The chief talking point this weekend would certainly be the breakdowns in our metro network. There were three this week.
First, the Circle Line came to a halt between 06:00h and 06:40h Wednesday morning, with partial service for the next four to five hours. Full service resumed only around 11:00h. Many people were late for work; huge crowds built up at various stations.
Then the North-South Line seized up at 18:56h on Thursday evening, with even bigger crowds affected. Four trains stalled completely, and in the train stuck near Dhoby Ghaut station, about a thousand commuters were stranded in dark, warm and stuffy carriages for about 40 minutes before they were led down to the tracks to walk all the way to the station through the tunnel. About the half the North-South Line, from Marina Bay Station to Braddell, was down for hours; full service did not resume until the next morning.
Normality lasted barely 24 hours. Saturday morning, roughly the same sections of the North-South Line, but extended northwards to Ang Mo Kio Station, were down again, for about seven hours before full service was resumed.
Were they all coincidence? Or is there an underlying reason? Some are speculating that the age of the network — the North-South Line is 24 years old now — is a contributing factor. Others suggest that recent attempts to increase capacity and frequency have stressed the system too much. On these technical issues, let’s just wait for the results of various investigations.
The thing that interests me at this point is the organisational response of SMRT Corp (the company that operates the Circle, North-South and East-West lines) during the crisis of Thursday night itself. I myself was going home on the Circle and East-West lines around 21:00h and heard several announcements while at the stations. From those announcements, I knew that something had gone wrong with the North-South line, but little else. Between minimalist information and rotten diction, much of the announcement was unintelligible. I couldn’t make out which stations were open, which were closed and which sections were running.
Nor were there announcements inside the trains. The announcements were only made at stations. This meant that there were plenty of people riding the Circle or East-West lines and hoping to connect with the North-South line, completely unaware that transfers would not be possible. They would be piling into the North-South stations, adding to the congestion, rather than getting off the metro network altogether from or close to their originating stations to look for alternatives.
From news reports Friday and Saturday, I get the impression that SMRT activated their response protocol more or less the way it had been planned. Extra staff were brought in, buses were arranged to ferry passengers between affected stations — though the capacity of these are never enough — and the stuck train’s passengers detrained through the tracks in an orderly way. The fault was located in a 40-metre length of misaligned power rail near Dhoby Ghaut and urgent repair carried out by 22:00h.
And yet, people were mad, especially those caught in trains and on the platforms, complaining bitterly about the lack of information and the unresponsiveness of staff. See this 6-minute video of commuters trapped inside a train trying to get help:
Our culture has a lot to do with that. A reluctance to share information and a tendency for employees to wait for instructions and then be task-oriented rather than proactively creative, shape the response.
At the start of the crisis perhaps the first ten minutes, information distribution would probably have been like this:
The management themselves would be struggling to understand the problem. They would be trying to restart the trains. All they would know at this stage is roughly where the problem is located but not exactly why. They would be unsure how bad it is and how long they would need to fix it. Unsurprisingly, information dissemination would be patchy at best.
In the case of Thursday evening’s breakdown, the management appear to have located the fault in the 40-metre section of the power rail and set out to work on it fairly soon. In other words, they knew the nature of the problem and the fix needed not long after it occurred. They would therefore also have known the time they would need, and from the fact that the management activated staff recall and buses, they knew it would be a serious and lengthy stoppage.
And yet, for the following two hours or more, information dissemination remained patchy. Reports tell of commuters kept totally in the dark (literally and informationally) and staff members remaining unresponsive to enquiries. My own experience, albeit on the unaffected Circle and East-West lines, reinforce this view. Other than that there was “trouble” on the North-South line, I could discern no useful detail from the half-unintelligible announcements.
My suspicion is that information flow resembled diagram 2 (below) when it should have been more like diagram 3 (further down):
However, diagram 3 requires several characteristics that are quite alien to Singaporean organisational behaviour:
- A willingness to share information preemptively, not just among top managers but among middle managers and frontline staff, as opposed to the more familiar instinct to hoard information, in order to preserve our gatekeeper role and power over others (tell people what to do without telling them why, so that they cannot object or dispute our decisions);
- An ability to speak clearly — a near- impossibility in a society where few people can even speak one language well, yet pretend that we are mostly bilingual;
- Among frontline staff, a flair for thinking in creative and non-linear ways and to spot things that need to be done in addition to assigned tasks;
- A readiness to do what needs to be done given the developing situation, rather than cower in fear of being scolded for departing from procedure.
These are the same reasons why, everywhere we look, customer service is generally unsatisfactory in Singapore. The difference is that under normal circumstances we can shrug it off, but in a crisis situation, it can make a huge difference to collective response.
For example, why did it take 40 – 45 minutes before the stuck train in the tunnel was evacuated? I’m not suggesting that they could have been evacuated immediately. Quite likely SMRT would have spent the first 10 minutes trying to restart the train, and even after diagnosing the fault and deciding that repair of the power rail was needed, they had to turn off the power to ensure that the tracks were safe to walk on before they could release the passengers. But could they not have done so by the 20th minute? Did the passengers have to remain in the stuffy carriages for as long as they did? At least one woman fainted, I gather from news reports.
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The other noteworthy aspect of Thursday evening’s breakdown is that despite deploying buses, commuters were still stuck in stations for lengthy periods of time. The roads were hopelessly jammed too. It’s all very well to tell commuters to use other modes of transport, but what other modes were there that were practical?
This tells us something else about our overall transport system: there is insufficient redundancy. A healthy system needs enough slack to cope with emergencies. It’s the same with hospitals, with the fire brigade, as with transport. The price of running things at close to 100% utilisation in the interest of efficiency and profit maximisation is a reduced ability to cope with unexpected events such as breakdowns, and thus greater costs.
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This photo of a broken glass pane has gone viral. Someone used a fire extinguisher to break it when the stuck train got unbearably hot and stuffy.
It may be more significant than many think. For 40 years, Singaporeans have been conditioned to see militancy and demonstrations as social bads. Unlike other societies, we do not march on the streets, we do not hold sit-ins, and we most certainly do not riot. We’ve been brainwashed to see timidity and obedience as moral goods. We are programmed to see riots and demonstrations in other countries as signs of antisocial behaviour, disloyalty and something not far removed from plain vandalism and hooliganism.
But now, the anonymous guy who broke the glass is perceived as a hero. Channeling his frustration into action is not vandalism but a totally laudable response, with Facebookers paying tribute through variations of the image.
Our government should take notice. When frustrations build, whether over crowding, the income gap or inadequate public services or even political arrogance, there will be a tipping point, and Singaporeans will prove no different from other societies. They will take things into their own hands.