Breakdowns and breaking points

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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

30 Responses to “Breakdowns and breaking points”

  1. 1 Yujuan 17 December 2011 at 14:29

    Wish Singapore commuters would stop for a moment and put on their thinking caps, and stop heaping britbats on CEO Saw and SMRT Board of Directors. The poor Malaysian born CEO may be forced to toe the political line, being forced to receive instructions from the main shareholders, Sovereign Fund Temasek Holdings.
    Looking at the financial accounts of SMRT, this GLC receives 40% of its profits from retail operations, and this proportion is a high fast money spinner for Temasek, thus forcing Saw to concentrate on retail renting, and neglect the technical, expensive and tedious maintenance aspect of the rail system. Being a money spinner, Temasek is applying pressure on Saw to concentrate on the bottom, as this is a source of funds that Temasek could tap to plug the huge losses suffered on overseas botched investments, and this Sovereign Fund has to plug it fast, for face saving.
    And recently with the collapse of the Commodiites, Temasek this time again has suffered huge losses in her central American mine investments.
    So please spare some sympathy for Saw, as her hands are tied, politically, and as long as she is a meek follower,following instructions like a lamb, her job is safe, so to speak, at least for the time being, until Temasek could find another just as meek CEO to take her place.

    • 2 Yapp Jun Sem (@samuelyapp) 19 December 2011 at 02:22

      Which begs the question, why are infrastructures like the MRT that can’t afford to break down catastrophically being privatised?

      Precisely because it is now private, political concerns should appear no more than stakeholders’ concerns. Being the CEO, Saw, more than anyone else should know how to weigh pressure from stakeholders against company interests and still make the correct decisions. In this regard, I think she needs no sympathy. If she really did make decisions to please the shareholders and compromised the safety and functionality of the company assets, then she should own up to her mistakes bravely, and apologize to her employees, as well as to those inconvenienced by the eventuality of her decisions.

    • 3 Hsien Liao La 19 December 2011 at 06:16

      Some sympathy? Not when she pockets almost 2 mil in wages per annum. If she wants the money, take the criticism that comes along with not being able to perform on the job, period.

      You are not reflecting your own views on the matter, but imploring others to do what you believe in, that is to be an apologist for the system. It’s the joke of the day for me.

      • 4 Gazebo 19 December 2011 at 19:49

        I think you are missing the point. Yujuan’s point is that we are unfairly absolving Singapore Inc (and by proxy the PAP) of blame. SMRT and Saw’s KPIs after privatization, have one goal only — maximization of shareholder value. Singapore Inc’s blatant abuse of free market economics led to this fiasco.

        In summary, judge Saw and SMRT’s performances based on their KPIs. If they failed them, then exact whatever measures the shareholders demand. But please do not judge them against some “social good” metric. That is not their responsibility, but our political masters’.

      • 5 Poker Player 20 December 2011 at 09:42

        “SMRT and Saw’s KPIs after privatization, have one goal only — maximization of shareholder value. ”

        The CEO of a private tinned sardine enterprise is responsible for making sure that his products are fit for human consumption. Maximization of shareholder value is not the only goal.

  2. 6 cy 17 December 2011 at 16:44

    this smrt train officer speaks of his job:”When I report for work, I just clock in with my staff pass without knowing who are my duty supervisors. Sometimes I do not even meet top management for years! I cannot even recall when was the last time I met my Manager Train Ops or Director Train Ops in OCC at City Hall.”

    This lack of interaction with the top management/ middle employees supports the argument of poor information sharing. It seems like daily operation is run on autopilot, thus if something unexpected happens which SOP cannot handle well, the officers on the ground won’t dare to take initiative for fear of being blamed (eg. the train officer will not open the door despite passengers complaining of poor ventilation and this is supported by top management in press briefing) and thus risk punishment.

  3. 7 The Closet Philosopher 17 December 2011 at 17:50

    Very good analysis. You should draw one diagram with arrow (feedback) from customers. Plus maybe a third finger.

    Time to break oligpoly of transport sector. Introduce more competition and other modes of public transport like mini-van.

  4. 8 Josh 17 December 2011 at 17:58

    The government knows that it cannot afford to sack/remove any top official even when it is becoming harder and harder for the general public to ignore this lack of accountability on all fronts.

    Because it will be the real tipping point, once a CEO or MP is removed due to their incompetence.

    They will fall like a house of cards.

  5. 10 Eric 17 December 2011 at 19:00

    Hi Alex,

    Another insightful n well articulated post.
    I agree with all your points raised 200%!


  6. 11 Dexter Wong 17 December 2011 at 21:28

    “there is insufficient redundancy… 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.”

    I was telling my friend exactly this today, when the North-East Line was opened, LTA scrapped off many of the bus services that ran parallel with the line in the interest of efficiency and profit maximization for the SMRT.

    Have they ever think that there are people who don’t even want to take the MRT when they want to go to Orchard? By scrapping the bus services, they are adding more people to the trains and results in the deterioration of the rails. When the line fails, their entire trip will be broken down into 2-4 different buses.

    So people will be lost or don’t know what to do in such situations. My suggestion for MRT operator/LTA: To have special buses services that run parallel to the MRT lines. It will solve several problems.

    1. Reduce load for the MRT lines.
    2. More choices for the commuters.
    3. Load balancing during peak hours.
    4. Redundancy for MRT and vice versa.
    5. Less confusion for commuters as they know which existing buses services run parallel to the MRT lines.

  7. 12 Vote for Change 18 December 2011 at 00:43

    Really. Enough is enough. Nationalization of our public transport system is the way to go. Let’s make all our ministers work hard for their million dollar salary. By the way, still waiting for Gerard Ee who is hardly efficient at all.

  8. 13 George 18 December 2011 at 00:47


    I agree with you about the tipping point as I hold the same view. IMO, we ARE already in the ballpark in this respect.

    I had warned about a related issues during those time when the ST allows readers to discuss an issue in the forum pages with little restraint as is the case now – in my view the virtually indiscriminate opening of the immigration flood gates means we would have in our midst very large and significant groups of immigrants whom the govt knows precious little about their background, cultural practices, attitudes, upbringing etc.

    They now number in the hundred thousands and even million. How these people (new citizens) would behave and react in times of adversarial and conditions and challenges – economic, social and political – is a BIG unknown. What we do know now is most definitely they would hardly behave like the typical kiasu, kiasee or kia ‘cheng hu’, that’s generally typical of the ‘true blue’ Singaporeans. The govt has sown the seed of people who would in future be challenging the way it has been governing.

    • 14 Boy who sees the King's new clothes 18 December 2011 at 16:46

      I don’t think we can point at the number of new people in this country… let’s focus on the integrity of the MRT lines… i don’t believe that our MRT’s traffic volume is even half of Hong Kong, Tokyo, Shanghai, London, Paris, New York, Beijing, ……. Just comparing their most heavy lines with our NS Line.
      HK, Paris and London are big time tourist markets too, so their metro takes local residents as well as tourists…
      What world class transport system do we have if our NS line cannot cope with 5.3mil population + tourists? Mind you, traffic going North – South will only get heavier in the next decade – that’s why we need to expand CTE, now to build the NSE and also the Thomson MRT line.
      There must be some fundamental issues with the NS Line… because our system is no where as complex nor as heavy in traffic volume as many other OLDER metro systems (London Underground for example).
      Spend more on overhauls and maintenance, eat into profits, but that will depress the EVA returns and reduces senior management’s bonuses… do i care about that management’s bonus as a tax payer? We already allowed SMRT the fare increases (MRT+buses+taxis) despite the $hundreds of million$ of profits.
      As a citizen, I want a guarantee that my children and I, and tourists and expats and all users of the public transport system, can have safe journeys on Singapore’s world class transport.
      Please sort it out.

      • 15 Chow 19 December 2011 at 10:00

        I will have to wait for the report because there is insufficient evidence released but anyway I think it’s probably the increased frequency of the trains that resulted in fatigue wear to the parts. If they haven’t been replaced since, then you can be sure most of them will start failing soon. I would probably say that given what little I know now, it is probably an issue of inspection/maintenance/ technical issue. I certainly hope they release the report to the public, including the data from the labs. If they do that, I will say that they are at least honest and open and sincere about not having this happen again.

      • 16 Piggy 19 December 2011 at 11:47

        To many of us it is very obvious this major train breadown is a long awaited manfiested issue that took its time to explode right infornt of the top mgt faces. I too like you, cannot understand what has AGE of the trains got to do with the breakdown. How can AGE be a reason ? I would think maintenance would be the reason for the breadown. Why manienance fail ? Is it because of cost, poor fundatmental design etc. Whatever the reason are, the bottom of the issue is cost = money = less profits, depress shareholder value.
        This inquiry that the govt is going to conduct, should add one more question….that have been agrued many years. How can Singaporeans trust a profit driven organisation to put public interests in front of profit ?

      • 17 Gazebo 19 December 2011 at 19:57

        i fully agree with your points. to me, its a clear case of underinvestment. and also an obsession with “payback” and “ROI”.

        “payback period” for public transport infrastructure is almost infinitely long if measured in the traditional financial sense. but the payback period for roads and expressways, due to singapore’s mangled and almost immoral system, is much shorter and financially tangible, because it can be measured by increased petrol tax and COE dollars. this is why the government is far more willing to spend on new roads and expressways, but never on public transportation.

  9. 18 Boy who sees the King's new clothes 18 December 2011 at 01:20

    Public services can never be genuine when profit motives are the key driver of the government behind the public services (even tho SMRT is privatised to make it more “efficient” and “competitive”).
    When CEOs and top management are rewarded based on the EVA (economic value added) method, you can bet short-term, profit driven, poor investments into maintenance and capital expenditure, will be the result – such that bonuses go up. Stern and Stewart did not produce the EVA model for it to be used as a tool for rewarding management performance. Neither was GDP growth a number that should be the key determinant of the quality (and bonus) of civil service.
    Those tools reward TLCs + civil servants for being short-term and myopic.
    PM and Temasek, it’s been a long snooze, about time to wake.

  10. 19 Anonymous 18 December 2011 at 12:17

    Extremely well written and spot on. Thanks Alex.

  11. 20 Dee 18 December 2011 at 15:28

    Ugh, they said the train had some ventilation but that was just a pitiful amount of air, wasn’t it? I’m shocked they didn’t even bother to install any generators, on the trains so they could have some amount of external power for lighting and other purposes. If you’ve a few fully powered generators, it’s quite easy to power some fans for ventilation. They could even power a drill or some power tool, to cut through some of the doors.

    Seriously, being stuck for 2 hours in a train is far from safe since mechanical errors can lead to far more dangerous problems, like flying sparks or gas emissions or fires or even explosions. I don’t think any of the explanations and “apologies” offered by the people-in-charge were even sufficient. Offering to bring in some foreign expert? Consulting some experts? How about they hold a live conference which is open to the public, that would be broadcast simultaneously on TV, internet and even radio?

  12. 21 Lim Bt 18 December 2011 at 16:49

    @ Yujuan, I cannot agree with you. CEO Saw walked into her job with her eyes wide opened. She collects huge monthly salary and yearly bonuses. How can she be absolved from the responsibilities. If she finds the kitchen too hot – get out.

  13. 22 darkvisage 19 December 2011 at 10:10

    of all the sins committed by the SMRT I believe the following are the most egregious:

    1. Failure to Activate Emergency SOPs in the appropriate Timeframe
    SOPs can be broken down to the following:
    – Emergency Response and Rescue
    – Internal Station Command and Control

    2. Failure of Command and Control to coordinate the said Emergency SOPs
    3. Failure to properly maintain tracks and trains for proper use

  14. 23 tk 19 December 2011 at 10:22

    Disruptions like this don’t have nearly as big an effect in “rhizome-type” cities. A decentralised, independent minded population always has the means to work around them.

    From this post,, comes the following:

    “…disruptions to oil or electricity supplies cannot bring a bicycle born population to a sudden halt. … cyclists got by, though motorists didn’t, on the day of “carmageddon“, when a freeway had to be closed for major works in Los Angeles. … in Tokyo after the 2011 earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster: [people] bought every last bike from every last bike store, and rode home. Cycling is nimble. It finds ways around. It keeps working though systems around it shut down.

  15. 24 tk 19 December 2011 at 10:24

    incidentally i was out on my sunday morning ride yesterday and there were hundreds of people waiting for charter buses and (non-existent) taxis outside the EW mrt stations (in the west, at least). i couldn’t resist giving the lemmings a cheeky wave as i rolled by.

  16. 25 Anonymous 19 December 2011 at 13:31

    Needing to be at the airport early Sunday morning I caught the first Circle Line train to Paya Lebar. I probably spent 25 minutes waiting in the station and riding the CL train. I did not hear or see one mention that the EW line was down until I got off the train in Paya Lebar. And only then I’m told that I might want to consider alternative arrangements! I’m in an unfamiliar area, don’t know where to find taxis quickly, don’t know the organisation of the bus stops, not sure how much time the two shuttle bus trips might take.

    Every station in the train network should provide up-to-date, clear information to its passengers on service disruptions anywhere in the network.

    • 26 Dee 20 December 2011 at 21:41

      As for service disruptions, I think they won’t be bothered to announce them at other stations. Since when has SMRT put safety and the customers first and its’ profits second? The number of times people have been caught by the train doors or even died from falling onto the platform are numerous.

      I think the MRT staff have been heavily understaffed as of late. Did anyone notice the number of people manning the control station has been reduced? This pushes more responsibilities onto the remaining staff and I doubt they’re able to handle all the duties during an emergency.

      Second, I’ve been travelling to quite a few places as of late, some near the MRT station and others rather remote. During my trips, I found that the MRT staff were often not very familiar with the surrounding areas: what bus service to take, what route to follow and so on. This seems pretty troubling because during a train disruption, crowds of people will be swarming the control station asking for directions to various locations.

      It would be better for SMRT to install quite a few electronic maps that are routinely updated and which would display the latest bus services and road information for the entire island. This would allow the SMRT staff to handle the emergency far more efficiently. And I also think SMRT needs to provide the staff members with better map and route information.

  17. 27 Nominee Investor 19 December 2011 at 16:31

    Interesting we all know that that almost all the essential services are owned by the government, sorry I stand corrected, by Temasek, which does not have to report to the government according to the Finance Minister. One interesting point to note is that most of the shareholding of these companies has Temasek as the main share-holder and several bank nominees. i.e DBS nominees. Who exactly are these mystery investors. If these were Ministers and their family members or relatives of the board would it not be conflict of interest or plain corruption. That’s why we need a FOI act to prevent such corruption

  18. 28 Chanel 20 December 2011 at 15:57

    “…reluctance to share information…”

    My hypothesis is that senior managment of SMRT had hoped to quietly rectify the fault without attracting the attention of the authorities, media and public to yet another service breakdown.

    This hypothesis was actually played out in the escape of Mas Selamat where MHA did not immediately alerted the public to be on the lookout for the escape of the most wanted terrorist. MHA was hoping to quietly apprehend Mas.

  19. 29 Jonno 23 December 2011 at 14:53

    The main problem with these MRT breakdowns lies with the utimate owner of these services – the SINGAPORE Government.
    Making Public Transportation PROFITABLE puts enormous pressure on the SMRT management running it to cut whatever corners to deliver profits on time to the Treasury. It takes away management focus on improving efficiency and reducing maintenance downtime because all management focus is on generating cash PROFITS!
    That type of system is not geared towards contingencies like breakdowns and subsequent problems. That is why the “Deer in the Headlights” phenomenon we saw with the SMRT management & staff during the breakdown episodes – They are not conditioned to handle breakdowns and their subsequent crisis management issues like public announcements, alternative transport arrangements and down line communications. It all degenerated in a mass breakdown and utter confusion.
    A second issue would be probably whether the MRT designs are able to cope with the explosive growth of the population within the last 20 years. The N-S line itself was an initial MRT line built during the 1980s – at a time when the population was 3 million. Now, it’s required to handle 6 million – a 2x increase. The older stations in the N-S/E-W lines are already quite packed during peak times.
    What I see in Singapore these days is a institutional system that extracts the greatest amounts of money from all essential facets of working life & businesses – public transport, private transport, utilities services like electricity, gas and water, telecommunications, etc. Only food and economical food service places like hawker centers, coffee shops remains affordable to the masses. Even that area is taken care of by the overall 7% GST system. As one Singaporean said to another, “You have to work to survive in Singapore, if no money! you’re good as dead!”

  20. 30 Sin Pariah 31 December 2011 at 13:48

    On SMRT/NEL trains, there are buttons which if you press frivolously will cost you a $5000 fine. You can even talk to the driver.

    On air planes and buses, the emergency exit doors are operated mechanically (ie, not electrically or electronically). What about MRT trains? What standards did LTA set? LTA comes under Transport Ministry who oversees the regulator.

    So for SMRT’s Public Relations to lay the blame on train drivers who can’t communicate properly in English, why isn’t SMRT even saying that their train doors in each car could not be opened mechanically even in emergencies?

    When it got stuffy after 20 mins, couldn’t the doors be opened for air ventilation with warnings NOT to disembark because of still-electrified rail or whatever other risks there are? Couldn’t the train driver engage the passsengers and appoint emergency leaders in each car from amongst captive commuters (who could answer affirmatively thru the intercom system) to ensure compliance?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: