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When rail fails

This week, Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung experienced his first major crisis since taking on the hot potato portfolio on 27 July - the worst MRT breakdown in three years.

A circuit breaker at Tuas West Road MRT Station should have acted to isolate the fault, but did not. This tripped the power systems of both the East West and North South lines, shutting down large stretches of the lines at 7pm - during the evening peak hour, when tens of thousands were on the move. Train stations suffered blackouts, and commuters were stranded on trains.

SMRT Corporation - which ran both lines - then tried to draw power from the Buona Vista Intake substation, which also serves the Circle Line (also managed by them). However, this was done without first isolating the initial fault. Hence, a good part of the Circle Line also suffered a power fault at 7.30pm, shutting down more stations.

A blacked-out Jurong East MRT Interchange. Credit: The Straits Times.

In all, 34 stations were temporarily put out of commission - between Woodlands and Jurong East on the North South Line, between Queenstown and Gul Circle on the East West Line, and between HarbourFront and Serangoon on the Circle Line. Singapore has 122 MRT stations, so that was more than a quarter of all stations shut down in one fell swoop. Service on the Circle Line resumed at 8.40pm, but it was not until 10.35pm when full service resumed on the other two lines.

Credit: The Straits Times.
De-training near Jurong East MRT Interchange. Credit: The Straits Times.
De-training near Kranji MRT Station. Credit: Julie Chan.

Mainstream and online media reported widespread chaos in the west of the island. Many commuters were confused as to what was going on. There was concern about the absence of social distancing as bus stops overflowed with thousands trying to take alternate public transport.

The crowd at Queenstown MRT Station. Credit: The Straits Times.
Credit: @meteorjeon.

In my opinion, Minister Ong weathered the crisis fairly well, for three reasons: He’s new, so the public cut him some slack; it’s the first major breakdown affecting so many commuters for some time, so people are in a more forgiving mood; he apologised quite readily.

He said: “It was a rough night for many people, especially the commuters, and we are sorry for the troubles caused.”

Credit: Channel NewsAsia.

But as SMRT, fellow MRT operator SBS Transit, and the Land Transport Authority (LTA) can vouch - in the eyes of the public, you’re only as good as your last major breakdown.

It’s understandable. Singapore relies so, so heavily on the MRT. Pre-COVID-19, the MRT enjoyed ridership figures of 3.592 million every day, outmatched only by the public bus with 4.099 million rides a day. However, unlike the public bus, the MRT’s ridership is far more vulnerable to disruption from a single incident. If a public bus breaks down, it usually does not shut down the whole road, and at most a few dozen people are inconvenienced. But if a train breaks down, the entire line and thousands of commuters could be affected.

Furthermore, a large proportion of commuters have little choice but to take the MRT. They may not have cars, or cannot afford cars or private-hire vehicles; travelling by bus may take significantly longer travelling time. So when something goes seriously wrong with the only travelling option they have, the natural reaction is anger and frustration.

Still, the MRT is doing a lot better now than five to 10 years ago. Today, one disruption takes place for every 1.6 million train-km travelled - more than 10 times the distance clocked in 2015. My book Jalan Singapura documents numerous incidents which once plagued the system. For example, multiple breakdowns in 2011 uncovered significant shortcomings in SMRT’s maintenance regime. In 2015, a power trip shut down much of the North South and East West lines, affecting 250,000 commuters. And 2017 would be remembered for two notorious milestones - unprecedented flooding of North South Line tunnels, causing an overnight shutdown of train services, and a train collision on the East West Line - only the second in the MRT’s history - injuring 38 people. Thankfully, the painful lessons learned, and preventive maintenance regimes, have largely consigned such failures to history.

The flooding of the North South Line, 7 October 2017.

I say “largely”, because this week happened. And it’s troubling that a simple issue escalated to monumental proportions - a combination of premature failure of hardware and human error.

The Straits Times also questioned “why the recovery process took so long”. “Granted, the wet weather may have made the task trickier for surface lines, but it should not have impeded tunnel evacuation... SMRT would have honed its recovery skills by now, seeing how it was never short of practice.”


I hope SMRT, LTA, and the Transport Ministry work together to try to prevent a similar incident from happening again. Once in several years is still bearable, but throw in two or three more major incidents in quick succession, and the public will not be as forgiving towards their leaders - Minister Ong included.


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