Singapore’s Mass Raid Transit (MRT) network experienced its largest disruption on 7 July 2015, with the total breakdown of the East West and North South Lines, lasting over three and a half hours. An estimated 250,000 commuters were inconvenienced by the breakdown, which happened during the evening rush hour.
Since its inception in 1987, the Singapore MRT system, a project spearheaded by former President Ong Teng Cheong, has served commuters well, providing an affordable and efficient mode of transportation for everyone.
However, in recent years, breakdowns from the MRT system have been growing in frequency, even for the lines that have only been in service for a few years. Many of the breakdowns would not have been reported if not for social media.
A press statement released by the SMRT on the recent breakdown said that the company would be seeking assistance from retired engineers to address the situation.
“SMRT is working with external experts to review the design robustness of the power network, and to find ways to further segment it in order to avoid a similar network-wide power failure. We have also brought in a number of retired SMRT staff with experience in network power issues to assist in the investigations. At the same time, we have advanced the procurement of additional condition monitoring systems that were being developed jointly with R&D agencies.”
So is there need to bring in retired engineers who may not be familiar with newer technology? And why are existing engineers unable to fix the system, given that over time, engineers employed by the company would have been more experienced and better trained in the train network?
And why are breakdowns more frequent these days despite promises by the government to fix them since the last General Election in 2011?
Are they not putting in enough effort in doing so or are they unable to do so without addressing a far more serious problem about the transport company.
A resignation letter dated 10 September 2004, written by a former assistant engineer (AE) more than ten years ago may shed some light on the deep rooted problem of the transport company.
This was what the letter said:
“I would like to thank you all for giving me the opportunity to work here at SMRT for so many years, I have truly enjoyed my time here, and I will always be grateful for the opportunity to stay on. I have always tried to do my best, even in the last year or so, and I wish that I could stay on until my retirement day. I had never wanted to leave the company, but unfortunately, in life, sometimes one is forced to make difficult decisions that have less to do with what one actually desires, and more to do with what one feels is necessary. In view of everything that I have heard, everything I have seen and everything that I have personally experienced in EPL (Escalators, Platform screen doors & Lifts) in the last three years or so, I cannot, with good conscience, continue to work here any more. I greatly fear if the current working practices continue, a serious incident may happen in future, and I have no desire to be a party for the occurrence.
I have compiled here a few examples of the problems plaguing EPL, problems that I believe have led to two other long-serving Assistant Engineers, XXX and XXX to resign before me. I have tried hard to change the system from within by raising issues to the EPL management that I think are important and should be looked into urgently, and I have tried to offer concrete suggestions on how to deal with some of these problems, but it appears to me that many of these problems were not, and are not, being dealt with seriously, if at all.
The apparent lack of interest in resolving problems by the EPL management have led to a serious fall in staff morale, with the inevitable drop in staff discipline as well, for verbal and even written letters of warning have been issued widely to many of the men. There also appears to be no consistency to the enforcement of disciplinary standard, for warning letters have been issued to some men for certain incidents, while no disciplinary action has been taken against some other staff for incidents of a similar nature. Orders are often issued verbally, with no follow-up memo, so that it becomes difficult for a staff member to check and clarify on any order he does not quite understand.
Often, when something goes wrong, the men have no way to defend themselves as there is no documentary evidence to back up their assertions.
We have even been ordered to alter reports to suit the EPL management’s view.
As the conditions that the EPL rank and file staff have to work under, it is no surprise that there have been so many resignations as the conditions I have outlined in the preceding few lines make it difficult for us to continue working here.
I have compiled this dossier here in the hope that the relevant authority will read it and hopefully come to understand the problems that have led to three long-servicing AEs to resign in the very short space of six months.
I hope the relevant authority will take this report seriously and look into the issues I have raised, for there are several; other EPL staff who have privately confided that they are seriously considering resigning should matters come to a head.
Please note that what I have expressed here are based upon my own experiences and observations, and that the opinions raised are entirely my own opinions, and that nothing I have written here is intended to cause any reflection on the organization or on any person.”
In the dossier which this former SMRT engineer has compiled, it can be seen from email conversations how AEs were being asked, for example, to “downscale” the status of incidents from “incident” to “routine maintenance” in records; and also the sharp increase of escalator breakdowns in the year 2003 in comparison to 2001 and 2002.
The AE shared how his colleagues had thoughts of leaving the company given the lack of regards to maintenance by the company and how double standards were practiced on matters such as disciplining staff.
After the investigations into the 2011 December breakdowns, members of the public were appalled when they found out that SMRT had been skiving on maintenance despite a heavier load on the system due to an increased population.
In the next report, TOC will cover one of the engineering issues faced by SMRT raised by this former engineer.