The Circle tightens around SMRT boss

Minister expresses concern over way incident was handled; after spate of disruptions, some ask if problem is systemic

THIS year has been SMRT CEO Saw Phaik Hwa’s annus horribilis and it might also be her last. Resignation has suddenly become an option for Ms Saw, after the worst train breakdown in the firm’s 24 years of operations happened on her watch, on Thursday night.

When asked yesterday at a press conference if she would resign, Ms Saw said: ‘It’s something I would seriously consider if it is necessary to do so, but I think I will reserve comment at this moment.’

Ms Saw apologised for the five-hour breakdown on the North-South Line that left 127,000 commuters stranded, including the 4,000 that were stuck in train carriages with little or no ventilation.

This comes on the back of the 40-minute breakdown on the Circle Line, which caused a six-hour disruption to the full service, squarely in the middle of the morning rush period on Wednesday.

When asked about the likelihood of Ms Saw stepping down, Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew said: ‘The important thing to us is to hold the SMRT board and management responsible and to deliver the commitments that they have made.’

He was speaking to reporters at Changi Airport last night, after returning from the Asean Transport Ministers’ meeting in Phnom Penh. ‘I was very disappointed with how this was handled, especially for the commuters that were in the affected trains.’

Calling Thursday night’s disruption ‘immensely serious’, Mr Lui added that he had spoken to SMRT chairman Koh Yong Guan yesterday afternoon to ‘reiterate the government’s concern over the incident and how it was handled’.

Some wanted to move on from the incident. ‘Singaporeans should just let go,’ said housewife Kylie-Lee Wearnes.

If there is any sympathy for Ms Saw, there is certainly very little for the corporation itself, which has seen a chain of service disruptions and two major security breaches in recent years.

On two separate occasions, SMRT’s train depots were broken into, and its train carriages vandalised. In September, a four-hour disruption on the Circle Line was blamed on a faulty cable.

The woes of the Circle Line have been especially difficult for transport specialists to swallow, given how new it is. Referring to SMRT’s statement on Wednesday about the ‘communication network problem’ that had not yet been fixed, associate professor Lee Der Horng of the National University of Singapore said: ‘This, I can only say, is very disappointing. (The Circle Line) is brand-new . . . and this can still happen. I believe that before they opened, they worked with regulators to do the checking and testing.’

On Thursday night, Mr Lui said on Facebook: ‘I do not know if these are isolated incidents or whether there are systemic and more serious underlying issues causing these breakdowns.’

He added yesterday that a team of specialists will be assembled by next week for a ‘thorough review’ of the transport system.

Anthony Chin, an associate professor of transport economics at NUS, told BT: ‘The Circle Line took 10 years to complete – 10 years is enough time to test the system. If it’s a systemic problem, then we’re in for a lot of trouble.’

Where the 24-year-old North-South Line is concerned, Prof Lee – who is a transport researcher – was willing to concede that it might have been an issue of age. SMRT had attributed Thursday night’s breakdown to a ‘power rail problem’.

‘It’s possible as time goes by, the power rail may have some additional wear-and-tear. If this is the reason, it cannot be used as an excuse. The increased train service frequency doesn’t mean we should have to compromise on service reliability. They should also intensify the maintenance,’ he said.

Three years ago, the company made history with a record-breaking fine – $387,176 – when the East-West Line experienced a seven-hour disruption. This affected 57,000 rush-hour commuters – less than half the number stranded on Thursday night.

While a fine of a similar size will not be material to SMRT, which took in $161 million in net profit for its last financial year, some transport analysts are expecting a new record-breaking fine.

Under the Rapid Transit Systems Act, the LTA can fine rail operators up to $1 million if service disruptions are found to be caused by negligence.

‘The fine for this one has to be more. (LTA) also has to take into consideration public sentiment at the moment,’ a transport analyst told BT.

‘I am more concerned about the infrastructure at this point – whether they need to make a massive overhaul. The refunds to passengers and the cost of the broken window will be minute compared to SMRT’s earnings.’

The window the analyst was referring to was broken by a marine insurance professional who had been among the thousands stuck in trains for almost one hour on Thursday night.

Even as SMRT tallies up the total cost, economists believe that the emotional and social costs borne by the passengers affected are bound to be hefty.

It’s traumatic for a lot of people who had to walk in the tunnel, especially young children, and this will form their reference point about public transport.

This latest series of public transport snafus has come at an inopportune time, on the heels of an unpopular cab fare hike and in the wake of a Chinese national bus driver getting lost for two hours after being diverted from his route.

While the quality of service standards for bus operators have been tightened over the last few years, there has been no change to the financial penalties imposed since implementation in 2007.

‘Cab fares have just been raised and (the disruptions) happen,’ said Vishnu Varathan, economist at Mizuho Corporate Bank. ‘(The average commuter) will say, ‘Why am I hemmed in?’ And we will attribute it to all kinds of things – our policy on foreigners, on how we regulate public transport and then you get pretty miserable, thinking about these things.

‘Maybe you can’t argue that the breakdown was due to more (foreigners). That’s a bit spurious. But you can argue that the fact that people have to miss three trains and we’re seeing packed trains – that is something, though.’

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