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Khaw ‘deeply sorry’ for first major incident involving new MRT signalling system

SINGAPORE — Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan apologised and said he was as upset as commuters by the latest rail mishap on Wednesday (Nov 15), in which a train rear-ended another at Joo Koon MRT station. Two SMRT employees and 27 passengers were injured.

Khaw ‘deeply sorry’ for first major incident involving new MRT signalling system

Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan speaking to reporters folliwng the Joo Koon incident. Photo: Nuria Ling/TODAY

SINGAPORE — Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan apologised and said he was as upset as commuters by the latest rail mishap on Wednesday (Nov 15), in which a train rear-ended another at Joo Koon MRT station. Two SMRT employees and 27 passengers were injured.

“Obviously, people will be upset. I’m equally upset,” said Mr Khaw when asked how public confidence would be affected, with the incident taking place so soon after tunnel flooding on Oct 7 disrupted service on the North South Line.

In a post on Facebook past midnight, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam also said that the recent MRT-related issues have "sorely tested the public mood".

"(Wednesday’s) collision adds to that. People naturally ask why these problems are recurring. They are fed up, despite the overall improvement in transport. When trains get delayed, people feel it acutely, and the overall measurements of disruption-free periods mean less to them," said Mr Shanmugam. 

Speaking to reporters after sitting in – together with SMRT chairman Seah Moon Ming and SMRT group chief executive Desmond Kuek – on a joint press conference by the Land Transport Authority, train operator SMRT and new signalling system supplier Thales at SMRT’s headquarters, Mr Khaw said he had advised the team to suspend operations of the Tuas West Extension – the five-station stretch from Joo Koon to Tuas Link - on Thursday for thorough checks.

“This is the first major incident involving the new signalling system. Thales is confident of the system. My advice to the team (was), let’s play doubly safe where safety is involved. That’s why I advised them to suspend the Tuas West extension tomorrow. Then we have a whole day to do a thorough check before we resume (operations),” he said.

“It’s an awful day today. Commuters were inconvenienced, some even injured. We are deeply sorry for that.” 

For the 29 people who were injured as a result of the collision, Mr Shanmugam said that "our prayers and thoughts are with (them)".

Second Transport Minister Ng Chee Meng and Senior Minister of State for Transport Lam Pin Min visited the injured at hospitals, Mr Khaw said. The victims have been “most understanding and we are deeply grateful,” he added. SMRT’s care teams are assisting the injured and SMRT Trains’ senior vice-president of rail operations for the North-South and East-West lines, Mr Alvin Kek, said a process is in place to help with their medical fees. Three of the injured remain in hospital for observation.

Asked if there would be a Committee of Inquiry (COI) on the incident, Mr Khaw said he would let ongoing investigations continue. “If the facts are clear then there’s no need for COI,” he said. “If they are unclear or if there’s ambiguity, then we will see.”

Thales’ project manager for the new signalling system, Mr Peter Tawn, said it was the first time the anomaly in the signalling system had been observed anywhere in the world. Called the communications-based train control (CBTC) signalling system, it allows trains to run closer together, at intervals of up to 100 seconds instead of the 120 seconds during peak hours under the previous system. The train that was hit from behind had its software protection feature removed when it passed a faulty signalling circuit somewhere earlier in the day.

On why it took the LTA and SMRT nearly three hours to issue a first statement on the collision, Mr Kek said at the press conference that the key priority in the aftermath was “primarily the safety and well-being of passengers”.

Analysts told TODAY injuries sustained from Wednesday’s incident took the MRT woes beyond inconvenience to commuters.

While people used to be “pissed off about delays”, the issue of safety has now surfaced, said transport consultant Tham Chen Munn. “The question is, 'Will it get worse?' This involved just a stationary train.”

Associate Professor Lawrence Loh, director of the Centre for Governance, Institutions and Organisations at the National University of Singapore Business School, said the incident “points to a whole new dimension to the problem”.

“The most we had gotten were commuter inconvenience – we lost time, we got frustrated, but this morning it was a new turning point... We are reaching a new level when actual limbs are involved, literally, and it points to the fact that it is even timelier for a relook (of the public transport system),” he said.

The analysts called for greater urgency to resolve the problem and restore commuter confidence. Assoc Prof Loh said that SMRT’s upper management needs to be “bold and circumspect” in coming up with solutions.

Assistant Professor Terence Fan, a transport expert at the Singapore Management University, suggested SMRT “go back to the basics”. Staff members could go on quick refresher courses, he added, in order to keep them “motivated and careful of what they do”.

Assoc Prof Loh said the incident points to persisting management and governance issues. “These drive technical processes, and there are still further questions on the maintenance regime,” he noted.

Mr Tham added: “This doesn’t help the Government’s push to get 75 per cent of people to use public transport (as their main mode of transport by 2030).”

Mr Khaw had also set a Mean Kilometres Between Failure target of 1,000,000 train-km by 2020, which Mr Shanmugam said is “very ambitious”. “But I believe he will be able to achieve it," he said in his Facebook post.  

Mr Shanmugam expressed confidence in Mr Khaw, saying that he would "sort things out". He highlighted how Mr Khaw had "moved to strengthen the engineering teams" after taking over as Transport Minister, and recounted how Mr Khaw had said that he would "go where I am needed" when he was asked if he could take up the portfolio in 2015.

"But from a public perspective, all that hard work, good work, has been affected by the recent serious incidents," Mr Shanmugam said.

"It has been a tough two years for Boon Wan. But I have every confidence that he will deal with the challenges.”

Apart from the collision, there were delays on the Circle Line on Wednesday morning. These were due to a separate signalling fault that resulted in trains having to move as a slower speed, SMRT said. In the evening on the same day, commuters were hit by further train delays on the North-South Line (NSL) and parts of the East-West Line (EWL). SMRT told commuters around 6.30pm to brace for delays of up to 40 minutes on the NSL as a result of fewer trains on the tracks. The rail operator also advised commuters to “seek alternative transport”, adding that bridging bus services, which had been available from Bishan to Yishun (one way), as well as regular bus services between both stations are available.

 

 

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