Minister Lui 'dismayed' by SBS Transit's treatment of NEL disruption

Passengers crowding at the entrance of an SBS Transit shuttle bus outside Serangoon station. (Photo courtesy of Yusuf Abdol Hamid)

As Singapore fights a thickening haze, train service on the North East Line (NEL) was disrupted across about half of its stations Wednesday evening, causing massive peak-hour crowding.

A statement from service operator SBS Transit said a train heading toward Harbourfront stalled as it was approaching Hougang station at about 6:15pm, causing a service delay and subsequently a service disruption between Woodleigh and Punggol stations until about 8:30pm.

According to the operator, trains were stalled at their respective stations while attempts were made to move the first train, but it could not be shifted.

"This is the first time such a rescue operation has failed," the statement read. "In all, about 250 passengers were affected."

SBS Transit also said 85 shuttle buses were activated for operation between Woodleigh and Punggol stations, but many were delayed on their way to the affected stations "due to massive traffic jams" en route. They added that about 90 of its staff were activated for duty at the seven affected stations to assist commuters.

"We deeply apologise to all affected passengers for the distress and inconvenience caused especially given the current haze situation," the statement said.

Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew had harsh criticism for the operator, writing in a post on his Facebook page that he was "dismayed" by their handling of the situation.

He wrote that the commuters who were stuck on the affected train were stranded for "an unacceptably long period" before they were eventually detrained and asked to walk toward Hougang station. Northbound commuters were also affected, being asked to detrain at Woodleigh and continue their journeys by bus instead.

"I know that this must be a frustrating and uncomfortable experience for affected commuters who are trying to get home or to their destination," he wrote. "The whole situation was also made much worse by the haze.

"I am dismayed at how this incident was managed by SBST. Commuters expect and deserve better," he continued. "SBST (and SMRT) must learn from this and be better prepared. I expect them to manage incidents of this nature much better in the future."

SBS Transit sent out electronic alerts from about 6:45pm, initially informing commuters of up to 30-minute delays due to a train fault. These were later updated to a partial disruption in train service between Woodleigh and Punggol stations, with shuttle buses activated and existing bus services plying affected stations running for free.

Massive crowding at Outram Park and Serangoon stations were reported from about 7:15pm onwards, with shuttle buses appearing to be insufficient to stem the flow of passengers exiting stalled trains.

One commuter, Yusuf Abdol Hamid, told Yahoo! Singapore he took nearly two hours to travel home from his office near Outram Park station.

"They (station staff) said 15 to 20 minutes first, but after 20 minutes it was still the same thing... people were just crammed in the train waiting, (and) after half an hour down there it felt like only a few people stepped out of the train; the rest just waited," he said. "The train on the other side (of the platform) was frozen too."

After waiting for half an hour, he left the train station and queued for another half an hour for a taxi.

He said he saw massive crowding at bus stops outside Serangoon station, near where he lives, as well as Nex shopping mall. The taxi queue outside the mall was also two rows deep, he added.

"There was a mass exodus to the bus stop (from the train station); people were presumably trying to get on a bus toward Punggol, and there were others yelling," he said, adding that the heat from the haze and crowding did not help matters.

Another commuter, See Zeming, was transferring from the Circle line to the North East line when he noticed it was down.

"A lot of people were loitering around, the staff was nowhere to be seen and a security guard was answering a lot of questions," he said. "I headed out to the bus stop, saw no hope in waiting for one, walked against the flow of traffic to the the previous bus stop and barely squeezed myself onto the second bus. The traffic was horrible, as was the haze. Obviously people were getting irritated and I saw no rail replacement services anywhere."

See noted that bus service frequencies were also not increased despite the disruption, and taxis were all full -- it was only after he boarded a bus across the road that he saw two shuttle buses pull up at Serangoon station.

"This tells me the response time is really quite terrible," he said. "People waiting at the bus stop spilled over to the field in front of NEX and everyone was just being ungracious after awhile."

Dance instructor Elizabeth Lee said the scene at Woodleigh was "total chaos", when she disembarked from a train that travelled from Harbourfront station.

"Everyone was rushing out, people were making phone calls to warn others about the train mishap," said the 21-year-old. "The roads were jammed, people were crowded on the walkways as well, and it didn't help that the PSI level was escalating as time passed. It honestly felt like the apocalypse," she added.

Singapore's pollutant standards index (PSI) reading at 9pm rocketed to a high of 290, the highest since the haze period started and the highest in Singapore's history. The previous highest-ever reading of 226 was recorded in 1997.