not customising its components for its alignment. Many of them are down to weak maintenance and an inability to spot systemic weaknesses.

On that front, it is now clear there is an engineering deficit in the rail industry here that needs urgent fixing. SMRT says it has beefed up its team of engineers by more than 150 per cent in the last four years, and aims to increase the ranks by another 40 per cent by 2020.

This is commendable. But it is unlikely to solve immediate challenges. These require, first, experienced rail engineers (those with a deep understanding of rail infrastructure, systems and components), and second, a battalion of technicians who actually do most of the heavy lifting in the tunnels.

And because the resource pool for such workers is rather limited here, it makes sense for Singapore to seriously consider having one rail operator. Currently, the pool of expertise is divided between the main rail operator SMRT and SBS Transit, which runs the North-East and Downtown lines.

Again, having one rail operator would be in line with Mr Khaw's call for unity or joint responsibility.

And if we take it one step further, we should adopt the harmonised strategy of having one entity design, build and operate a network. It is the model used in Hong Kong and Taipei, whose sterling metros we want to emulate.

Also in line with the unity theme would be to tap the eyes and ears of commuters who make more than three million train trips a day.

Their feedback on peculiar noises, vibration or smells along their journeys can sometimes be the first tell-tale signs of problems.

Having a convenient way for them to convey their feedback immediately would be a good move. Of course there is no need to look into each and every piece of feedback, but data analytics can pick up patterns of complaints, which can be addressed.

Lastly, the authorities should recognise that the media is not an adversary. We are a vital listening post. And if some of our stories highlighting the frequency of breakdowns appear unflattering or critical, we make no apology.

Despite rosier statistics on rail reliability, the more serious incidents on the MRT continue to test the public's patience and shake its confidence in the system.

Downplaying them does nobody any good.

** SMRT Maintenance team signed off on work that was not done; staff suspended
Staff in charge of pump system that failed may have falsified records
By Maria Almenoar, Assistant News Editor, The Straits Times, 1 Nov 2017

Train operator SMRT has found that the team responsible for maintaining a pump system that malfunctioned may have falsified documents by signing off on work that they had not done.

It is suspected that such falsification of quarterly maintenance records could stretch all the way back to December last year.

The lapses led to a chain reaction as a train tunnel flooded after a heavy downpour, resulting in a 20-hour disruption on a section of the North-South Line last month.

The manager and staff responsible for the maintenance of that Bishan Depot pump system have been suspended and are assisting in investigations, added SMRT in a statement yesterday evening.

It did not disclose how many employees it was taking action against, but added that it would "make appropriate changes to the management and maintenance team where warranted".

This comes after SMRT replaced its vice-president of maintenance a week after the breakdown, and said that the bonuses of staff involved in the maintenance lapse would be affected.

SMRT said preliminary reports found that records for quarterly maintenance work as far back as December last year, as well as in March and June this year, were signed and submitted.

But records show that the pumps were not activated on these dates, an action that would be required as part of the maintenance procedure, nor was access to tracks issued to carry out the works.

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) said it was "deeply concerned" that maintenance was not done and viewed breaches of all rail operating licences - which covered maintenance of assets - seriously.

It will independently evaluate SMRT's findings on the suspected falsification of maintenance records at Bishan Depot and make its recommendation on the penalties after full investigations.

Since the 2011 rail disruption which led to a Committee of Inquiry hearing, SMRT has paid millions in penalties for disruptions.

Given the shift over to the new rail financing framework last year, it is likely to face stiffer penalties for this latest incident, which affected about 250,000 commuters.

Moving forward, SMRT said that it would engage external experts to carry out a system-wide inspection of critical systems. These experts will also help to step up quality control surveillance of all preventive maintenance work.

SMRT will also form a new Joint Readiness Inspection team - with 50 people - which will report independently to SMRT's Board of Audit and Risk Committee and also to the LTA/SMRT Joint Board Technical Committee.

SMRT chairman Seah Moon Ming said: "SMRT has zero tolerance for failures in supervision and diligence over maintenance tasks. We do not condone any acts of dishonesty and dereliction of responsibility, whether by management or staff.

"All who are accountable will be disciplined sternly, regardless of rank and position. Accordingly, the relevant management chain of command in SMRT must be held accountable."

The National Transport Workers' Union said that it would ensure any disciplinary action taken by SMRT against its workers would be fair and appropriate.

It also urged SMRT to make training for its workers one of its top-most priorities.

Mr Zaqy Mohamad, a member of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Transport, said that he was "disappointed" about SMRT's findings of possible falsification of documents.

"There's a lot of good work being done by other SMRT staff... Hopefully, this was a case of only a few bad hats," he said.

SMRT must take tough action, say observers
The fact that work neglect went undetected for a year 'suggests problem is deep-seated'
By Zhaki Abdullah, The Straits Times, 1 Nov 2017

If SMRT personnel did, indeed, falsify maintenance records, then tough action should be taken against them, observers said.

The lapse resulted in flooding that led to a 20-hour breakdown of the North-South Line last month.

The rail operator revealed yesterday that though records had been submitted for quarterly maintenance work on the Bishan pump system on three separate occasions since December last year, the works had not been carried out as required.

Mr Yee Chia Hsing, a member of the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Transport, said he was "disappointed and shocked" by the irresponsible attitudes of the workers who had not conducted the required maintenance work.

As many people depend on public transport for their daily commute, the MP for Chua Chu Kang GRC said further measures must be taken to check that maintenance work has been carried out so that such incidents do not recur.

Mountbatten MP Lim Biow Chuan, who also sits on the GPC for Transport, said that while SMRT staff were generally "diligent, conscientious and honest", serious action must be taken against all those found responsible.

"This will signal that those who fail their responsibilities face serious consequences," he said.

National University of Singapore transport researcher Lee Der Horng said the admission pointed to organisational issues within SMRT, something the rail operator itself has admitted to.

In a press conference two weeks ago, SMRT chief executive Desmond Kuek said that there were "deep-seated cultural issues" within the firm that led to the Oct 7 disruption.

Dr Lee said: "Even if they have the most up-to-date technology and a perfectly deployed system, it comes down to the people who are responsible."

Hiring external experts for inspections - as SMRT plans to do - may not be easy as most such experts already work for the rail operators, he added.

The fact that the neglect of maintenance work was not detected for an entire year suggests that the problem is deep-seated, said Singapore University of Social Sciences senior lecturer Park Byung Joon. Such underlying organisational issues must be addressed, he said.

One commuter, Ms Hanum Harlini, hoped that the additional checks to be introduced by SMRT would help address maintenance issues on the rail network.

The 39-year-old pre-school therapist added that while irresponsible workers should face action, diligent staff should also be rewarded for doing their part in maintaining the MRT system.

Even if routine maintenance is conducted, it is no longer a guarantee that Singapore's increasingly complex rail system will work smoothly, said Singapore Institute of Technology assistant professor Zhou Yi, a chartered railway engineer.

Instead, rail operators here must beef up their capabilities in predictive and preventive maintenance, he said.

SMRT's revelation raises serious questions about maintenance culture
By Royston Sim, Assistant Political Editor, The Straits Times, 1 Nov 2017

The damning revelation that SMRT staff may have doctored maintenance records on three occasions is alarming, as it further shakes public confidence in the transport operator and raises serious questions about its maintenance regime.

Initial investigations into the Oct 7 disruption found that two float switches which controlled the pump system did not kick in, resulting in water flooding the tunnel between Bishan station and the underground Braddell station.

The flood-prevention devices that failed were last inspected in June, according to SMRT.

But as it turns out, the staff responsible for maintenance may have submitted false records for three consecutive quarters, including the June period, to say they had carried out works on the pumps and switches when they did not.

Were these incidents isolated cases, where a handful of staff did not do the work they were supposed to and lied to cut corners?

Or do they point to a more systemic issue within the company, where there are more such cases yet to be uncovered?

SMRT made maintenance one of its top priorities after two major disruptions in December 2011, which triggered a public inquiry. It tightened maintenance procedures, and said it has beefed up its team of engineers by more than 150 per cent in the last four years.

So why is SMRT's maintenance culture still found wanting in some areas?

The operator has pledged to address the rot via several measures, including bringing in external experts to inspect critical systems across its entire rail network. This move will help address concerns about similar maintenance lapses across the MRT system.

SMRT also said it will hold all relevant management along the chain of command accountable, and intensify training to instil greater work responsibility. The transport operator has already removed and redeployed its senior executive, Mr Ng Tek Poo, who was in charge of maintenance and systems.

The new joint readiness inspection team that SMRT is setting up with the Land Transport Authority (LTA) will also provide an additional layer of checks to ensure maintenance is done properly.

To be fair, there are many dedicated staff within SMRT who consistently give their all to keep the rail network, which sees more than three million trips a day, running smoothly.

Yet as the flooding incident has shown, it takes only a handful of individuals to unravel the hard work put in by others, and dent confidence in the company.

That is why SMRT has to take steps to stamp out all instances of staff not doing their job to avoid future disruptions caused by such maintenance lapses.

Meanwhile, LTA is carrying out its own investigation into the incident, and will make its recommendation on penalties for SMRT to the LTA board in due time.

During a press conference last month, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan had said he would prefer not to "go back to this old system of penalties and fines" as it created "a very adversarial relationship" between the regulator LTA and rail operators. But fines should still be imposed for severe disruptions when warranted, so that operators are hit where it hurts the most - in the wallet.

The LTA will also work with SMRT to improve the redundancy of flood prevention measures, including additional radar sensors to activate pumps.

These are the latest measures to improve the reliability of the MRT network. Other multimillion-dollar initiatives include replacing the entire power-supplying third rail, upgrading the signalling system and overhauling the power supply system on the older North-South and East-West lines.

However, these major infrastructure renewal projects must be coupled with a proper maintenance regime. They will not work if maintenance staff are not doing what they are supposed to do.

*** SMRT asks rail staff to own up to lapses, without penalty, before it embarks on wide-scale audit
Amnesty aimed at plugging gaps in maintenance quickly but move draws mixed reactions
By Adrian Lim, Transport Correspondent and Christopher Tan, Senior Transport Correspondent, The Straits Times, 3 Nov 2017

SMRT has asked rail staff to step forward and own up if they have been cutting corners in their work - and assured them they will not be penalised if they admit to any breaches during this "amnesty" period which ends today.

Once the amnesty period ends, SMRT's internal audit will conduct a wide-scale inspection and audit, and lapses discovered then will be penalised.

The move is aimed at ensuring commuter safety and quickly plugging gaps in maintenance operations - one of which resulted in the flooding of an MRT tunnel last month.

The Straits Times understands that the rail operator sent out an e-mail to employees a few days ago offering them a chance to own up on work that they had not done, or if they had not adhered to company procedures or instructions.

SMRT group chief executive Desmond Kuek said yesterday that the company does not condone any wrongdoing. He said: "In order to quickly establish the extent of such improper practices, an amnesty period was allowed for staff to volunteer information in open reporting as a mitigation against further disciplinary action."

The move follows Tuesday's revelation that some employees responsible for maintaining the pumps of a storm water pit had signed off on work that was not done.

It is suspected that the falsification of the quarterly maintenance records went as far back as December last year.

The manager and staff responsible have been suspended and are assisting in investigations, while SMRT also replaced its vice-president of maintenance a week after the flooding, which caused train services to be down for about 20 hours over two days.

About a quarter of a million commuters were hit by the disruption.

National University of Singapore transport researcher Lee Der Horng was not in favour of the "amnesty" approach. He felt it would be more effective to conduct checks and identify problem areas and staff.

But an experienced auditor, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said of the amnesty process: "The objective is to get to the nub of the problems as fast as you can."

"If you do an extensive audit, it takes time. In the meantime, for example, if the train breaks down because of a lack of maintenance, even though it was supposed to have been serviced regularly, it creates a bigger issue. Once this is tackled, then we can deal with accountability," he added.

Mr Yee Chia Hsing, a member of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Transport, said: "I can understand that some people may think that giving an amnesty is letting the staff off too easily.

"However, if we want to work towards an outcome of upping the standard of maintenance, and given it is easier for people to own up and report rather than for the audit inspection team to discover the non-compliance, I can understand their rationale for doing this," he added.

Some SMRT staff own up to lapses during 'amnesty'
By Adrian Lim, Transport Correspondent and Royston Sim, Assistant Political Editor, The Straits Times, 4 Nov 2017

Staff from at least one department in SMRT have admitted to lapses in their work, in response to a company call to own up - without penalty - before a wide-scale audit is launched.

The Straits Times understands that the employees are from SMRT's building and facilities department, which oversees areas such as MRT tunnel ventilation, and flood and fire protection measures at train stations.

It is unclear how many staff have come forward in the "amnesty" exercise that ended yesterday, and which is targeted at quickly plugging gaps in maintenance operations - one of which caused the flooding of an MRT tunnel last month, bringing down train services on a stretch of the North-South Line for about 20 hours.

When contacted, SMRT said it was unable to comment on the amnesty offer, which was made known to staff via e-mail a few days ago.

The offer was made to quickly establish the extent of improper practices, and to allow staff to "volunteer information in open reporting as a mitigation against further disciplinary action", SMRT's group chief executive Desmond Kuek said in a statement on Thursday evening.

SMRT has told staff that it will embark on a massive audit and inspection exercise following the amnesty period, and lapses uncovered will be dealt with. These measures follow revelations that SMRT staff responsible for maintaining the pumps of a storm water pit at Bishan station had signed off on work that was not done. It is suspected that the falsification of the quarterly maintenance records went as far back as December last year.

The manager and staff responsible have been suspended and are assisting in investigations. SMRT also replaced its vice-president of maintenance a week after the flooding.

Observers said SMRT's amnesty offer is a rare move, and held mixed views on its effectiveness.

Mr William Thien, a principal consultant at EON Consulting and Training, said: "It's a good effort to identify potential gaps quickly, calling on the conscience of employees to do the right thing."

"Giving amnesty is not a common thing in companies. But given that SMRT is providing a public good, which has a great impact on public transport, I can understand why," Mr Thien added. He said organisations mostly rely on whistle-blowing channels to bring up lapses.

PeopleWorldwide Consulting's managing director David Leong said: "From an HR perspective, it's very poor people management. The trust between the management and staff is totally lost.

"It doesn't lead anywhere... Are you going to retain the people who owned up and let them do the same job? Or are you enticing them to come out, to remove them later?"

Spotlight on SMRT's amnesty move for staff to admit wrongdoing
By Royston Sim, Assistant Political Editor and Elgin Toh, Insight Editor, The Sunday Times, 5 Nov 2017

SMRT's decision to extend amnesty to staff who come forward to admit to wrongdoing has placed the spotlight on company amnesties.

Such amnesties, while rare, have been used by companies in other parts of the world. They tend to be offered in the midst of a major company crisis. In 2015, scandal-hit car producer Volkswagen offered amnesty to staff in an attempt to get a hold on its emissions-cheating problem.

Chief executive Herbert Diess wrote to staff promising they would not be fired or face claims of damages. He, however, added that he could not protect staff from criminal prosecution.

In 2013, Canadian construction firm SNC Lavalin also extended amnesty to employees to "report potential corruption and anti-competition matters in which they may have been directly and indirectly involved". SNC Lavalin, which was at the time under fraud investigation by the authorities, said the policy was "to assist the company's efforts to fully gather and assess the facts associated with ongoing corporate ethics matters and to address and mitigate known risks in this area".

Having an amnesty can be resource-efficient, because some will invariably step forward. This can provide vital leads to companies trying to get to the bottom of a problem.

Transport operator SMRT had that goal in mind when it offered its staff an amnesty period to come clean about any breaches they may have committed. The move came after it found some staff may have falsified maintenance records for the pump system in Bishan. The lack of maintenance had caused the flooding of an MRT tunnel last month.

SMRT group chief executive Desmond Kuek said the offer - which ended on Friday - was made to quickly establish the extent of improper practices, and allow staff to "volunteer information in open reporting as a mitigation against further disciplinary action".

Some staff from SMRT's Building and Facilities Department have taken up the offer and admitted to breaches, Insight understands. Yesterday, Chinese newspaper Lianhe Zaobao also reported that SMRT planned to sack six staff over the flooding incident. When contacted, SMRT declined to comment.

Associate Professor Mak Yuen Teen from the National University of Singapore Business School reckons SMRT decided to offer amnesty as it did not know the extent of the problem, and recognised it may not be able to detect all breaches through audits and checks. He adds that SMRT now has to ensure those staff who came forward are not blacklisted or punished. "It's important that they deliver on their promise of amnesty, otherwise the trust will be broken," he says.

Singapore Human Resources Institute President Erman Tan views the move to offer amnesty as a positive step towards building an open culture within the company. But Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan says amnesties should be "a measure of last resort" by companies.

"In terms of workplace ethics, the amnesty is highly questionable and does not inspire confidence," Associate Professor Tan says. "Given the climate of distrust, the staff are put in a position of 'damned if you do and damned if you don't'. The amnesty is akin to SMRT going on a fishing expedition." The transport operator is better off doing a thorough review, rather than relying on "ad hoc admissions" that may not give it a clear picture of the systemic flaws, he adds.

Furthermore, there is the issue of criminal prosecution or government probes, which SMRT cannot legally protect employees from.

"If a crime has been committed, SMRT cannot conceal that information from the authorities, and employees who come forward in the amnesty may be incriminating themselves without proper legal advice," he notes.

**** SMRT to take disciplinary action against 6 staff on maintenance team for flooding incident
7 managers, including two V-Ps, under probe; top management's remuneration may take hit
By Zhaki Abdullah, The Straits Times, 7 Nov 2017

SMRT will be taking disciplinary action against six of its staff who were part of the team assigned to carry out maintenance work on the Bishan water discharge system, which malfunctioned and led to a 20-hour service disruption last month.

Another seven managers from the same maintenance group, including two executives who hold vice-president positions, will also be investigated.

All of them have since been suspended "with respect to their discharge of supervisory responsibility", the rail operator said in a statement yesterday.

It added: "As part of our value system of shared responsibility and accountability, the company will also take this incident into account when reviewing the remuneration of its senior management, from the CEO through the relevant chain of command."

The move comes as SMRT wrapped up its investigations into the maintenance of the Bishan pump system.

It was prompted by the flooding of an MRT tunnel on Oct 7 that disrupted train services on a stretch of the North-South Line for about 20 hours. The float switches that were designed to pump water out of the pit at Bishan station were suspected to be faulty before the downpour.

What the rail operator found was that maintenance records by the six-member team had been falsified between December last year and June this year.

The team from the building and facilities maintenance group comprises a manager, an engineering supervisor and four other crew members, SMRT said.

It also said it is currently studying "a number of submissions" it had received relating to scheduled maintenance works not being carried out - also from the building and facilities maintenance group - following an offer of amnesty to report maintenance lapses, which ended last Friday.

During the amnesty period, staff who owned up to not having done work, or not adhering to company procedures or instructions, would not be penalised. The move is aimed at quickly plugging gaps in the system.

Meanwhile, other maintenance units have been assessed and found to be compliant with specified maintenance standards, said SMRT.

National Transport Workers' Union executive secretary Melvin Yong called on SMRT to share information on its investigations with the union, and include it in its disciplinary inquiry.

Mr Yong added that the union hopes SMRT will take a "balanced approach" in both its investigations and disciplinary inquiry. He urged the company to define the terms of its amnesty deal and explain how it will be administered fairly.

SMRT said it is also cooperating with the Land Transport Authority's (LTA) investigations into the flooding incident, which are ongoing.

Separately, in a written response to a parliamentary question by Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said there was "no evidence of shortcomings or lapses in regulatory oversight" by either LTA or the Transport Ministry with regard to the flooding incident.

Mr Perera had asked whether the incident would affect the pay of ministry and LTA staff tasked with overseeing the MRT.

Today, Mr Khaw will deliver a ministerial statement in Parliament addressing questions from 10 MPs, from both the People's Action Party and the Workers' Party, on what caused the flooding, and how it can be prevented in the future.

Track weakest link in rail operations
Editorial, The Straits Times, 3 Nov 2017

The saga of SMRT's failures is leaving Singaporeans in ascending states of disbelief. Two major breakdowns in 2011 occasioned a public inquiry - a serious indictment of any service organisation in Singapore. Since then, lapses big and small have continued to chip away at SMRT's reputation, and indirectly at the efficiency associated with Singapore. The latest revelation is that preliminary investigations by the train operator have found that a maintenance team in charge of a pump system - which eventually failed and caused a massive 20-hour disruption - is suspected of signing off on work that it had not done.

Such conduct, if proven, is a gross dereliction of duty, in obvious expectation of not being caught. Knowing that shoddy work would gravely affect a critical public service makes such wilful negligence all the more inexcusable. Mechanical failures and ageing systems are bad enough, but any deliberate falsification of maintenance records, to cover up work not done, belongs to a different order of things. As commuters' safety is involved, one might well ask if such acts invoke criminal liability. As the neglect of maintenance was not detected for almost a year, other questions are also raised. For instance, how effective are SMRT's supervisory protocols, especially when management is aware there are some "deep-seated cultural issues" in the organisation?

This weakness was acknowledged by SMRT chief Desmond Kuek. After the recent flooding of a rail tunnel, he said that "many of our major disruptions in the past have been attributed in some part, or all, to human error or failure". If this is indeed the nub of the issue, Singaporeans have every reason to be deeply concerned. When people form the weakest link in an organisation, no technological addition (like radar sensors) or major system upgrading will ensure rail reliability. Dishonest work would ultimately upend the best efforts of the majority of rail workers.

The next obvious cause for worry is the question of whether such lapses have created hidden dangers elsewhere. Would it take another breakdown - or worse - to reveal yet another unknown flaw in the system? Singaporeans would hope not, given that they depend on the safe and efficient functioning of the rail system. SMRT has given the assurance that the "relevant management chain of command" will be held accountable if investigations establish the presence of unacceptable actions or omissions. Exemplary punishment must be meted out to the guilty so as to send out a deterrent message, not just across the organisation but also to other workers in critical areas. Further, there must be transparency about any failures and the corrective action taken. To vindicate the tireless work of rail workers who help to keep Singapore on the move, SMRT must itself move swiftly to arrest any rot within.

***** SMRT sacks 8 staff over falsification of records in wake of tunnel flooding
13 employees held responsible in wake of tunnel flooding; three of them, including V-P, disciplined; two others quit
By Christopher Tan, Senior Transport Correspondent, The Straits Times, 28 Nov 2017

Rail operator SMRT has sacked eight staff and disciplined three others after a probe into falsification of maintenance records for an anti-flooding system in the wake of an unprecedented tunnel flooding incident last month.

A total of 13 employees - several holding senior managerial posts - have been held responsible, the company said yesterday.

Other than the eight who have been dismissed, two resigned while three others were subject to undisclosed disciplinary actions.

Those sacked comprised those in the work team who had falsified pump maintenance records, and the managers and senior executive who were in charge of ensuring that pump maintenance was duly carried out during the period.

They are made up of one senior executive, two managers and five technical staff.

The two men who quit did so soon after the train tunnel flooding, which crippled a large section of the North-South Line on Oct 7 and 8. The incident affected more than a quarter of a million commuters.

Investigations found that vice-president Tay Tien Seng and senior manager Ivan Kok had failed to exercise sufficient supervision during the period when the falsification of the pump maintenance records occurred.

"As they are no longer with the company, SMRT reserves its right to pursue legal action against them as may be appropriate," the company said.

Although investigators have not found out why the pumps and related switches failed - individual components were in proper working order immediately after the incident - they concluded that the crew tasked with maintaining the system had not done so for nearly a year.

The system is supposed to be serviced once every quarter.

SMRT said three other management staff, including a vice-president, have been disciplined "according to our internal disciplinary framework for failing to exercise the due care and diligence expected of them in relation to the maintenance of the pumps".

The Straits Times understands that the vice-president is Mr Ng Tek Poo, who has been demoted.

The other two are believed to be members of senior management.

In response to SMRT's actions, the National Transport Workers' Union (NTWU) said yesterday that it "does not condone any action or inaction by workers that could cause harm to fellow workers and commuters or damage the operations of our public transport system".

Its executive secretary Melvin Yong said: "NTWU will support disciplinary actions executed by SMRT that are fairly and consistently applied to all workers concerned.

"On our part, NTWU is in contact with affected union members. We will assist them to find alternative employment and, where necessary, provide financial assistance."

****** Panel set up to prevent MRT flooding
LTA, PUB committee to assess flood protection measures for critical transport infrastructure
By Zhaki Abdullah, The Straits Times, 6 Dec 2017

Almost two months after flooding disrupted service on the North-South MRT line for 20 hours, a committee has been formed by the Land Transport Authority (LTA) and water agency PUB to prevent such incidents from recurring.

This was announced by Coordinating Minister for Infrastructure and Minister for Transport Khaw Boon Wan yesterday.

Speaking at the fifth Joint Forum on Infrastructure Maintenance, Mr Khaw said the new committee will study long-term measures "beyond our generation" and put them in place.

"The PUB/LTA Standing Committee will institutionalise our lessons and hard-earned experiences, lest they disappear with us at the crematorium," he said.

In response to queries, LTA and PUB said the committee will "assess the resilience of the flood protection measures for critical transport infrastructure against climate change, and review the emergency preparedness plans and collaborations between LTA, the public transport operators and other agencies during joint exercises".

Though they did not provide details such as who will head the committee, the two agencies said the committee will put up an "annual comprehensive review", to be submitted to the Transport Minister.

Mr Khaw told the forum that the committee stemmed from a suggestion made by former PUB chairman Tan Gee Paw, who said in an e-mail to PUB and LTA on Nov 12 that such a committee could meet every six months to "keep track of progress and take up new developments in tunnel flood prevention".

In the 1960s, Mr Tan - who was also selected by Mr Khaw two years ago as his rail transformation adviser - was instrumental in drawing up the Bukit Timah Flood Alleviation Scheme, which helped ease flooding in the rapidly developing Bukit Timah catchment area.

In his e-mail, Mr Tan noted: "In Taipei, where they have to deal with typhoons, their tunnel portals are protected with sluice gates to completely seal the tunnels against flooding, and of course all rail services are suspended during typhoons.

"We may never experience typhoons, but we will experience heavier rainfall periods, as the typhoon belt shifts southwards and we sit at the periphery of these typhoons."

Mr Tan suggested that Singapore could follow Taipei in building sluice gates for new tunnels, noting that retrofitting sluice gates on existing lines is "near impossible".

On Oct 7, flooding in the MRT tunnel between Bishan and Braddell stations disrupted service on the North-South Line for 20 hours, affecting about 231,000 commuters.

On Nov 27, SMRT said it had found 13 employees guilty of failing to maintain an anti-flooding system, which led to the Oct 7 flooding.

Some were found to have falsified maintenance records.

Eight were sacked, one was demoted, and disciplinary action was taken against another two. Two others quit shortly after the incident.

At the forum - organised by LTA and PUB as well as rail operators SMRT and SBS Transit - at the Environment Building in Scotts Road, Mr Khaw said: "The Oct 7 flooding incident will be remembered for a long time - it better be."

He added that the flooding incident was not a failure of engineering but of organisational management at SMRT.

However, Mr Khaw said he had "full confidence" in SMRT chairman Seah Moon Ming. Mr Seah announced yesterday that he was stepping down as chief executive of Temasek unit Pavilion Energy to focus on his SMRT role.

MRT tunnel flooding entirely preventable, says LTA report
By Zhaki Abdullah, The Straits Times, 6 Dec 2017

The flooding of the tunnel near Bishan MRT station on Oct 7 was "entirely preventable" had SMRT carried out proper maintenance, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) said yesterday when it unveiled the findings of its investigation.

Rail operator SMRT said it accepted full responsibility for the incident in which floodwaters reached up to a metre in depth in train tunnels and led to a section of the North-South Line being shut for 14½ hours.

The shutdown affected 231,000 commuters.

Independent laboratory tests by Singapore Test Services (STS) found that the individual components of the Bishan storm water pump system - part of a system to prevent tracks from flooding - were not defective. All five float switches and the pump motor control panel were working.

Three storm water sump pumps - each capable of removing 85 litres of water per second - at Bishan station were also found to be in working condition, as they could still be activated manually following the incident.

The LTA said that the flood protection measures were "more than adequate" to handle the Oct 7 rainfall.

"The storm water sump pit has a capacity of 5,044 cubic metres, which is much more than the estimated 640 cubic metres of rainfall that was cleared from the tunnels between Bishan and Braddell MRT stations," an LTA spokesman said, adding that the flood protection measures have a "huge buffer".

Further STS laboratory tests found three possible reasons the system failed to prevent the flooding.

One was that the lowest float switch, which would have activated the storm water sump pumps, could have been obstructed by accumulated silt and sludge in the pit.

Another was that floating debris in the pit could have impeded the normal functioning of the float switches - in particular, the highest float switch, which alerts the SMRT Operations Control Centre to high water levels.

A third possible reason was that an SMRT maintenance team - which repaired the pump system on July 13 after reports of frequent pump trips - could have left the pump controls in manual mode.

LTA said it could not say definitively which of the three reasons was behind the system's failure, and that any combination of these could have led to the flooding of the tunnel.

"Nonetheless, all three possible failure scenarios could only arise as a result of a lack of proper maintenance, audits and supervision," it added, noting that silt, sludge and debris had to be cleared from the pit after the incident.

LTA added that SMRT had also made "numerous engineering enhancements to improve the robustness and resilience of flood protection measures" at Bishan station and other tunnel portals to further reduce the risk of a recurrence.

These include replacing the pumps at Bishan station with more durable ones that can handle water with sediment, and installing an extra set of parallel float switches and a radar-based sensor system to monitor water levels.

A new pump control panel - accessible to maintenance staff even during passenger train services - has also been installed, said SMRT corporate communications vice-president Patrick Nathan.

He added that all non-serviceable pumps on the North-South and East-West lines had been replaced following checks, with float switches also replaced as a precaution.

While extra measures may help, improving the culture of maintenance is more important than adding "safeguard after safeguard", said Mr Chong Kee Sen, former president of the Institution of Engineers, Singapore.

He added that in any organisation, it is important for top management to engage with maintenance teams to boost their morale and ensure they understand the importance of their work.

******* Parliament: SMRT spent $2 million on repairs, replacements after Bishan flooding
The Straits Times, 10 Jan 2018

SMRT forked out about $2 million on repairs and replacements to rail equipment after a flooding incident last October near Bishan MRT station, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said yesterday.

The flooding had submerged trackside equipment and components installed on the undercarriage of a train that stalled in the tunnel between Bishan and Braddell stations, Mr Khaw told Workers' Party Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera in a written reply.

"The cost of repairs and replacements amounted to about $2 million. This was borne by SMRT," he said.

The unprecedented flooding on Oct 7 had disrupted services along a section of the North-South Line for about 20 hours, and affected 250,000 commuters.

Flood waters were up to 1m deep and spanned 100m of tracks in both directions.

It took an overnight effort involving teams from the Singapore Civil Defence Force, PUB, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) and SMRT to pump out the water.

In an investigation report released last year, the LTA said the incident was entirely preventable.

It noted that flood prevention measures were more than adequate and had a huge buffer, but a lack of maintenance, audits and managerial supervision led to the water pit being likely close to full when the downpour happened that day, making flooding inevitable.

SMRT later found that its staff had falsified maintenance records over a seven-month period, signing off on work that was not done.

In the aftermath, the rail operator took disciplinary action against the staff involved, including sacking eight employees and demoting one.

########  SMRT to face $1.9 million in fines for deaths of two trainees and flooding incident
LTA to penalise operator for fatal track accident in 2016 and last October's MRT tunnel flooding
By Zhaki Abdullah, The Straits Times, 21 Jul 2018

Train operator SMRT faces fines totalling $1.9 million for two incidents: An accident in March 2016 which resulted in the death of two SMRT trainees, and the flooding incident in October last year which disrupted train services for about 231,000 passengers.

In a statement yesterday, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) said that in the 2016 case, investigations found that the SMRT work team had not complied with operating procedures for track access during train service hours.

"These lapses were further compounded by inadequate supervision of MRT operations at the time of the accident," it said, adding that the operator had failed to take the necessary measures to ensure the safety and health of employees.

On March 22, 2016, two SMRT trainees were hit by a train while on the railway tracks investigating a possible signalling fault between Tampines and Pasir Ris stations.

SMRT will be fined $400,000 for this incident. The Manpower Ministry also fined the rail operator the same amount in February last year over the incident.

In the case of last October's flooding incident, LTA's investigations found SMRT fully responsible, as the flooding would have been prevented if the Bishan storm water sump pit and its pumping system had been maintained properly.

The authority said it intended to issue a fine of $1.5 million to SMRT for the incident under the Rapid Transit Systems Act. It considered "all facts and the severity of the incidents" in assessing the penalty amount for each of the two incidents.

"LTA will also consider any other mitigating facts which the operator may raise as part of the due process for the imposition of the financial penalties," it said, adding that the fines collected will go to the Public Transport Fund to help needy families with transport fares.

LTA added that last November's collision between two trains at Joo Koon station was due to a problem with the signalling system, and was not caused by SMRT's actions. In response to queries, LTA said it reserved the right to seek compensation for the incident from supplier Thales after the upgrading of the signalling system on the East-West and North-South lines is completed.

This is not the first time the operator has been fined by the regulator. In 2015, it was fined a record $5.4 million for a breakdown that crippled the North-South and East-West lines in the evening peak period.

Mr Yee Chia Hsing, who sits on the Government Parliamentary Committee for Transport, said: "Such incidents should never have happened, and we owe it to our rail maintenance crew (to make sure) that they are able to do their job without compromising their safety." The Chua Chu Kang GRC MP added that he hoped "whatever lessons SMRT needed to learn have been learnt".

In a statement, SMRT chairman Seah Moon Ming apologised, and said the firm is "committed to doing all we can to prevent future incidents from happening".

He noted that the rail operator has implemented various measures to strengthen its systems and processes since the two incidents.

"SMRT has also been working closely with LTA to improve the reliability, maintainability and safety of our MRT network, as well as to enhance network resilience and robustness," he said, adding that trains have been running more smoothly in recent months.

Mr Seah said SMRT is fully committed to providing "safe, secure and reliable" services to commuters.

Additional reporting by Christopher Tan

Preliminary Investigations into Train Service Disruption on North – South Line -8 Oct 2017
Update on LTA Investigations into the North-South Line Service Disruption on 7 and 8 October 2017
SMRT pledges swift actions to prevent recurrence of flooding incident in tunnel -16 Oct 2017
SMRT: Maintenance of Bishan Water Discharge System -31 Oct 2017
SMRT: Update on Maintenance of the Bishan Water Discharge System -6 Nov 2017
SMRT Update on 7 October Flooding Incident -27 Nov 2017

MRT collision: Signal fault to blame as trains collide at Joo Koon Station on 15 Nov 2017

LTA Investigation Findings on Flooding of MRT Tunnels Between Bishan and Braddell Stations from 7 – 8 October 2017 -5 Dec 2017
Written Reply by Minister for Transport Khaw Boon Wan to Parliamentary Question on Damage to Equipment or Facilities Caused by Bishan-Braddell MRT Tunnel Flooding Incident -9 Jan 2018

Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan's ministerial statement in Parliament on 7 November 2017

Financial Penalties Imposed on SMRT for Two Rail Incidents -20 Jul 2018

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