Not First World Yet

I almost feel guilty for liking this song.

On 7 July, 715pm, a power trip caused the entirety of both the North-South line and East-West line (nsew) to shut-down, leaving an estimated 250,000 commuters stranded at stations. I was lucky. I was out of the train at 710pm exactly.

At 730pm, my whatsapp group chat kicked into high gear suddenly. Friends began to text about their predicament/ frustrations/disbelief at the breakdown. I switched over to FB; sure enough, posts updating on the breakdown was trending furiously. And then I knew how massive the breakdown was.

Naturally, it made the headlines the next morning as journalists noted that a power trip caused the shut-down of all train services on both lines. Accordingly, 54-57 stations were affected and SMRT was forced to ‘detrain’ all passengers.

I wonder how the numbers 54-57 came to be bandied about. I counted 29 stations from Pasir Ris to Joo Koon on the main East-West line. If I include the Expo and Changi Airport Stations, that will make it 31. On the north-south line, there are 27 stations linking Jurong East to Marina South Pier. Counting just the main stations running along these 2 lines gives me 56 stations. It will be nice to have more statistics detailing the damage wrecked by the breakdown.

The usual things were said by the usual people. The SMRT trains director, the Land Transport Authority, the transport minister, the prime minister. But the SMRT CEO seemed especially reticent; hardly any quote came his way. Interestingly, the week before, it was reported that he took home a total remuneration of SGD 2.25m to SGD 2.5m (notice the preference to provide a range rather than exact numbers). His bosses thought that the pay was ‘at a competitive and responsible level’ but some analysts were of the view that the timing was less than wise since the SMRT had not fully re-established its reliability following its earlier debacle. It was not making a lot more money than previously and train fares had just been adjusted upwards in April 15. I’m sure the fare-adjustment wasn’t for the sake of improving the CEO’s remuneration package since I believed the Gahmen when it said rail operations were not profitable.

The day after the breakdown, the persons in charge reported that the SMRT had done its checks, narrowed down the cause to 3 possible reasons but couldn’t ascertain which of the 3 was the true culprit. They said there were “two damaged power cables along the north-south line near Bishan MRT station, a faulty relay system at Kranji’s power substation, and a water leakage close to the third-rail insulator at Tanjong Pagar Station”. I noticed that the space allotted to this incident in the national papers was considerably smaller than the previous day’s.

A day later, another report by the same persons in charge indicated that they were still unable to pinpoint the exact cause of the breakdown so the land transport authority will “hire an independent consultant specialising in transit power systems” to conduct investigations. Some eagle-eyed readers immediately questioned why the cost of the consultant landed on the shoulders of the Land Transport Authority instead of the SMRT? One uses tax payer’s money while the other is ‘for-profit’. The SMRT added “we have also brought in a number of retired SMRT staff with experience in network power issues to assist in investigations”. This time the report had become just 1 small little column in the papers.

Whilst I concede that the rail system may be as complicated as NASA’s space program, I’m interested to find out how other countries with systems more sophisticated and more extensive, deal with similar breakdowns (if any). Were they able to troubleshoot and nail down the exact cause quickly or did they also had to contemplate installing black boxes on the trains or deploy big data as some creative Singaporeans suggested? Still, I cannot help but be surprised that the rail operator does not know the rail system as well as I expect them to. Are my expectations unreasonable?

After that last update, it was out of the news completely. I wondered if the journalists too were caught in the disruption and thus, too exhausted to carry out more investigative reporting. They could have interviewed more commuters, MRT staff, bus drivers, taxi drivers, and even drivers to put together a clearer picture of what happened then. Instead, I got my updates from FB and bloggers. Here is queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody – the SMRT version and Mr Brown’s MV – Tuck Yew. Coincidentally, Tuck Yew happens to be our Transport Minister‘s first name.

It finally resurfaced exactly a week later when the persons in charge were interviewed on prime-time TV. But Mr CEO was conspicuously absent.

With the latest, I can only come to 1 conclusion: the SMRT has lost its mojo. It does not know what is the problem and of course has no means to solve it. Which also means we need to brace ourselves for more breakdowns.

There is one other explanation though: they know the what the problem is, but for reasons unknown to us, choose not to share it. Maybe it was too massive, too stupid or too unbelievable. Like, some alien was tapping on the railway power supply because their UFO ran out of battery or this.

Since 2011, it has become quite usual for the trains to run into problems especially during peak hours (I hope they study this correlation). Irregularities seem to pop up more frequently. A power trip in the cabin, extended bumping on tracks over a certain section of the line, continuous jerking near a particular station, the feeling of the train running over something on the tracks in the tunnel, vertical hand bar coming loose, and in the last 2 days, smell of burnt rubber in the cabin near lavender station. I can easily imagine a 3-4 scenarios linked to it and they are all apocalyptic.

In 2011, when a train was stuck in the tunnel for a prolong period during rush hour without lights and ventilation, a quick thinking fella smashed the glass portion of the door with a fire extinguisher for much-needed air. Then, the SMRT chastised him for damaging the door because “there is a backup system for emergency lights and ventilation”.

I really have my doubts about the said backup systems. During my weekly commute on the yellow line, I can’t breath well even with the air-conditioning working normally. There were just too many people during rush hour. And if they can’t even restore power to the main systems (as demonstrated by the latest incident), I really shouldn’t count too much on their backups.

These days, I don’t lean on the train doors any more since I can’t be sure the doors will not open mid-track suddenly. I am alert each time the train does something strange ie bumps on track, jerks violently etc. I look out for the emergency services: call button, fire extinguisher, first aid box. I scrutinised the instructions. I want to be ready, when emergency strikes.

So what can we do about the train breakdowns?

I suppose we can channel some Jack Johnson chillness and take a walk around.

And here are the reports.

Mrt breakdown: north-south, east-west lines down for hours

Full train service resumes

Mrt disruption unlikely to be caused by defective train

3 faults along nsl identified 

Root cause of latest mrt breakdown still not pinpointed



Categories: Soliloquy

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