SINGAPORE - Rail operator SMRT made the correct calls in handling the evacuation of passengers stranded on stalled trains during the massive MRT disruption on Oct 14, said Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung.
He told the House on Tuesday (Nov 3) that rail guidelines call for a decision to be made within 30 minutes on whether to evacuate passengers from trains and walk on the tracks to the nearest station - a process termed detrainment.
SMRT only decided to evacuate passengers 40 minutes after the breakdown began that evening as it initially held "some hope" that it could draw power from another substation to revive the network, he said.
However, the attempt to reinstate power to the disrupted sections of the North-South and East-West lines failed. It also shut down train services along part of the Circle Line.
About 6,800 commuters were caught in stalled trains across three MRT lines on Oct 14, of whom 78 commuters remained stranded in one train for nearly three hours due to bad weather. The long time taken to evacuate them had drawn criticism from the public.
Mr Ong said detrainment is carried out only as a "last resort", due to the risks involved - for instance tripping on the tracks or walking next to the third rail, which has high electricity currents passing through it when trains are running.
"You have got to make sure you disable (the third rail), because it is no joke walking next to 750 volts... and that night, there was inclement weather and then there's lightning risk."
SMRT stopped the detrainment once there was lightning risk, he noted in response to Mr Saktiandi Supaat (Bishan-Toa Payoh). "Never put passengers' lives in danger.
"I think the decisions they made that night in terms of detrainment was correct," he added.
The minister had recapped the Land Transport Authority's findings on how the concurrent failures of a power cable and trip coil in a circuit breaker along the Tuas West Extension had caused the Oct 14 breakdown, which affected 123,000 commuters.
On whether SMRT would be penalised for the breakdown, Mr Ong said in response to Mr Saktiandi that systems supplier Alstom has already committed to replacing faulty equipment that contributed to the breakdown.
Noting that SMRT and the Land Transport Authority (LTA) have also reflected on what they could have done better, he said, adding that it was more important to work together to improve the rail network rather than point fingers.
"The mood can easily change when it becomes one of penalty and punishment," he said. "And then the mood changes when everyone... to put it crudely, cover their behinds and after a while you don't get the best outcome."
But there is a disciplinary structure in place, and the authorities will penalise operators if necessary, he added.
Mr Ong said Alstom will replace all electrical power cables spanning 150km along the Tuas West Extension by the end of next year.
It will also replace all 113 trip coils - core components of circuit breakers - along the three-year-old western stretch of the East-West Line by the end of this year.
The company will do so at its own cost, which it did not divulge.
Mr Ong said: "Nobody wishes for an incident like this to happen, but when it did, we should not let it break our spirit.
"So as a team, we take collective responsibility, not finger point, and we will do our best and close the gaps."