Rail meltdown

Jul 07, 2015 10.28PM |

by Abraham Lee

What is it about a train service breakdown that makes people so upset? Is it because they believed assurances that public transport is first class? Or because they realised that buying and maintaining a car had become too costly? Or maybe a combination of both – they’ve ditched their cars for public transport because the system is supposed to get better even as cars get more expensive?

It could well be the timing of the breakdown that adds to the temperature. Just when people are done with work and looking forward to getting home, the train slows down, stalls and they have to, to use an ugly term, “detrain”.

Facebook comment
A comment on The Middle Ground’s video upload on Facebook from a commuter who had been stuck on an affected train.

Besides being in a human jam with bodies reeking after a full day of work, you get conflicting instructions on whether the bus rides are really free as the train operator announced. And you argue with the bus driver who wants you to “tap! tap!”

You did think for a moment about switching trains until you realise that this wasn’t a breakdown involving trips along a few stations. The North South East West lines were all down, which means there’s no point going to any of the 50 stations that line the routes to board a train. This is a real rail meltdown.

A screen at Buona Vista MRT station displaying the stations affected by the disruption (Photo by Daniel Yap).
A screen at Buona Vista MRT station displaying the stations affected by the disruption (Photo by Daniel Yap).

You start asking yourself if this is too familiar a story. Was it that long ago when a Commission of Inquiry was held to investigate the two breakdowns in December 2011? But this is far worse. At that time, only NS line was affected. An estimated 127,000 commuters were affected by the service disruption on Dec 15. Two days later, about 94,000 commuters had to go through the same thing.

The breakdowns in 2011 were caused by defective fasteners which resulted in a sagging Third Rail, which carried the power for the trains. The sagging Third Rail eventually caused damage to the Current Collector Devices on the trains and caused trains to lose power. The damaged Third Rail eventually collapsed onto the track bed, preventing the further passage of any trains and shutting down the line.

The damaged fasteners were first temporarily held in place with cable ties before being completely replaced. A Committee of Inquiry found design and maintenance lapses on SMRT’s part.

There was some fallout of course. SMRT CEO Saw Phaik Hwa resigned and Mr Desmond Kuek, former Lieutenant-General and Chief of Defence Force of the SAF stepped in, bringing along with him a whole lot of mates from the SAF. There were some train delays but SMRT put up a much better record of service.

Investments were made to replace the rail sleepers on the aging North-South and East-West lines, overhaul older trains, upgrade the train signalling system and step up the maintenance regime, even as new lines were being opened up across the island.

Then, today happened.

At around 7:00 pm, the first signs that the trains were creaking along the pioneer generation lines were these.

When the trains came to the halt, commuters were told that it was due to a traction power fault.

The SMRT made a series of announcements…


The Land Transport Authority, with its motto “we keep the world moving” weighed in as well at 8:42pm.


The LTA announced that train service was disrupted “due to a power fault” and that their preliminary investigations indicated that “the incident was caused by a power trip” although it is not clear how this could take out two lines.

In the meantime, all was chaos especially at interchanges as swarms of workers had to find alternative ways to get home.


Some Muslims did not make it home to break fast.

On social media, pictures and irate posts were being shared. Some recalled the news a few weeks ago of the CEO who was paid more than $2.25 million last year, double what he made when he first joined the rail operator in October 2012.

Earlier today, SMRT held its annual general meeting to discuss it prospects.

It must have been glad that the meeting took place before the breakdown, which ranks as the worst to have happened in its history. The breakdown provided much fodder for wags on social media. Mr Brown weighed in with #ThingsIDidWhenMRTWasDown while satirical sites suggested that the breakdown was a way for SMRT to celebrate SG50. The more enterprising Singaporeans got into the act offering…Uber services…while the kinder ones offered free rides.


Three hours later, SMRT restored reduced-speed service to the East-West line, and the North-South line was also restored at reduced speeds an hour after that, at about 11pm. As train services will cease for the night as usual for inspections, it is unclear if services in the morning will also be at reduced speeds, or if there will still be free bus services in the morning.

Did you get stuck too? Tell us about it.


Featured photo by Daniel Yap.

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