August 2015

Express your views regarding recent train disruptions and your suggestions with handling of this issue.

1st Place - Joshua Matthew Goh

Train disruptions are nothing new, they occur almost everywhere else in the world given that any system especially a railway with its immense complexity is bound to have various issues during the course of its use. However what might seem occasional or regular in countries such as London with its near-ancient Tube-system would make headlines here in Singapore. In drastic cases such as in 2011, a Committee of Inquiry had to be called by the Government to investigate what was then the worse MRT disruptions Singapore had seen. 4 years on, it seems that some lessons have not been learnt by SMRT. Granted they are not the only train operator with disruption issues in Singapore, SBS Transit, being the operator of the North-East Line (NEL) has also had its fair share of train disruptions but not on the scale of the recent SMRT disruptions. However with SMRT in charge of operations on Singapore’s two oldest lines, there is a greater need for SMRT to ensure its plans for handling and preventing such disruptions are top-notch given the potential for grave inconveniences as both the East-West and North-South Lines carry the bulk of Singapore’s commuters and the inevitable need to maintain a system that has remained in operation since the late 1980s.

 

But why are disruptions also unforgivable in Singapore? Aside from the fact that train disruptions in also any case would be taken as a severe wrong done against commuters, the MRT plays a national role in Singapore’s transport system, this is not Manhattan’s Subway train or Japan’s Shinkansen network, this is a combination of both, having the former’s accessibility and the latter’s reputation for reliability, at least until recent years.

 

MRT disruptions are a national issue in Singapore for 3 reasons,

 

(1) A National Issue: The country is severely dependent on them, only the MRT has the capacity to transport large numbers of commuters from the various HDB towns in Singapore to the Central Business District where many work or the various industrial areas. This has been compounded by the fact that SBS Transit has discussed doing away with for long-haul bus services given that the MRT is a more efficient option.

 

(2) Past Glories: Our record has been incredibly stellar until recently, the Singapore MRT system was once the Republic’s pride given its reliability and efficiency, therefore in the aftermath of the 2011 Disruptions, attempts by some to justify the disruptions as inevitable given the age of the system as seen in London’s Tube simply did not fly with various netizens who pointed out the continued reliability of Japan and Hong Kong’s rail networks with both networks just as old as Singapore’s.

 

(3) A sensitive political topic: MRT disruptions have the capacity to become a political issue, increasingly we have seen a greater propensity by online users to gauge government competence in light of MRT disruptions. Thus the occurrence and frequency of such disruptions has become the barometer for government performance in certain areas. This is despite the fact that SMRT is a publicly listed company, not a statutory board. The only official government control exercised over it is the regulatory authority wielded by the Land Transport Authority, nonetheless incidents such as the appointment of former Chief of Defence Force Desmond Kuek as SMRT’s CEO continue to give the impression to many that the relationship between the government and SMRT is closer than what it seems. Thus against the backdrop of recent MRT disruptions, it is in the government’s interest to indicate clearly the separation of responsibility over such disruptions and to ensure that SMRT undertakes its best efforts to prevent and handle such disruptions. These are the reasons why MRT disruptions make the headlines in Singapore and why is it imperative that such disruptions be prevented and if that is not possible, be handled in the more effective manner possible.

 

Regarding the actual management of the disruptions, we must understand the constraints of SMRT, the delay in activating buses to ferry stranded passengers is simply unavoidable, SMRT does not have and should not have legions of bus drivers on standby to activate for such emergencies given the prohibitive costs and waste of manpower, costs which would be passed down the commuters eventually. It takes time to assemble both the drivers and buses for emergency responses and this must be factored in. In light of this, SMRT cannot be faulted for having ineffective response measures; they are already making the best of a poor situation. The capacity of a 6 carriage MRT train is nearly 2000 while a double-decker bus at most can accommodate 70 people. This and the large crowds from the rush hour contribute to the complicated mathematics that SMRT has to contend with.

 

Therefore we need to look to other areas in analyzing SMRT’s response in handling past disruptions and its preparation for future ones? There are two main areas that could improve the handling of future MRT disruptions.

 

(1) Preventive Maintenance: It was clear on the evening of 7th July 2015 that this had not been fully achieved. Stories have circulated online that SMRT’s experienced engineers had resigned under the previous management due to various differences. These resignations had occurred before the 2011 MRT Disruptions, leading some to speculate that this was a factor in those disruptions. This is not without basis, complex engineering systems such as our MRT require a strict maintenance regime. This is because the MRT is expected to work at a set period, everyday, continuously. Therefore the tracks, the signaling equipment, power lines and carriages all need to work seamlessly together. If one component fails, the entire system goes down and as we saw in 2011 and 2015, this leads to problems that seem also laughable when one considers that maintenance could have prevented it. Power cables that short-circuited due to the accumulation of salt and poor wire insulators, such problems do not seem new and a strict maintenance regime probably would have picked it up. SMRT needs to ensure its maintenance regimes are up to speed, any aging system is expected to have breakdowns and faults but that is no excuse for SMRT to shy away from ramping up maintenance checks, especially at a time when it is needed most.

 

(2) Greater transparency by SMRT and greater PR management. There is no doubt that SMRT has the capability to reach out to the public to send out various messages. They arguably have invested much in public awareness campaigns regarding the replacement of rail sleepers on the North-South and East-West Lines, even sending a letter to my household to warn us of potential sleepless nights caused by upcoming sleeper replacement works, a touching but perplexing gesture given that my house is at least a good 20 minutes away from the nearest East-West Line station.

 

However their PR efforts when dealing with train disruptions have not been as thorough. When the latest disruption broke on 7th July 2015, social media was once again filled with posts regarding the SMRT staff’s confusion and delay in responding to commuters, and the large panels that displayed the intensity of rail traffic remained unchanged, displaying a “:)” indicating all was well when in fact the entire North-South and East-West Lines were down. Though SMRT did take to social media to announce the delays, there was still a delay in communicating this to passengers and many were still stuck in stationary or barely moving trains. Here time and transparency were of the essence, SMRT’s priority when the breakdown hit was not to rectify the fault, it was rather to ensure passengers did not remain stuck in the trains. To a large extent this seemed to have been achieved though there was a slight delay. What was more disturbing was that a report emerged on The Online Citizen a few days later alleging that there was yet another MRT disruption but SMRT did not communicate this to commuters via social media. It is unclear if there was actually a delay but this episode does illustrate the need for SMRT to increase their PR capabilities, a delay, no matter how small, will be noticed by someone and it will eventually get out on social media, SMRT then will have to play the reaction game, having lost the opportunity to come out strong, acknowledging a fault and providing its solutions.

 

This is the problem that has remained unsolved so far during train disruptions since 2011, it shows that SMRT, for all the various emergency procedure that it has, it has still fallen behind in seizing the initiative during such disruptions. This has led to confusion on the ground and the various delays only contribute to the commuter’s bad experiences. Singaporeans have somewhat already resigned themselves to such disruptions, but that is no excuse for SMRT to relinquish control of the situation to the various stranded passengers, it has to communicate effectively and immediately, the outbreak of a disruption and ensure every commuter who is or will be affected is notified. In doing so, not only does it allow SMRT to come across as an organisation that is making the best of a bad situation, it allows commuters to develop greater confidence in a rail system that though having hiccups at the moment, has the potential to regain its former glory.

2nd Place - Jasmine Tan

The recent train disruption was an impactful experience for me and it illustrated how reliant the citizens are on our MRT transport system. With almost 3 million ridership daily, it serves majority of the residents in Singapore to and fro work and school. With such a large ridership, a breakdown is naturally accompanied with widespread consequences. All the more, this shows the importance of having a well working rail network and the need for proper handling should there be a breakdown.

I feel that the train disruption happened at a very bad timing since it was the peak hour when working adults and students are making their way back. Train stations and bus stops were packed with throngs of confused, upset or possibly frustrated passengers. In addition, the disruption was of a massive scale, with 2 entire lines down which affected passengers in many areas.

 

The huge peak hour crowd coupled with breakdown over a huge area proved to be too difficult to manage. This was confirmed by SMRT’s managing director, Mr Lee Ling Wee, who admitted that SMRT was unable to cope with this massive train disruption, despite deploying 700 staff that night and mobilising whatever assets they could (Channel Newsasia, 2015). This highlighted a need for a better crisis management plan on SMRT’s end to cope with breakdowns of any scale.

 

On the other spectrum, this incident uncovered acts of good Samaritans who offered free rides to affected passengers who needed it at bus stops since the buses were full. One of the Macdonald’s outlet offered free drinks to stranded commuters as well. There may be other kind acts that were not being published, but it is heart-warming to see people care for one another in times of crisis.

 

A bus stop near to Bishan mrt was providing free bus services however; there was a lack of control and directing done by the SMRT staff. Buses were lined up but passengers did not know which bus to take to get back home. Some passengers were asking bus by bus to check and find one that match with where they were heading towards.

I would suggest an introduction of systematic procedures to deal with train breakdowns at each station. They had staff stationed at the gantry to inform passengers where to take the free bus services. However, it was unclear which public buses passengers should board to get to their area destination.

 

To deal with the clear lack of instructions and noticeboards, the company could station more staff or signboards at bus stops to inform passengers on about available buses to get to a particular area. This would increase the rate of easing better help to ease the crowd.

 

On the other hand, there are passengers who were aware which buses to take home. However, due to a large scale breakdown, the public buses that came from earlier affected areas were packed like sardines and nobody could board at the later bus stops. Some passengers waited for 3 hours but could not even get up any of the public buses since they were packed with passengers from the earlier stops. In a breakdown like this, some would expect buses’ frequencies to increase so that more passengers could be accommodated. However, that was not the case as the public buses were still arriving at a moderate frequency of 15-20 minutes.

 

I believe SMRT should call on private bus operators on top of the public buses near the affected train areas. According to the LTA chief, the authority was planning to call on the private bus operators as a backup, but the why they did not implement it was questionable (Channel Newsasia, 2015). If private buses were implemented, it could actually help to ease the huge amount of stranded commuters better due to the insufficient public buses to cater to them.

 

Furthermore, the north – south and east-west lines were the first major lines to be built. They are towards the end of their life span, which means that the rail network should be renewed in phases which I believe SMRT am working on to minimise the defect rates. As cliché as it gets, ‘Prevention is better than cure’, thus the rail network renewal has to be accompanied by regular maintenance and improvements to prevent any breakdown in the first place.

 

With regards to the lacking areas, SMRT could better handle the situation with a better crisis management plan. The crisis management team could brainstorm on consider the different scale of breakdown that would occur and the action that should be triggered immediately in the event a massive breakdown like this happens again.

Preventing breakdowns from occurring in the first place would be the best method, but in the case of a breakdown, a proper crisis plan with effective actions implemented could help SMRT tremendously in handling commuters both effectively and efficiently.

 

Source:

SMRT unable to handle ‘unprecedented’ MRT disruption on its own. (2015, August 22). Retrieved August 29, 2015.

3rd Place - Ong Qi Zhen Jodi

Transport has always been a perennial issue in Singapore. As a small city state, the cost of owning a car and what more maintaining its upkeep with road taxes, ERP and petrol, is quite a huge expense. Thus, many Singaporeans have to use the public transport instead. Given how the Government encourages the use of public transport by promoting its efficiency and convenience, it fuels our high expectations of the transport service. Thus, it was no surprise to me that many people were upset when the major train disruptions occurred.

 

Train disruptions do occur from time to time but the reason why it has been in the spotlight more recently, could be attributed to train disruptions in 2011. That was the year when 2 severe breakdowns in a span of a mere 3 days caused public outrage and a setting up of a Committee of Inquiry. Recently, on 7 July 2015, the entire east-west line and north-south line had massive service disruptions that caused trains to be closed for about 3 hours. It was an incident that left a deep impression on me as my usual commuting line was the east west line and it rarely had problems. Fortunately, I was not caught in the mess and have not been affected by any train disruptions so far. Thus, my views might not be of a fair judgement.

 

However, I feel that there have been improvements in how the train company is handling the situation. In 2011, there were hardly enough buses to go around and fetch affected commuters to the next station. Staff also seemed unprepared and overwhelmed by the sudden surge in stranded crowds. But in the recent train disruption in 2015, more signs seemed to be available and staff were at hand to manage the incoming crowd. Also, commuters seem to be mentally more prepared for such incidents and even though frustrated, news reports showed that many also stood up to help each other and manage the situation. It is heart-warming to read such reports even though one wonders about the selective angle that the newspapers choose to report about. Even so, I still feel that the

 

Singapore society as a whole is becoming more embracing and patient.

In terms of suggestions to improve this issues, I would like to suggest building more lines, such as the London Underground system. With multiple lines intersecting at different points, certain stretches can be closed off for maintenance but yet not affect transport to a large extent as commuters can take another route using the other lines. Singapore’s transport system is definitely much more reliable and effective than many countries. However, it still needs to continually improve and have foresight to accommodate the growing commuting population. With the opening of the downtown line and works on the Thomson line, the government seems to be heading in the right direction. So here’s to better train rides ahead.

4th Place - Ang Jia Wei

The Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system is one that has been in place since it began operations nearly 30 years ago. Heralded as one of the greatest accomplishments envisioned and actualized by the late Mr. Lee Kuan Yew and government, the series of major train disruptions in December 2011 has however led to doubts and questions of the system’s reliability, particularly of the oldest 2 lines – the North-South (NS) and East-West (EW) lines. Nearly 250,000 commuters were affected in the major train disruption on 7 July this year, and having experienced the inconvenience firsthand myself; I would say SMRT could have indeed better handled the issue.

 

To be fair to SMRT, I believe they did try their best to resolve the situation. The disruption occurred during the evening peak hours, at an untimely period when everyone makes their way home from work including the Muslims, who had to return home to break fast. Both the NS and EW lines were down, and SMRT had hence responded by providing free bus services and deploying their employees down to MRT stations to help. However, deploying all their resources at the same time was certainly not the best of solutions at the time, as the buses rushing down to affected areas only led to further traffic jams, exponentially increasing the number of people affected and led to inconvenience on the road. In addition, SMRT’s employees simply were not able to control the situation, considering the enormity of it and overwhelming number of people affected.

 

While I understand that the intentions of SMRT’s actions during the disruption were only for the best of commuters, especially after taking into account the level of chaos and rush to resolve the situation then; I believe that more efficient solutions could have been taken strategically, especially since a similar major train disruption had already occurred in December 2011. It is to my knowledge that the Committee of Inquiry (COI), commissioned by the government to investigate the breakdowns and disruptions in 2012, had already provided a list of recommendations for SMRT to utilise in face of such emergencies. Perhaps some of these recommendations can be taken if a similar situation reoccurs in the future, since it is reported that SMRT did not execute them in the train disruption this time in midst of the entire flurry.

 

Aside from these suggestions however, I also believe it is of utmost importance to try tackling the root of the problem – aging railways which have almost reached the end of their lifespan. Considering the fact that this, along with the shortcomings in SMRT’s maintenance regime (uncovered by the COI in 2012), has played a role in both the major train disruptions in 2011 and this time; possibly, the only way to prevent this situation from repeating itself in the long run is the diligent and continuous maintenance of the railways.

 

As an organization that has received longstanding support from the public since nearly 30 years ago, SMRT’s consecutive failures in managing these disruptions has put a stain on their reputation and led to many doubts from the public. The COI’s investigations into the 2011 MRT disruptions blew up to be a major controversy and scandal, only coming to an end with the resignation of CEO Saw Phaik Hwa. Also, along with the July train disruptions this year, the public has also viewed Minister of Transport – Mr. Lui Tuck Yew’s impending departure of politics as a symbolic and foreboding one for the future of transport in Singapore, despite Mr. Lui’s citing of his reasons for not reentering the political arena. Clearly, from all the above happenings, it does seem that confidence in SMRT is at a record-low, and the future is a bleak one for SMRT. For the benefit of everyone and themselves then, SMRT would do to make it their highest priority to regain confidence from commuters, getting out of the delicate position they are currently in by proving themselves capable from handling issues in the near future.