Written by Ng E-Jay
16 December 2011
For all the hype about Singapore having a “first world” public transport system, our frequent train breakdowns and service lapses easily relegate our system to third world status.
You can make up the propaganda about the Singapore system (in particular, its public transport system) being clean and efficient, but you can’t make up the statistics. There have a grand total of 8 trains disruptions on the MRT Circle Line since its phased opening in 2009. The Circle Line’s chequered history include a construction tunnel collapse in 2004 which killed four people, and a construction site cave-in in 2008.
You’d think these incidents can only happen in poorer countries where construction companies use inferior raw materials and employ substandard construction practices.
The latest instalment in public transport disruption occurred on the North-South MRT line on Thursday, when train services on both directions from Marina Bay to Braddell came to a standstill during the evening rush hour. A preliminary statement released by SMRT said that the disruption was caused by 40 metres of damaged power rail.
Services of south-bound trains resumed at 9pm, but north-bound services between Marina Bay and Bishan stations are expected to be non-operational till Friday morning.
Thousands of commuters were left stranded as a result. The disruption was staggering, with roads becoming highly congested, and commuters engaged in a mad rush to board buses and take taxis as an alternative.
Train passengers were endangered
But far worse than the disruption to normal life and the increased congestion of the roads was the apparent endangerment to the health and safety of passengers on the affected trains.
According to media reports, the power outage left trains motionless in the dark underground tunnel, and the air conditioning supply to the train interior was cut off. As a result, trains were cramped full with commuters in a suffocating environment, and some passengers even had to use a fire extinguisher to break the windows of stalled trains to combat the lack of ventilation.
It was also reported that there were fainting incidences on board the trains, and pictures released by the media showed a few people being stretchered off after they had been rescued from the tunnel.
But the suffocating interior was not the only thing trapped commuters had to endure. Apparently, commuters were left stranded inside the trains for almost an hour without any instructions from the authorities, resulting in widespread confusion. For a time, the only thing passengers heard on the intercom was a message apologizing for the delay.
There should be an emergency backup power unit on board every train to ensure that the air ventilation system is not cut off, or at the very least, can be quickly restored in the event of a general power outage. To leave passengers trapped for nearly an hour without oxygen supply endangered their health.
And why were the authorities so belated in giving proper instructions and directions to trapped commuters? These lapses are unacceptable.
Eventually, when the train doors were forced open by rescuers, commuters had to make their escape through the long, dark tunnels.
So far, what has been done to address all these public transport service lapses?
The Public Transport Council (PTC) has only slapped the wrists of public transport operators with perfunctory fines that hurt them in no way whatsoever. Their CEOs and top executives continue to draw million-dollar pay cheques every year, on par with PAP junior cabinet ministers. And the transport companies themselves continue to record rising profits year after year. Even as these service lapses continue, the transport operators have plans to raise fares even further.
In the major Circle Line breakdown on the 20th September, close to 30,000 commuters were affected and the train services throughout the entire line were shut down for a full four hours. The fault was later traced to faulty cabling.
In the most recent Circle Line incident just two days ago, some 1,400 passengers were delayed on their morning commute, with full services not resuming until six hours later. SMRT said the disruption was caused by a communication network problem.
The latest disruption to train services on the North-South line on Thursday shows that these incidents are not isolated, but point to systemic flaws in the way our train system has been designed and built. Somewhere along the line, the engineering and the materials used have been compromised and are of sub-standard quality. This faulty engineering has endangered the health and safety of passengers, and has caused much disruption to the lives of commuters. Who is to answer for this incompetence?
Singaporeans should demand full accountability for this incredible spate of public transport lapses. And if accountability is not forthcoming, Singaporeans should demand resignation letters from those responsible, beginning with this CEO who made this famous statement: