MRT breakdown: SMRT, LTA have 'self-reflected', 'finger pointing' unhelpful: Ong Ye Kung

Nicholas Yong
·Assistant News Editor
·4-min read
PHOTO: Screengrab from Gov.sg YouTube channel
PHOTO: Screengrab from Gov.sg YouTube channel

SINGAPORE — While a disciplinary framework exists in Singapore’s transport network to punish errant employees, including calling in the police if necessary, “hold(ing) the team together” for the benefit of commuters is more important than meting out punishment, said Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung on Tuesday (3 November).

“The mood can easily change when it becomes one of penalty and punishment. And then the mood changes when everyone becomes defensive. Everyone, to put it crudely, will cover their behinds. And after a while, you don't get the best outcome,” said Ong, who was speaking in Parliament.

He noted that rail operator SMRT and the Land Transport Authority (LTA) have “self-reflected” on the massive breakdown on 14 October, which affected 123,000 commuters and left thousands trapped in stalled trains. French firm Alstom will also be replacing all 150km of 22 kilovolt (kV) power supply cables and breaker trip coils along the Tuas West Extension (TWE).

The 50-year-old was responding to a question from Bishan-Toa Payoh Member of Parliament Saktiandi Supaat on whether SMRT would be fined for the three-and-a-half hour breakdown. Ong addressed a total of five parliamentary questions on the incident.

The incident began at 6.58pm with a 22kV power cable fault in the electrical zone between the Tuas Link and Tuas West Road stations along the TWE. While this would not have normally caused a disruption, the circuit breaker at the Tuas West Road station malfunctioned due to a faulty trip coil.

A staff member then attempted to rectify the situation by drawing power from the Buona Vista Intake substation but failed to first isolate the power cable fault.

As a result, the circuit breaker meant to isolate the cable fault within the electrical zone did not activate as designed. A secondary protection mechanism kicked in, leading to the power supply from the Tuas Depot Intake substation being cut off and disrupting the power supply to the affected section of the North South and East West Lines (NSEWL) – from Woodlands to Jurong East stations and from the Queenstown to Gul Circle stations.

Thousands of commuters were eventually detrained.

Two SMRT employees suspended

While two SMRT employees have been suspended for their part in the breakdown, and must undergo retraining and re-certification before they can resume their duties, Ong stressed that this was not necessarily a punishment. In organisations with a strong safety culture, such as the Singapore Armed Forces, suspensions are commonplace, said Ong.

“It's actually carried out quite routinely as a matter of professional conduct and safety protocol. I think it's part and parcel of a professional conduct of an engineering company. And the purpose, depending on the circumstances, need not always be punishment.”

Given that it took 40 minutes before a decision was taken to detrain the affected trains, Saktiandi noted that there could be “rising anxiety” within the trains, along with a lack of good ventilation. He therefore asked the Minister what the guideline is for the length of time before a train is detrained.

Revealing that the guideline was 30 minutes, Ong stressed that it was a balance of two “unpleasant things.”

Firstly, the discomfort and anxiety of being trapped in a train. While an emergency battery, which can last for an hour, kicks in to power the ventilation and lights during a disruption, it is still warm and uncomfortable.

Secondly, the inherent risks of detrainment, with a high risk of tripping as passengers walk alongside a 750 volt third rail. In addition, there was inclement weather on the evening of 14 October, together with lightning risk.

Detraining commuters is always a last resort, because having commuters to walk along the track poses risk and needs to be very carefully carried out, according to Ong.

All 6,800 commuters on the stalled trains were brought safely to the nearest station platform within an hour, except for 78 commuters whose detrainment was delayed by inclement weather and lightning risk.

“So, not an easy task, but Operations Control Centre of SMRT had to make those decisions, and I think the decisions they made that night in terms of detrainment was correct,” said Ong, who is also an MP for Sembawang.

The Minister also told the House that the recent disruption has affected the morale of the teams on the ground. “Nobody wishes for an incident like this to happen, but when it (does), we should not let it break our spirit. There are many honest and hardworking people who have toiled over the past few years to make our MRT services among the most reliable in the world. By believing in them and in ourselves, we can stand tall, be united again and press on with our work.”

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