I think there should be two committees of inquiry rather than one. The question of technical lapses that led to the massive train breakdowns last Thursday and Saturday are completely separate from that of crisis management. Committees of inquiry, while usually led by a judge, need to have enough experts in the necessary fields to be effective. If we try to give a single committee a double-headed mandate, it would mean having fewer technical experts on it in order to accommodate crisis management experts. Either that, or make the committee unwieldingly large.
The last few days have revealed that there are indeed huge questions to look into. Visual checks conducted on Sunday on the entire lengths of the North-South and East-West lines found 21 missing ‘claws’ — hook-like pieces that hold the power rail in place. Where they were missing, the power rail seemed to have sagged. The Straits Times had a graphic (click for bigger version):
Thirteen trains were also found with damage, presumably on their “collector shoes”, which are the parts that make contact with the power rail in order to draw electricity to drive the train.
There is suspicion that the defects were in some way related to “floating slabs”, which Transport minister Lui Tuck Yew said was last examined ten years ago and found to be in good condition.
This statement was jumped at by several people on Facebook, comparing it to how other metro operators make weekly visual checks of all their tracks. Why does SMRT Corp, the operator of the North-South, East-West and Circle Lines not do the same? I believe there is a misunderstanding here. Checking the floating slab is not the same as checking the tracks. Apparently, one has to drill underneath the tracks in order to examine the floating slabs, and even so, one might only be able to do this on a sampling basis.
The technical issues may well turn out to be easier to investigate than the crisis management issues.
Anecdotal reports were that the six-hour breakdown on Thursday and seven-hour disruption on Saturday were very badly handled. Even the scheduled shutdown on Sunday morning, to enable a visual inspection of all tracks, turned out to be messy. Shuttle buses intended to ferry passengers from station to station did not know their routes and got lost. At the start of the day, there were reports that the buses did not arrive till more than an hour later. One man wrote to say that he rode the Circle Line to Paya Lebar Station on Sunday, expecting to change to the East-West Line for an onward journey to Changi, only to discover, only upon arrival at Paya Lebar that the East-West Line was not running. There was apparently no information en-route on the Circle Line as to what was happening at other parts of the rail system.
The above suggests that whatever back-up plans SMRT had, they were less than adequate. When a bus driver reports that all he was told was to follow the viaduct to get to the next station — a suggestion that was useless when parts of the track ran underground — we know that route maps for shuttle buses were either not prepared or not available. Information dissemination to commuters was just as bad, as the experience of the guy going to Changi would attest.
If a scheduled shutdown like Sunday morning’s produced such confusion, one can imagine the chaos of Thursday’s and Saturday’s unscheduled breakdowns.
There’s more than enough work for a separate Commission of Inquiry looking into crisis management and back-up plans.
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On Thursday night, I myself only heard announcements made in pidgin English over the public announcement system while on the platforms, but not while inside the train. As I wrote previously, I couldn’t quite understand what the announcer was saying, and I don’t believe others did either. Over the weekend, people have suggested announcements in the four official languages. Frankly, if the station master couldn’t even manage an intelligible announcement in English we can forget about getting it in other languages.
In the trains during the breakdown, people used the intercom to communicate with the drivers. The drivers themselves almost surely knew next to nothing about what was going on. They would be trained to wait for instructions from above and all they could do was to pass to whichever passengers were buzzing them on the intercom the same meaningless drivel that they themselves were getting.
Yet, it’s not as if there aren’t better ways of getting information out to commuters. Look at this picture I took on Monday:
Our trains are equipped with several devices than can be used for communication. A proper information dissemmination system would use all these devices, in addition to twitter and overhead speakers. Devices A and B would allow information to be sent out centrally; that way, they can be up-to-date, comprehensive and in several languages. Device B could even feature photos, for example showing passengers on a train what a back-up shuttle bus looks like, or a map where to find them, BEFORE passengers reach a station. It could also display information about other bus services available at the station the train was going to to be stuck at. Doing all this will lessen the confusion at stations.
I wonder though whether devices A and B are capable of being centrally reprogrammed at short notice. In fact I wonder if device B is really meant for advertising only.
These would be the kinds of questions we should ask. What tools were at out disposal to better manage a crisis situation? Why weren’t they used? Why did nobody plan ahead, imagining various scenarios?