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Saturday, December 17, 2011

Singapore SMRT breakdowns douse Christmas cheer

SINGAPORE | Sat Dec 17, 2011

SINGAPORE - Singapore, which prides itself on efficiency, was hit by its third train breakdown in a week on Saturday, frustrating the public on one of the biggest shopping days of the year and adding to calls for a review of its public transport system.

The city state's transport minister Lui Tuck Yew said there was some instability in the train network and has called for public transport provider SMRT Corp Ltd (SMRT.SI) to do "complete health checks", Channel News Asia reported.

Train services on Singapore's north-south line, which connects the north of the island to the city centre and is operated by SMRT, were disrupted early on Saturday morning.

The breakdown affected Singapore's main Orchard Road shopping belt at a time when many people were expected to be hitting the stores just a week before Christmas.

Saturday's disruption came after a five-hour breakdown on the same line on Thursday left 127,000 commuters stranded.

"For a world-class transport system, three disruptions in a week is not acceptable," said 27-year-old finance industry worker Chew Kuan Yee.

"This is three times too many to be a coincidence and points to an insufficiency of maintenance and possibly shortage of investment," Chew said.

Train services on another central line also broke down on Wednesday, with services restored after a five-hour delay.

The breakdowns on SMRT train services have added to discontent over the rising costs of public transport. A protest was planned for later on Saturday in a central Singapore park.

SMRT recently said it planned to raise taxi fares from December 20 because of rising costs. Rival cab operator ComfortDelGro (CMDG.SI) has also moved to hike charges.

During Singapore's last general elections in May, the opposition Workers' Party called for the public transport system to be nationalised.

Opposition MP Lina Chiam demanded a comprehensive review.

"Public transport can paralyze the entire nation from what we have seen a few days ago," Chiam said.

SMRT came under heavy criticism when it sent a message to its taxis during Thursday's train disruptions, telling drivers the breakdown was an "income opportunity".

"I think that as a public good, the company should activate their fleet to help those in need rather than to try and profit from it," said 27-year-old Maximilian Chng.

Transport Minister disappointed with SMRT

Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew expressed his disappointment on Friday with how SMRT handled Thursday's massive breakdown of the North-South line, saying that it is an 'extremely serious disruption that comprised commuters' safety.'

Speaking to reporters at Changi Airport after cutting short a work trip to Cambodia, he made clear that he wanted no effort spared in getting to the bottom of what has been called the worst MRT shutdown in 24 years.

"I don't see this as a typical service lapse. This is a very, very serious disruption and better take heed, learn the lessons improve on the systems.

"Therefore, I've told SMRT chairman Koh Yong Guan when I spoke to him that I hold the board and the management team responsible for making it right," said Mr Lui.

He acknowledged that commuters are angry and concerned, and justifably so, because their well-being was at risk.

Train services were disrupted for five hours on Thursday night, affecting services at 11 stations and stranding thousands of peak hour commuters.

This comes after the recent fare hikes in public transport and two taxi operators.

"We need to go down and determine the root cause of this. What is it in the maintenance regime that can be improved, that can be made more robust and comprehensive, so that if this is indeed a preventable incident, how could we do so," said Mr Lui.

He said he had spoken to SMRT board chairman Mr Koh about the government's concern over the handling of the incident. Mr Lui also said he is convening a panel of relevant experts to do a thorough review of the MRT system, especially the lines run by SMRT.

At a press conference held on Friday afternoon, SMRT said that the disruption was caused by a misalignment of electrical connections between four trains and a 40m section of the tracks between Dhoby Ghaut and City Hall stations.

However, transport analysts are questioning if the higher frequency in breakdowns lately are due to population growth adding to wear and tear.

Mr Lui expressed his concern over commuters who were stranded in the four affected trains and who were kept uninformed about the situation.

Hardly any updates were given until after 30 minutes from the shutdown. Some commuters fainted, lights were intermittent, and one man even used a fire extinguisher to smash a train window for ventilation.

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