Rail breakdowns: Where does the buck stop?

SMRT is doubling up on efforts to improve rail reliability. But it cannot do it alone.

Monday’s four-line failure of Singapore’s rail system was just the latest in a series of breakdowns. But until we understand the “why” instead of just “how”, there is a high chance that more failures of the system will recur.ST PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR

Monday's four-line failure of Singapore's rail system should not have happened.

The July 7, 2015 breakdown which crippled the entire North-South and East-West lines - which account for three-quarters of all rail trips - should not have happened.

The March 22 accident this year which killed two young SMRT workers should not have happened.

Perhaps the same could be said of previous security breaches of highly secured train depots by vandals. Or even the SMRT bus driver strike that broke Singapore's 26-year blemish-free record.

If one were to look at these incidents coldly as scores in a report card, SMRT chief Desmond Kuek, who has been in the job for 31/2 years, would have a lot to answer for.

But is it fair to lay it all on the shoulders of Mr Kuek, a retired general and former chief of defence force?

The short answer is "no", even if he must be held accountable for some lapses. SMRT shareholders and its board of esteemed directors should decide which.

Monday’s four-line failure of Singapore’s rail system was just the latest in a series of breakdowns. But until we understand the “why” instead of just “how”, there is a high chance that more failures of the system will recur. ST PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR

In his first interview with The Straits Times over three years ago, the suave and candid helmsman declared: "There are clearly managerial, structural, cultural and systemic issues (within SMRT) that need addressing." Fixing those "deep-seated" issues, he said, "is one of my top priorities".

Was Mr Kuek too gung-ho? After all, is it realistic to expect one man to undo things which have taken years to develop?

To put it bluntly, Mr Kuek has inherited a company which has not been focused on its core business for nearly a decade in its pursuit of enhancing "shareholder value". Perhaps in not so many words, a Committee of Inquiry convened after two massive breakdowns in December 2011 indicated as much.

The company underwent a hollowing out of its engineering expertise as executives disenchanted by the corporate emphasis on retail and rental left.

And yet the way SMRT has turned out is not all the doing of the company itself and its board. The Land Transport Authority (LTA), as regulator, has a part to play, and perhaps even the Ministry of Transport.

For instance, a plan to upgrade the MRT network's signalling system had been proposed as far back as the late 1990s, when former navy chief Kwek Siew Jin was heading SMRT. Yet, nothing was done until recently.

Meanwhile, Singapore's population exploded. Between 2004 and 2010, the number of residents grew by nearly one million.

The transport infrastructure was one of the first to feel the strain. Complaints of crowdedness and long waits became incessant. As a quick fix, train services were ramped up, followed by injection of additional trains.

But the system, already time-worn, could not cope with the extra load. Not just physical load, but also electrical load.

Increasingly, power-related incidents - usually the ones with the highest impact on commuters - began to feature prominently.

According to LTA statistics, rail disruptions caused by power and trackside faults more than doubled between 2011 and 2014.

Things came to a head last July, when a power trip brought the North-South and East-West lines down. It was an unprecedented event - but it held its dubious record only briefly.

Nine months later, another power trip caused the western portion of four lines to fail. That was Monday.

Now, multiple-line failures are extremely rare. And they are rare because rail systems are inherently robust. They have to be, as they move millions of people across billions of kilometres a year.

So, why is it happening to us? And twice within nine months?

No doubt loading any system will put extra strain on it. And so, until we renew the network's power system - which is on the cards - we will experience occasional power trips.

But surely the system should not be designed to allow a singular flaw to propagate into multi-line failure. A design that allows that is simply a bad design, period.

In Monday's incident, it was a trip within the Buona Vista power intake station - a facility that draws 66 kilovolts of electricity from Singapore's power grid before stepping it down to 22kV to distribute to the MRT network's substations.

There is, however, some redundancy in the system. If one intake station develops a fault, the operator can switch to another (there are five in the network).

Apparently, that was exactly what SMRT tried to do, but it could not get the switchover to work. And even if it had worked, it would have caused at least half an hour of service disruption.

Which was why a panel of electrical experts recommended an automatic switchover. The panel, which submitted its recommendations just days before Monday's mega failure, listed this as one of its urgent measures.

Separately, it is equally vital for SMRT and LTA to understand why a single flaw could result in a system-wide failure. Its joint probe into the July 7, 2015 incident was unsatisfactory because even though a salt-encrusted component was found to be a prime suspect, a similar power trip could not be replicated when investigators tested their hypothesis.

Until we understand the "why" instead of just "how", there is a high chance that a similar failure will recur. And such failures have a huge and lasting impact. If we cannot address these failures, it matters little if we are able to clock 200,000 train-kilometres between breakdowns, or even 300,000.

Not only that. If multiple-line failures continue, they will render impotent our redundancy plan - the one where we build many lines, and commuters faced with one failed line could walk to the next.

As for Mr Kuek, it is clear he has some way to go in addressing the issues he spoke of. The safety lapses that led to last month's fatal incident say as much.

And yet, it is also clear there are things which are beyond his control - like the design of the system, and the state of the infrastructure.

Someone will eventually have to decide where the buck should stop, and when it stops.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 28, 2016, with the headline 'Rail breakdowns: Where does the buck stop?'. Subscribe