I was caught in the massive breakdown of the North-South and East-West Line (NSEWL) of the MRT yesterday evening as I was heading to a meeting at the WP HQ in Jalan Besar. When I reached Dover station at about 7.05pm, the eastbound train was already at the platform but with all its cabin lights off. I got onto the train anyway, but waited almost 5 minutes before it finally moved off. The westbound train on the opposite track was similarly stalled. My train stopped midway to the next station and all its lights went out again. This pattern was to repeat itself several more times over the next 25 minutes. When I reached Outram Park station at about 7.35pm, the lights in the train went out a final time and we were told to detrain as it was no longer in service.
The PA system announcements at the station informed us that train service on the entire NSEWL had been suspended and free shuttle buses were available. So I exited the station thinking I could hop onto one of the buses. Big mistake! The street level was packed with people and there were no buses to be seen and no directional signs to guide the stranded commuters. Someone asked me where the buses were. I told him honestly that I had no idea.
Knowing that it would be pointless to attempt taking a cab, I headed back down to the station, against the flow of the crowd, hoping to get in again and take the North-East Line (NEL). But all the fare gates were closed and I was told by an SMRT staff that I had to exit and walk around the station to get into the NEL entrance. I finally boarded the NEL and arrived at my meeting almost half an hour late.
I consider myself fortunate that I was able to hop onto the NEL. The guy sitting next to me on the East-West Line train (before it stopped at Outram) said that he was heading to his home in Simei. I think he, like hundreds of thousands of other commuters, probably got home much later than usual.
This 3.5 hour service disruption, which happened simultaneously on the two busiest MRT lines during the Tuesday evening rush hour, was probably the most serious service disruption ever. I had flashbacks to November 2011, when I had another close shave — I just missed getting on one of the trains from City Hall station that was to eventually stall in the middle of the tunnel.
According to SMRT and LTA, the outage was due to a power fault. Preliminary investigations found that a faulty train could have caused the power to trip. I find it astonishing that a fault with a single train could cause power to be cut to trains at all 58 stations on the NSEWL. Is there so little redundancy in the system? Or are all the circuits strung together in series like a cheap set of Christmas tree lights?
As of the time of this writing, it is still unclear if the MRT service will be available in time for the Wednesday morning rush hour. SMRT has already advised commuters to make alternative travel plans. Both the Minister for Transport and LTA have come out to apologise for the breakdown and demanded that the faults be investigated and rectified. That is little comfort for the quarter-of-a-million or so commuters who suffered this massive inconvenience and frustration.
The Commission of Inquiry (COI) into the November 2011 MRT disruptions had identified maintenance (or lack thereof) as a key cause of the multiple breakdowns then. Now, almost 4 years later, with a new CEO at the helm who promised to focus more on engineering and maintenance capabilities, we seem to be back to square one. What can we expect moving forward? Another COI?