Wednesday, 8 November 2017

MRT tunnel flooding incident: Khaw Boon Wan's ministerial statement in Parliament on 7 November 2017

Transport Minister Khaw outlines plans to prevent flooding of MRT tunnels again
Pump system being improved, pay of top staff to be reviewed and Taipei experts to conduct audit
By Christopher Tan, Senior Transport Correspondent, The Straits Times, 8 Nov 2017

The design of the Bishan water pump system is being improved, the pay of top management will be reviewed and experts have been roped in from Taipei Metro as part of efforts to prevent the Oct 7 MRT tunnel flooding and similar incidents from happening again.

Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan yesterday took Parliament through the events of Oct 7, which he described repeatedly as "sad" and "embarrassing".

In a two-hour debate, during which SMRT chief executive Desmond Kuek and several of his senior colleagues sat grimly in the Parliament gallery, Mr Khaw also outlined an action plan to prevent a recurrence of the flooding.

First, all float switches controlling pumps in the storm water sump pit have been replaced with heavier-duty models which can handle "water with more sediments".

Parallel float switches have also been installed so that no one switch determines the activation of the pumps. On Oct 7, a malfunctioning override switch prevented all three pumps from kicking in.

A new radar sensor system has been added to independently monitor water levels in the sump pit.

These measures came in response to the tunnel flooding which shut down a large stretch of the North-South Line for about 20 hours and affected 250,000 commuters on Oct 7 and 8.

Next, Mr Khaw revealed the SMRT board will "review the remuneration of its senior management, from the CEO through the relevant chain of command". "This is as it should be," he said, adding that new SMRT chairman Seah Moon Ming - whom Mr Khaw recommended for the post - told him of the board's intent.

"It is the responsibility of management to set the right culture of professionalism and excellence. It begins from the top. And if there is poor culture, the CEO is responsible," he said, in an oblique reference to Mr Kuek's statement that there were "deep-seated cultural issues" within his company.

SMRT vice-president Ng Tek Poo, who was in charge of the team responsible for upkeeping the anti-flood system, has been suspended.

Six other managers were also suspended in relation to the maintenance lapses in the network's anti-flood system. They included another vice-president who was Mr Ng's predecessor, a chief engineer and a deputy director.

SMRT has also roped in experts from Taipei Metro to conduct an "independent review of its operations, to flush out any gaps, and recommend improvements in the areas of system management, engineering and maintenance".

Mr Khaw revealed that ST Kinetics chief technology officer Richard Kwok will head SMRT's audit team from Dec 18. Mr Kwok's team will report to the SMRT board, and he will also lead a Joint Readiness Inspection team which will report to the Land Transport Authority (LTA) and SMRT "joint board technical committee".

"The tighter audit system will help to identify any deficiencies so that they can be addressed early before faults occur," Mr Khaw said.

Fifteen MPs questioned Mr Khaw after his statement, seeking more clarity on issues ranging from audits on SMRT to its culture.

In response to a question filed by Chua Chu Kang GRC MP Zaqy Mohamad, Mr Khaw said the incident did not merit a public inquiry.

"While investigations by LTA will take a few more weeks to complete, the facts of the Oct 7 incident are not complicated, and the cause of the incident is clear," Mr Khaw said. "My ministry will therefore not be convening a committee of inquiry."

Faulty pumps detected near Kembangan, Lavender stations
SMRT investigating the teams responsible for their maintenance, says minister
By Adrian Lim, Transport Correspondent, The Straits Times, 8 Nov 2017

Faulty water discharge pumps were found at two other locations in SMRT's rail network, after such malfunctioning pumps in Bishan caused flooding in an MRT tunnel.

These were uncovered by checks SMRT did after the flooding, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan told Parliament yesterday.

The faulty pumps were at the tunnel portals near the Kembangan and Lavender stations.

At Kembangan, two out of eight pumps were not functioning properly, while at Lavender, it was three out of four pumps.

But the remaining pumps at two other tunnel portals near Redhill and Changi were in serviceable condition, Mr Khaw added in his ministerial statement on the Oct 7 incident in Bishan. These pumps discharge rainwater collected at storm water sump pits into drains.

The failure of SMRT staff to maintain them at Bishan caused flooding in an MRT tunnel on Oct 7, rendering train services inoperable for about 20 hours along a stretch of the North-South Line.

Mr Khaw said SMRT is currently investigating the relevant teams from the building and facilities group responsible for the pumps at Kembangan and Lavender. Meanwhile, it has replaced or repaired all the non-serviceable pumps, as well as changed the float switches that activate the pumps.

Fifteen MPs on both sides of the House sought clarifications from Mr Khaw on a range of issues, from SMRT's culture to the amnesty it offered its workers last week.

Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) asked how SMRT could instil pride in its workers, and pointed out that their morale could be affected.

To this, Mr Khaw urged MPs to explain to their residents the challenges of upgrading the rail lines, and tell them that improvements are around the corner.

Non-Constituency MP Dennis Tan asked Mr Khaw if he would consider the lack of checks on the pump system a "grave oversight".

Mr Tan said the incident showed the "smallest of components" can cause a disruption", and called for audits by the Land Transport Authority and SMRT to be "very thorough" going forward.

In reply, Mr Khaw said the rail system comprises many components, and priorities had to be set. While focus had been on "big-ticket items" which can cause severe problems, the authorities were going to eventually tackle the "small things".

He also said in his speech that the anti-flooding systems are considered "much less risky" compared with other core railway systems such as signalling, because "the constructs are simpler, easier to maintain and have ample engineering buffers".

"Unfortunately, small things cropped up in our face and we got egg on our face. But we will fix it," Mr Khaw said.

SMRT's role is to help the government earn money - Low Thia Khiang

Minister Khaw, Low Thia Khiang spar over root of SMRT’s maintenance woes
TODAY, 7 Nov 2017

Pushing back against Workers’ Party (WP) chief Low Thia Khiang’s assertion that the profit motive was at the heart of SMRT’s maintenance woes, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said the rail operator was corporatised so that it could operate with financial discipline and provide a public service efficiently.

“There are easier ways to make money,” the minister told Parliament on Tuesday (Nov 07), in response to a comment from the veteran Opposition Member of Parliament (MP).

Mr Khaw had earlier delivered a Ministerial Statement on the Oct 7 tunnel flooding incident that shut down a segment of the North-South Line for about 20 hours.

He also took questions from the MPs, several whom asked about the work culture at SMRT after it emerged that several staff had falsified maintenance records for the flood pump system at the Bishan MRT station between last December and June this year.

Mr Low, speaking at the end of the question-and-answer session, said he was of the view that SMRT’s quest for profits was at the heart of the problem.

He added: “The mission of the SMRT is to make money for the Government. I’m of the opinion that at the core of the multiple problems (with the) train services ... is money.

“The Government wants its cake and eat it, expecting a profit from the train operator and at same time, efficiency and tip top maintenance work.”

Mr Khaw said he disagreed with the premise of Mr Low’s comments. Comparing SMRT to the restructured public hospitals here, the minister said it was better for these outfits to be run with the sort of efficiency and financial discipline seen in the private sector than for the Government to take them over.

He added: “The (SMRT) leadership must know that this is an engineering outfit. Making money is not your objective but you must not lose money. There must be financial discipline.

“You cannot anyhow spend money to buy this, buy that, gold-plate everything.”

And in an indirect reference to the long-running saga over the financial management lapses at WP’s town councils, the minister pointed out that Mr Low must know the importance of balancing the books and good governance.

Mr Low and two other WP leaders, Ms Sylvia Lim and Mr Pritam Singh, are facing two law suits from the Pasir Ris-Punggol Town Council and the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council over alleged improper payments flagged by their auditor KPMG in October last year.

The trio have denied the allegations.

Wrapping up the discussion on SMRT and the Oct 7 incident, which lasted about two hours in Parliament, Mr Khaw said it had been a difficult time but noted that the sacrifices would be worth the while.

He added: “If we can fix this, turn things around, it would be a public service that would benefit 3.5 million people who make use of our systems everyday. We know the responsibility on our shoulders. What we are asking of commuters is to please bear with us, because a 30-year train system is a very challenging one.”

Right culture starts from top, says Khaw Boon Wan
By Christopher Tan, Senior Transport Correspondent, The Straits Times, 8 Nov 2017

Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan says a positive corporate culture starts from the top, putting paid to SMRT chief executive Desmond Kuek's refrain about some workers in his company.

Citing Mr Kuek's remarks at a media conference on "deep-seated cultural issues within SMRT, Mr Khaw said yesterday: "Let me stress that growing the right culture is the responsibility of everyone - from the top leadership down to the workers."

Interspersing his words with frequent glances up at the Parliament gallery, where Mr Kuek and other top SMRT and Land Transport Authority honchos were seated, he added: "I will look to the SMRT management to set the right tone of professionalism and excellence, to complement the audit systems that are being put in place. This is the Singapore way."

He went on: "When we speak of 'culture', we mean the culture of the whole organisation - the values and practices of management, as much as the values and practices of the workers."

More than once, Mr Khaw said he was confident new SMRT chairman Seah Moon Ming will transform the group's culture and turn it around. "He has turned around organisations before... but he needs some time," Mr Khaw said, as the camera panned to Mr Seah nodding in agreement.

Mr Seah, who joined SMRT in July, is chief executive of Pavilion Energy, the Temasek Holdings-backed parent of Pavilion Gas. He replaced Mr Koh Yong Guan, who was SMRT chairman from 2009.

Mr Khaw also revealed that the SMRT board will "review the remuneration of its senior management, from the CEO through the relevant chain of command".

SMRT had cut Mr Kuek's salary in its 2016 financial year, its last annual report showed. The transport operator was subsequently privatised and delisted.

Mr Kuek, 53, had received a total remuneration of $1.87 million for the 2016 financial year - down from $2.31 million the year before.



Khaw provides details of errant maintenance team
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 8 Nov 2017

The six SMRT staff who may have falsified maintenance records for the anti-flood system at Bishan have been with the company for as long as 28 years to just over a year.

In Parliament yesterday, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan gave more details on the errant employees whom he held responsible for the flooded MRT tunnels on Oct 7 that affected 250,000 commuters.

The six members of the team comprise a manager, an engineering supervisor and four crew members.

Three have been with SMRT for more than 20 years, including one for over 28 years. One has been with SMRT for a little over a year, and the remaining two for six and eight years.

Four are Singaporeans and two are foreigners, and "all the racial grounds are represented among the six", Mr Khaw later told MPs.

He had stern words for them: "This is not Singaporean culture. We are known positively everywhere we go... there is a certain trademark to Singaporeans. We are honest, we deliver what you promise. And yet to have a bunch of people seemingly doing very funny things, it is very odd."

The engineering supervisor and four crew members were directly responsible for maintaining the pumps and other facilities in 15 stations from Sembawang to Dhoby Ghaut, while the manager was in charge of supervising and ensuring the work was done.

They had submitted maintenance records on three occasions from last December to June, but investigations found they were not granted track access on the stated dates and the pumps were not activated. All six are suspended and helping with investigations.

Mr Khaw gave details of six other managerial staff who were suspended along with vice-president of maintenance Ng Tek Poo, who was in charge of maintenance and systems. They comprise his predecessor Tay Tien Seng, a vice-president who oversaw the unit in charge of maintaining the pump systems before May; a chief engineer; a deputy director; and three managers.

The "amnesty" exercise ended last Friday, and those who came forward were from SMRT's building and facilities department. They oversee areas such as MRT tunnel ventilation as well as flood and fire protection measures at stations.

SMRT did not find any evidence of falsification or wilful dereliction of duties in the departments responsible for train maintenance, signalling and communications, tracks and track-side equipment.

A massive internal audit is now being held in SMRT to unearth other instances of breaches.

While faulting that team for the flooding on Oct 7, Mr Khaw also had praise for some SMRT staff who "did the right thing and handled a difficult situation well". He said train captain Choo Ah Heng was alert and reported the flooding that day. SMRT chief controller Tan Kwong Chye opted to detrain commuters and cut off traction power to the affected tracks soon after the first reports of flooding, while train service controller Tan Ming Hui "single-handedly managed" that incident and another at Marina South Pier.

Risk of major disruptions 'till ageing rail systems are replaced'
Khaw says projects to replace old components on N-S and E-W lines are at the halfway mark
By Adrian Lim, Transport Correspondent, The Straits Times, 8 Nov 2017

Until all its key ageing systems are replaced or renewed, the North-South and East-West lines (NSEWL) remain at risk of major disruptions, even with diligent maintenance, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said yesterday.

He told Parliament that projects to replace the ageing components on the 30-year-old NSEWL have reached about their halfway mark, and are targeted to be finished in 2024.

But he has asked the Land Transport Authority (LTA) to work with SMRT to see how to "squeeze out more engineering hours" and "speed up" renewal of the assets.

He drew an analogy between his heart operation seven years ago and the upgrading of the rail assets, saying his cardiologist had advised him to bite the bullet and fix his heart problem with a bypass, or risk falling dead.

To date, components such as track sleepers and the power-supplying third rail have been upgraded, while the ongoing overhaul and testing of the signalling system is targeted to be finished by the end of next year.

There are also plans to renew the power supply system and track circuits, and to replace old first-generation trains.

"When these asset renewal works are progressively completed, and as new rail lines open, they will translate into significant improvements in the resilience of our rail network and commuter experience," Mr Khaw said.

He said a target set for 2020 to have MRT trains travel an average of one million kilometres before encountering a delay of longer than five minutes is achievable.

The mean kilometres between failure (MKBF) this year is 425,000 train-km, an improvement from the 133,000 train-km in 2015.

Mr Khaw acknowledged that commuters may not be able to relate to this as the MKBF improvements did not always bear out in their actual real-life experiences.

This is because of teething issues with signalling system testing on the North-South Line, which have caused several disruptions, he said.

But he added that a corner has been turned, and the system is stabilising.

He urged MPs to help explain the difficulty of the re-signalling tests to residents and to influence their feedback.

He added that he would similarly need the support of MPs whose residents live near the East-West Line when testing for its signalling system starts.

To give rail engineers more time to do the upgrades, said Mr Khaw, train operating hours on the NSEWL will likely be shortened, including on weekdays.

SMRT had previously ended train services earlier at selected stations on the NSEWL, over stretches in 2014 and 2015, to facilitate the replacement of sleepers.

"Line closures will, of course, inconvenience commuters. I seek commuters' understanding and patience should we decide to do so. We are likely to do so," he said.

Debris caused short circuit, resulting in electrical arcing
The Straits Times, 8 Nov 2017

The SMRT train captain who reported tunnel flooding near Bishan station on Oct 7 also spotted electrical arcing further down the city-bound stretch of the North-South Line.

Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said yesterday that train captain Choo Ah Heng spotted the arcing along the tracks between Raffles Place and Marina Bay stations.

This concurrent incident, while unrelated to the flooding, also disrupted train services in both directions between Marina South Pier and Newton MRT stations from about 5.50pm.

Mr Khaw said electrical arcing occurred because accumulated debris caused a short circuit between an electrified baseplate and a bolt left in the ground after renewal works back in 2003.

The bolt should have been removed, but was not, he noted.

The short circuit generated sparks and high heat, causing the debris to smoulder. The debris quickly burned out and the sparks dissipated before the Singapore Civil Defence Force arrived.

But train services along the stretch resumed only at 9.22pm after SMRT completed the necessary safety checks, Mr Khaw said.

No lapses by LTA, Transport Ministry staff: Khaw Boon Wan
The Straits Times, 7 Nov 2017

There is no evidence of shortcomings or lapses in regulatory oversight by the Ministry of Transport (MOT) and Land Transport Authority (LTA) in the MRT flooding incident, said Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan.

He said this in a written reply to a question from Workers' Party Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera. He had asked if compensation paid to senior staff in MOT and LTA, tasked with oversight of SMRT, would be affected.

He added the tunnel's anti-flooding pumps are not high-risk components, when compared to core railway systems, but the regulator still highlighted the need for regular, diligent maintenance.

Mr Khaw said LTA had also asked the operator to provide the regulator a list of pumps that needed to be replaced.

He said the flooding occurred before the remedial action was taken, adding: "There is no evidence of shortcomings or lapses in regulatory oversight by LTA or MOT staff."

Mysteries remain amid the soul-searching on SMRT operations
By Christopher Tan, Senior Transport Correspondent, The Straits Times, 8 Nov 2017

Thirty years ago to the day - Nov 7, 1987 - Singapore's MRT system started operations, making the Republic the first South-east Asian country to have a metro. But the mood in Parliament yesterday was far from celebratory, dampened as it were by an unprecedented tunnel flooding at Bishan station which crippled a large part of the North-South Line on Oct 7 and 8.

A good half of the sitting was devoted to soul-searching on why SMRT - Singapore's dominant rail operator - has not been getting things right in recent years.

On top of answering piercing questions ranging from worker morale to human resource management to SMRT's now infamous "deep-seated cultural issues", Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan delivered a 39-paragraph ministerial statement which focused on what caused the tunnel flooding and what actions have been taken since.

Mr Khaw said there was no need for a formal public inquiry, as the cause of the flooding - which he described repeatedly as "sad" and "embarrassing" - was clearly attributable to maintenance lapses on the part of SMRT.

It was not because of any inadequacy in the design of flood protection measures, he said.

Yet, he revealed that the sump pit pumps at Bishan station have now been upgraded to models which can handle silt and sludge better. And as importantly, the pumps will now be controlled by parallel float switches for better system redundancy. This was to overcome the current weakness in the system, where a switch to protect the pumps from operating at low water levels overrode the other float switches.

Even though each of the three pumps had its own float switch, this fourth switch detects low water levels to prevent the pumps from overheating when there is little or no water in the reservoir.

This override switch was the one found to have failed on Oct 7, preventing the others from activating the pumps.

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

Why the override switch failed is still a mystery. In fact, Mr Khaw said all the pumps and float switches at Bishan were also found to be in working order after the incident. He said it will take the Land Transport Authority a few more weeks to finish its investigations.

Nevertheless, putting in place a more resilient system is clearly the right thing to do. Such a system, of course, does not absolve an operator from maintenance responsibilities. But it will be more forgiving to lapses than the previous design.

Other mysteries remain. For instance, SMRT said on Monday that even though the maintenance log may have been falsified between December 2016 and June 2017, the pump system was in fact last serviced on July 13 this year.

If true, this would have put the system well within the prescribed quarterly maintenance regimen.

Yet, the system failed on Oct 7, less than three months later.

Another puzzle is why the maintenance team wilfully falsified the maintenance log - not once, but on three consecutive occasions - and how it was able to get away with it.

This shocking revelation - made public by SMRT last week - came just a year after a whole series of standard operating procedure breaches led to two trainee technicians being mowed down by a train near Pasir Ris station.

These puzzles will no doubt be solved as investigations by the LTA and SMRT unfold.

Mr Khaw, meanwhile, said there was no need for a committee of inquiry (COI). Just as well, seeing how lapses continued to surface even after the last inquiry in 2012.

Instead, steps have been taken to review and audit SMRT's work processes. A team of experts from Taipei Metro will conduct "a thorough and independent review" of SMRT's operations. The bonuses of senior supervisors will be tied to the performance of their teams.

LTA and SMRT will form a Joint Readiness Inspection team to supplement SMRT's own internal audit system, which will be headed by ST Kinetics' chief technology officer Richard Kwok. These steps would probably be what a COI would recommend, anyway.

But Nee Soon GRC MP Lee Bee Wah pointed out that if workers lacked pride in what they did, no amount of audit can prevent lapses.

Mr Khaw concurred, adding that it is thus important for SMRT to "create the right organisational culture of professionalism, excellence and discipline". As recent events have demonstrated, that is far easier said than done.

SMRT chief Desmond Kuek rallies staff to emerge 'stronger and better'
He urges them to learn from tunnel flooding incident and commit to culture of excellence
By Adrian Lim, Transport Correspondent, The Straits Times, 9 Nov 2017

SMRT group chief executive Desmond Kuek, in an e-mail to staff yesterday, rallied them to take the lessons from the recent tunnel flooding incident seriously, and to emerge "stronger and better".

"This will be a crucial new beginning for SMRT if we commit ourselves to a culture of discipline and excellence in providing safe, reliable, commuter-focused public transport services that Singaporeans can be proud of," he wrote in the circular titled Resolve To Do What's Right.

The e-mail came a day after the rail operator's work culture and maintenance standards were called into question in a two-hour Parliament session to address last month's MRT tunnel flooding. Mr Kuek, SMRT chairman Seah Moon Ming and SMRT Trains chief executive Lee Ling Wee attended the session.

In the e-mail, which The Straits Times obtained a copy of, Mr Kuek said that Tuesday - which marked the 30th year of MRT operations - should have been a celebration.

"Instead, we were awash in collective shame because a few of our staff had let us down," he said, alluding to the six employees who failed to maintain flood-prevention measures at Bishan. Mr Kuek said supervisors "assumed that nothing would go wrong just because it hadn't gone wrong before".

The lapse caused a storm water pit to overflow on Oct 7, flooding the tunnel and rendering train services on a stretch of the North-South Line inoperable for about 20 hours until the next day.

Without the values of integrity, ownership and responsibility, wrote Mr Kuek, things can go horribly wrong. "We have not lost if we learn," he added. "It is not the mistake that defines a person or an organisation, but how we learn from it, rising to be stronger and better."

He urged staff to resolve to do better in their work habits, attitudes and behaviour, and called on them to step forward to address mistakes.

"When you see or sense a wrongdoing, make it your duty to step forward to correct or report it. Encourage open communication with your fellow workers. Every day, we uphold trust and open reporting without fear of reprisal from our superiors ," he added.

Noting that the company was only as strong as its weakest link, he said: "On this 30th anniversary, let us all, each and every one of us, resolve to do what is right, wherever we are and whatever we are entrusted to do. Take responsibility, walk the talk, own the outcome."

Political observer Eugene Tan said Mr Kuek's message was "timely and needed", given that morale at SMRT is likely to be at an all-time low, after the public outcry and criticism.

"The management led by Mr Kuek will have to walk the talk even more as they deal with the systemic and structural issues accumulated over the years," said the Singapore Management University law don.

Yesterday afternoon, Mr Seah met SMRT Trains staff during an unscheduled visit to Ang Mo Kio station. Sharing this on its Facebook page, SMRT said Mr Seah intends to meet staff regularly and would like senior management to do likewise.

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

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