26 December 2011

A Contrarian View of the MRT Service Disruption

A breakdown of the MRT system that leaves trains and passengers stranded between stations is probably the most unfortunate thing to happen to a service provider.

When a bus breaks down, passengers can disembark and wait for another bus.  But when several trains lose power simultaneously, none of the passengers can disembark unless and until it is safe to do so.  Sometimes they have to wait for trained personnel to guide them to the next station on foot.  At other times, they have to wait for the train to be towed to the next station.  From there, they can continue using bus-bridges.  All these take place under the full glare of the public and the media.

The purpose of this article is to present a different view on some aspects of the service disruptions.

Psychologists say that people tend to have more regret about things they chose to do, compared to things they did not choose to do, because with things they chose to do, they can see the results — in particular, results that they did not like or did not foresee.  With things they did not choose to do, the results are hypothetical.

So it is with some of what happened during the MRT service disruptions, and it is important to bear this in mind.

Providing information
It is understandable that passengers trapped in the stalled trains and people waiting on the station platforms want timely and accurate information.

At least one train driver told his passengers that there was a technical problem.

When a fault occurs, the technical people have to determine what the problem is and where it is.  Even though they are experienced with the requisite expertise, identifying the location of the problem, determining the nature and extent of the problem, and estimating how long repairs will take require time.

Is there any value for SMRT to tell the affected people that there is a problem with the power rail or the third rail (in the 15 December 2011 incident).  Of course, by now, most of us know what a power rail or a third rail is, but how many of us knew that on that day?  Would telling commuters about the power rail have led to more puzzlement?

What if the problem lay in faulty electrical switchgear that resulted in a fire or a terrorist attack?  Should the affected people be told?  Would it have caused panic?

Would deciding on what exactly to tell the affected people waste valuable time that could otherwise have been used to deal with the problem?

On balance, telling the affected people that it was a technical problem was probably an appropriate response, and an adequate response.

Once SMRT has decided how the commuters trapped in each of the stalled trains would be rescued, it should inform them.  However, it is arguable whether these commuters should be told how long it would take, because it would only increase their impatience and anxiety during that period inasmuch as time passes really slowly for people who waiting for help.

When a train is operating normally, its air-conditioning system provides cooling (though not very effectively sometimes).  Two things should be noted about an air-conditioning system.

First, in most air-conditioning systems, the cooling air is circulated gently so as not to create a draught, which many people will find uncomfortable.  When the air-conditioning system functions as an emergency ventilation system (i.e., it recirculates the air without cooling it), it uses the same fan or blower.  For this reason, commuters may not be able to feel the air current.

Second, the air-conditioning system typically does not draw air from the outside during normal operation because the numerous doors of the train open at every station, allowing an exchange of air between the train and the outside every few minutes.  As a result, when the air-conditioning system functions as the emergency ventilation system in the event of a service disruption, it may not draw air from the outside into the train; that is, it only recirculates the air in the train.  Even if the emergency ventilation system draws air from the outside into the train, it is not likely that this will be effective in drawing much air from the outside into the train because of the pressure differential between the outside and inside of the train.

It may not therefore be apparent to commuters on a stationary train that the emergency ventilation system is operating.

Regardless whether the emergency ventilation system was working, it was fortunate that none of the trains experienced a power disruption while they were on the overhead tracks on a hot sunny afternoon.  The consequences in that situation would likely have been disastrous.  It is imperative that the relevant MRT operators urgently look into providing adequate ventilation for commuters trapped in a stationary train in extreme weather conditions.

It is rather surprising that no one — not Land Transport Authority, SMRT nor the many passengers — appears to have ever considered asking whether the emergency ventilation system is adequate in a worst case scenario, despite the MRT having been in operation for more than 20 years.

Unlike some people who berate SMRT, or just about any service provider when things go wrong, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that such things would happen from time to time.  What is important is to make sure they happen as infrequently as possible [see note 1].

Anything that moves or is subjected to vibration or repeated cycles of tension and compression will fail eventually.  All other things will fail eventually because age or the environment degrades their physical properties.

The lives of most moving or vibrating components are usually expressed in terms of the number of cycles or hours of use; the lives of most non-moving components are usually expressed in terms of time elapsed.  Not differentiating between the two may lead to unforeseen consequences.  However, sometimes this may be easier said than done.  For example, it is not always obvious whether vibration is sufficiently significant for it to be taken into consideration, or if it is, whether it is possible or practical to track the cumulative periods of the vibration.

Thus, the life of the claws that secure the third or power rail may be more a function of the duration of vibration rather than time elapsed, but how does one keep track of this after reaching this conclusion?  As for the bearings of the floating slab tracks, SMRT says that not only did the manufacturer not specify that maintenance had to be conducted on them but also they are inaccessible.  They are said to have a life span of 50 years, but under what operating conditions?  [See note 2.]

The incidence of breakdowns may be reduced by carrying out regular inspections and replacing parts before they reach their end of their lives.  The earlier in its life that any component is replaced, the lower the incidence of breakdowns, but the higher the cost.  Are commuters prepared to pay higher fares?

There remains a residual question: where else in the vicinity of the MRT tracks should the relevant authorities and the public be concerned about vibration-induced degradation of structures and equipment?

Was the safety of the passengers on the stalled trains compromised or in doubt?

Minister for Transport Lui Tuck Yew reportedly spoke about about the well being of the people who were trapped in the trains for an extended period of time before they made their way to safety [see note 3].  The massive shutdown was an extremely serious disruption that compromised commuters' safety [see note 4].

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that the disruptions were not primarily a safety issue [see note 2].

Bus bridging
Every day, about 2.2 million people use the MRT and 3.2 million people use the public buses.  If we disregard double counting when passengers take more than one bus per trip, this means that approximately the same number of people take the MRT and bus.

Given the potentially large number of people affected when any MRT service disruption involves a number of trains and stations, mobilising bus resources for an adequate bus-bridge may be challenging.  This is likely to affect SMRT more because SMRT has 950 buses compared to SBS Transit's more than 3,000, unless SMRT taps on the SBS Transit's bus resources in time of need.

What are the logistics involved?

First, the required buses and the drivers need to be identified.  The buses are probably at interchanges, not necessarily near the affected stations.  The drivers are probably at home and some may be resting or sleeping after their shifts.  As the bus-bridging is supposed to take passengers from one MRT station to another MRT station, the drivers need to be briefed before setting out.  The drivers may not be familiar with the routes, which are not their regular scheduled routes or not even regular scheduled routes at all.  Even if they have been previously briefed on the routes, the drivers may not remember the routes and may lose their way, together with a bus full of possibly impatient, irate and unsympathetic passengers.  The staff conducting the briefing may not know whether there have been any changes in the proposed routes due to road works etc.  The difficulties faced by the drivers may be compounded if they have to drive at night.  And when drivers lose their way, they fall behind schedule.

Empowering site staff
Some people asked why the staff on the ground — on the trains or in the stations — apparently were not empowered to take some form of action on their own without consulting the command centre.

Whenever any train along the line encounters any difficulty, station staff should immediately stop people from passing through the "entry" turnstiles.  It is better for them not to join those already waiting at the platform.

As for the many other possible actions that the staff on the ground could have taken, it is only with the benefit of hindsight that one can say that the staff should have done this or should not have done that.  Any one of a number of consequences — some unfortunate— might have resulted from their possible actions or inaction.

If the train drivers had opened the doors of the train to let in "fresh" air, as some trapped passengers had demanded, it is very likely that some passengers might have taken it upon themselves to exit the train even if the drivers had warned them against it.  Who would have been accountable if any passenger had fallen into the space between the train and the tracks or onto the tracks or had been electrocuted (the fact that the train had no power did not mean that the power rail had no power, at least until it was switched off)?  In any one of these possible outcomes, it is very likely that the train driver would have been mercilessly castigated for his lack of common sense.

If the station staff had entered the tunnel, they too needed to ensure that the power in the tunnel was cut.  It is not clear whether the station staff had the authority to cut off power (probably it had), but the staff had to ensure that cutting off power would not affect or jeopardise recovery activities elsewhere along the track.

People criticise SMRT for not empowering its staff on the ground to use their initiative because they (the critics) focus on the positive outcomes of such empowerment, but conveniently choose to ignore the potentially risky or disastrous outcomes.  And because SMRT staff mostly did not do what its critics said it should have done, there were no bad outcomes for the critics to face up to.

Income opportunity
SMRT Taxi command centre's description of the situation at the affected MRT stations as an "income opportunity" was seen as unfortunate, probably insensitive.

Perhaps, the person who sent out the message was not a highly qualified, high-level person.  His job probably involves inter alia sending out messages to SMRT Taxi's taxi drivers informing them about locations where there are large concentrations of potential passengers; he was only doing his job to guide his taxi drivers.  Perhaps, he did not see anything wrong with using the words "income opportunity", which for a taxi operator was just that.  Perhaps, he was not proficient in the English language or its nuances, and did not comprehend the sensitivity of either income or opportunity.  Perhaps, there was no other template for him to use, and he was not sure of his own linguistic skill to compose a non-standard message quickly.

Would the public have reacted negatively if the message had been sent out by any one of the other taxi operators, instead of SMRT Taxi?

Some people say that the taxi drivers were trying to help the affected commuters who did not wish to wait or fight for a place on the bus-bridges.  Maybe, but it was probably unlikely to be the primary consideration for many of them.  In any case, by rushing to the affected stations, they were adding to the traffic congestion.

Let's be honest: for the drivers of taxis — whether belonging to SMRT Taxi or other taxi operators — it was an income opportunity.

Fare increase
Commuters are dissatisfied with the public transport system in general and with the insufficient capacity of the trains in particular, combined with the perception that fares have been going up.

In the past four fare reviews, two resulted in fares being increased (but less than the maximum allowed under Public Transport Council's formula) and one in fares being reduced (as prescribed by the formula).  There was no fare review in 2009 as the public transport operators offered a reduction in fares in light of the sharp recession.

To ensure that commuters’ interests were safeguarded during fare reviews, Public Transport Council made a reality check on the operators’ return on total assets against companies with similar industry structures and risk profiles.  The fare revisions were arrived at after taking into account these considerations and its mandate to balance the interests of commuters as well as the long-term viability of the operators [see note 5].  This may mean that if SMRT's profit falls as a result of enhancing the maintenance of its MRT assets, fares may increase in the future.

Circle Line
The service disruption on part of the Circle Line on 14 December 2011 is often cited as one of SMRT's three service disruptions during the week.  While factually correct, it is unfair to SMRT.

ALSTOM-Singapore Technologies Electronics consortium supplied the Circle Line as a fully integrated turnkey solution to Land Transport Authority (which handled the civil engineering work).  ALSTOM's site staff was primarily for overall project management, installation, testing and commissioning of the systems [see note 6].

Associate professor of transport economics at National University of Singapore Anthony Chin opined that the Circle Line took 10 years to complete and 10 years are enough time to test the system [see note 7].  He is mistaken; construction may have taken 10 years, but neither Land Transport Authority nor SMRT had ten years to test the system.

Associate professor Lee Der Horng at the National University of Singapore was very disappointed because the Circle Line was brand new and before the Circle Line was opened, SMRT had worked with regulators to do the checking and testing [see note 7].  SMRT did not design the Circle Line, nor choose the hardware or its suppliers.  Just because SMRT worked with various parties to check and test the Circle Line doesn't mean accountability is transferred to SMRT.

It is difficult to support the argument that SMRT should be held accountable for the 14 December Circle Line service disruption between Marymount and One North, which opened for revenue service only two months earlier on 8 October 2011.

Unlike the North-East Line which began life as separate parts engineered to function together, the Circle Line was designed from day one as a fully integrated system [see note 6], so integration should not be an issue even though other stages opened for revenue operations on May 2009 and April 2010.  Nevertheless in many cases, system integration gives rise to problems in ways that are not expected.

Claiming fare refunds
The sight of impatient people crowding around the control centres of the affected stations is puzzling, even though it is understandable that they want their money back.

First, this wastes the time of SMRT staff, who should be attending to more pressing matters.  Second, members of the public have previously suggested that refunds be automatic and that passengers should not have to apply for refunds.  After all, Transit Link Pte Ltd (a subsidiary of Land Transport Authority) has the trips details of all the EZ-Link cards on its database.


1. Public Inquiry to be Convened TODAY (18 Dec 2011).

2.  Shorter Wait for Commuters as Faulty Trains Return to Service TODAY (22 Dec 2011).

3. MRT Breakdown: Minister Promises 'Thorough Health Check' of System The Straits Times (16 Dec 2011).

4. MRT Breakdown: SMRT Must Make This Right, says Lui Tuck Yew The Straits Times (17 Dec 2011).

5. 1.0% Fare Adjustment for 2011... Public Transport Council (5 Aug 2011).

6. Xavier Champaud (Oct 2005) The Longest Automatic Metro Line in the World Institution of Railway Signal Engineers Technical Convention Singapore.

7. The Circle Tightens Around SMRT Boss The Business Times (17 Dec 2011).

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