2017 Yearender: Shocks and surprises: SMRT's track, train and power faults

Bumpy ride

Work culture and staff accountability in spotlight after train collision, tunnel flooding

With a de-listing that relieved the company of shareholder pressure, and the Government buying over its operating assets last year, SMRT was poised to ride into this year in good shape.

The first major renewal effort for the North-South and East-West lines - to replace track sleepers - had been completed by the end of last year, a power-rail replacement project would finish by August, and the North-South Line would transit to a new signalling system promising shorter train intervals.

Then, SMRT appeared to have a lot going for it. But the rail operator seemed to have gone into a downward spiral this year as it was hit by several high-profile and shocking incidents, including flooding in an MRT tunnel and a train collision. And even a lightning strike.

The company also came under intense public scrutiny this year, with maintenance lapses laying bare issues involving the company's culture and staff accountability.

Even as rail reliability - measured by the distance trains travelled on average before encountering a delay - showed improvements this year, commuters' frustrations with SMRT continued to mount.

Faults arising from the signalling system tests, which were not captured in reliability data, were the source of frequent delays between May and September. Commuters also complained that public broadcasts on delays were not timely.


Track, train and power faults have often been the culprits behind MRT disruptions.

But on the afternoon of Oct 7, it was a poorly maintained anti-flooding system that shut down a large segment of the North-South Line for 141/2 hours till the next day, affecting 231,000 commuters.


  • May 29: Full-day tests of the new signalling system on the North-South Line commence. Initial teething issues result in repeated delays in subsequent months.

    June 18: Tuas West Extension, a new four-station, 7.5km stretch opens, extending the East-West Line into the Tuas industrial heartland.

    June 28: Services on the North-South Line and Tuas West Extension are disrupted for about 30 minutes due to a signalling fault.

    Sept 9: Broken rail support brackets on the Bukit Panjang LRT result in train services on the entire line being unavailable for about five hours.

    Oct 7: MRT tunnel between Bishan and Braddell stations floods, disrupting service on a large part of the North-South Line for 141/2 hours.

    Oct 25: A rubber insulator melts along the city-bound tracks of the North-South Line, forcing SMRT to run trains over a 150m stretch between Bishan and Ang Mo Kio stations at a slower pace.

    Nov 15: Two trains collide at Joo Koon MRT station, injuring 38 people.

    Nov 20: Lightning strikes trackside equipment, causing a westbound train to stall near Bedok station.

    Dec 8 to 31: Shorter train operating hours on the weekend at 17 East-West Line stations and two North-South Line stations, for engineering works and a re-signalling project. Full day closures on some Sundays as well.

Neither the authorities nor SMRT could foresee the shocking scene of a train stuck in water on electrified tracks. That day, a torrential downpour resulted in rainwater up to 1m deep flooding the tunnels between Bishan and Braddell stations.

It took an overnight effort involving teams from the Singapore Civil Defence Force, PUB, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) and SMRT to pump out the water.

While unprecedented, the incident was entirely preventable, the LTA said in its investigation report released earlier this month.

The flood prevention measures - a storm water sump pit to collect rainwater and pumps to discharge it into the drains - were more than adequate and had a huge buffer. But a lack of maintenance, audits, and managerial supervision led to the water pit being likely close to full when the downpour happened that day, making flooding inevitable.

SMRT found that staff had falsified maintenance records over a seven-month period, signing off on work that was not done.

In the aftermath, SMRT sacked eight employees, demoted one, and took disciplinary action against two more. It also said it reserved a right to take legal action against two staff members who quit shortly after the flooding incident.


The revelations cast a dark shadow over SMRT, raising serious questions about its work culture and internal accountability.

Its group chief executive Desmond Kuek said at a press conference following the tunnel flooding that many of SMRT's major disruptions in the past "have been attributed in some part, or all, to human error or failure".

And while progress has been made on inculcating a positive work culture, Mr Kuek on Oct 16 pointed to "deep-seated cultural issues within the company that have needed more time than anticipated to root out".

Addressing that comment, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said in Parliament last month that "growing the right culture is the responsibility of everyone - from the top leadership down to the workers".

After the discovery that maintenance records had been doctored, SMRT offered staff an amnesty period to own up to any lapses in their work, without penalty, before it embarked on a massive audit exercise.

Calling it a rare move, observers said it was SMRT's way to quickly identify any potential problems that it was not aware of. Some staff from SMRT's building and facilities department took up the offer and admitted to breaches.


Still reeling from October's flooding, SMRT was hit by a second major rail incident on Nov 15, when two trains collided on the westbound tracks at Joo Koon MRT station in the morning.

The accident, which injured 38 people, was the second collision on Singapore's rail system. In 1993, one train ran into another at Clementi station, injuring 160 passengers.

While the first case was due to an oil spill on the tracks, last month's accident was caused by compatibility issues between old and new signalling systems used on the East-West Line.

As one train passed a trackside circuit, its protective "bubble" - an invisible barrier in the system to prevent collisions - was removed.

As this train was about to move off from a stationary position at Joo Koon MRT station, a second train behind it failed to recognise its presence, and knocked into it.

The supplier of the new signalling system, French company Thales, has apologised and taken full responsibility for the accident. Thales said that it had operated legacy and new systems on live tracks - like what was happening in Singapore - without incident in other cities.

After the collision, a decision was made to separate the Tuas West Extension, which opened in June and uses a new signalling system, from the rest of the East-West Line, which is in the midst of being upgraded to the new system.

Westbound train commuters will have to get off at Joo Koon MRT station, take a shuttle bus, and then re-board the train at Gul Circle, the first stop on the extension.

To accelerate the completion of the re-signalling project for the entire East-West Line by the middle of next year, instead of next year end, there are now shorter MRT operating hours on stretches of the line during the weekend, to give engineers more time during off-service hours to work.


In a rare show of contrition by a top official here, SMRT chairman Seah Moon Ming bowed at a press conference on Oct 16 to apologise for the MRT tunnel flooding incident.

He admitted that SMRT has disappointed commuters and affected their lives with each MRT service disruption. Mr Seah, who joined SMRT in July, looks to bring a different brand of leadership as chairman, by being more hands-on, and meeting staff on the ground regularly.

He has stepped down from his chief executive position at Temasek unit Pavilion Energy to focus his energies on solving SMRT's problems.

Perhaps there will be a light at the end of the tunnel next year for SMRT and commuters.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 19, 2017, with the headline 'Bumpy ride'. Print Edition | Subscribe