6 years of SMRT train breakdowns, and no end in sight

6 years of SMRT train breakdowns, and no end in sight
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[Headline photo from TODAY]

In December 2011, Singaporeans experienced the biggest breakdowns of the trains since the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system became operational in 1987.

That month, two outages happened within three days of each other on the North-South Line. Later, a Committee of Inquiry was set up to investigate the incident. SMRT’s chief executive officer (CEO) at the time, Saw Phaik Hwa, later resigned from her post.

In 2012, the former Chief of Defence Force, Desmond Kuek, was roped in to manage the SMRT.

Singaporeans were assured that the authorities took the problems seriously.

In the 5 to 6 years since then, however, disruptions and breakdowns of the system have continued on a rather regular basis, often affecting hundreds of thousands of commuters at the most inconvenient time of the day, at peak hours.

Yet, each time different excuses were given by the authorities, only for new issues to crop up repeatedly.

So it is with the most recent breakdowns in June which saw train services on the North-South Line halted for nearly two hours due to a signalling fault. Part of the East-West Line was also disrupted.

Days later, on Monday, 10 July, thousands were affected on the East-West Line during the evening rush hour when the trains broke down again.

SMRT explained that the disruption was due to a “signalling fault”. It also said that it had and has to carry out the tests “throughout the day” to iron out any issues with the new signalling system.

“If we were to restrict the performance checks to only weekends, or engineering hours (i.e. 1.30AM – 4.30AM), it would take Singapore years to implement the new signalling system on the NSEWL,” said Lee Ling Wee, SMRT Trains’ CEO.

“This is why we have no choice but to conduct checks throughout the day, including weekday peak hours, when trains are running at high frequencies with heavy commuter loads,” he added.

The reasons, or excuses, given by SMRT this time round is quite incredible, as this blogger points out.

“I can’t imagine in any other industry we would tolerate such a testing fiasco with a critical system,” the blogger says. “Can the stock exchange tell traders to expect delays and disruptions while they upgraded their IT system, and then get away with actual delays and disruptions impacting their core operations?”

We have heard this all before. One excuse after another – for 6 years. When will this end? Singaporeans and commuters cannot be sure if the issues are in fact being identified and resolved, given that this has continued for years.

Is it time for another COI? Is it time for the regulatory authority, the LTA, to meet Singaporeans face-to-face and offer itself to queries in public instead of hiding behind statements?

The public have also noticed the complete silence of the Transport Minister, Khaw Boon Wan, this time round. Where is he? Does he not have anything to say to the commuting public?

Be that as it may, one other thing which may perturb commuters is how the SMRT is scant with information, and how it only informs the public when a breakdown has happened. Often, by the time such information is released, through the media or transport apps, there is little commuters can do. They are already stuck in the trains.

Can the train operators do more? Can the LTA do more to inform commuters beforehand?

For example, is it possible for the SMRT to publish its tests schedules online, so that commuters can decide for themselves if they want to take the train at a particular time?

It may be helpful for certain members of the public who have important appointments to attend, such as those with medical appointments, or who have important business meetings.

Could the LTA, while the train operators make their maintenance or signalling tests schedules available online days in advance, also run parallel bus services during these tests times, instead of only when the trains have broken down?

This will let commuters have alternative transport choices. They can choose to either take the bus or taxis, and not risk having to be stuck in train breakdowns or disruptions during tests times.

This is especially so when tests are being conducted “throughout the day”.

We also do not know when the tests, which have been going on since May, will end. This leaves commuters in the dark, and each time they take the train, it is like playing Russian Roulette – you may get stuck in a breakdown if you are unlucky.

So, is there more that both the LTA and the train operators can do for commuters, to give them some control over their train trips?

It is a shame that our public transport system has become one which is riddled with interruptions and uncertainties.

“I would like to assure commuters that we are working hard to get over with this phase of system renewal on the NSEWL,” Mr Lee said, in response to Monday’s breakdown in service.

SMRT president & CEO, Desmond Kuek

We have heard such assurances before, and they now sound old and unconvincing. In fact, they are disconcerting because each time commuters are given such assurance, things seem to fall apart again soon after.

Nonetheless, while the authorities figure out the problems, perhaps they should also at the same time give some thought to how they can help commuters have more control over their daily commute, instead of having to play guesswork over whether a train will break down or not.

The authorities should make available as much information as possible, and hopefully days in advance so that the information is useful and can be acted on, instead of offering them after trains have broken down.

In the very least, SMRT should tell commuters how long these tests are going to last.