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Increased escalator breakdowns allegedly due to “Keep Left” courtesy campaign

injuries from escalator
Microfilm of escalator mishap report by The Straits Times on 14 May 2003

On 13 May 2003, an escalator accident involving 20 over people took place at City Hall MRT station. The escalator had suddenly reversed direction and threw commuters off balance, causing injuries to a few.

"SMRT never publicly revealed the cause. It was officially revealed to us staff as being due to the main drive chain sprocket key shearing off due to galvanic corrosion." said Jack (not his real name)

Speaking on the case, "That was this asshole's fault. The bastard implemented the "Keep left on the escalator" despite objections from myself and a few others that this will cause uneven wear resulting in premature equipment failure."

Jack is the engineer who shared his resignation letter with The Online Citizen (TOC) and the alleged cover-ups by the SMRT management on maintenance issues.

He pointed out this particular incident at Cityhall MRT station to TOC, saying to be a classic example of the issues with SMRT's maintenance system.

"True enough, the step chain, the mechanism that moves the steps all became elongated on one side. This forced us to overtension one side to ensure that the steps remained straight. This caused severe loading and shear stress on the gear box. End result, the sprocket drive key sheared off, causing the escalator to slip backwards by gravity. The report officially stated corrosion, but it was a cover-up."

Jack added that increased breakdowns of escalators over the years was a likely resultant of the courtesy campaign to keep left on escalators by SMRT since 2002.

"Overhauls themselves are routine. However, the keep left policy has caused an upsurge in overhauls, including escalators that were just overhauled a few years earlier."

"That's because LTA has planned the direction of the escalator direction based upon passenger loading. Remember, in the city area, morning peak most are moving up out of the stations to go to work while in the evening, most are moving down. This plan was approved by Ong Teng Cheong himself after careful study, back when the government was still honest and competent."

According to an article on Escalator World, "Authoritative policies and signage such as “Stand on the right” do not encourage uniform wear in the chains over the width of the machine, because one chain is subjected to a higher force and more wear than the other."

Jack said that after this particular incident, all the gearboxes were replaced by new ones with main drive chain sprockets molded in one piece to the drive shaft so that it cannot shear off. However, a few years later, the same thing happened in Orchard station.

"The gears within were all smashed up. Otis, the manufacturer, said they had never seen anything like this before and couldn't explain what caused it. This does strongly suggest that we staff were right that the City Hall accident was caused by uneven loading causing the key to shear off rather than corrosion since the Orc gearbox was sealed up." said Jack.

For subways in Hong Kong and Taiwan,  the keep left policy works because the escalator rotates direction to even out the wear and tear and also that the escalators are shorter in length.

Jack's recommendation to the SMRT, "Abolish it (keep left courtesy campaign) entirely, then carry out thorough inspections to determine scale & extent of damage to the escalators."

When former President, Ong Teng Cheong proposed the MRT system that consist only the East-West Line and North-South Line, the Then-Finance Minister, and current President, Tony Tan remarked that it was foolish to build the MRT system and objected to the proposal. Therefore in order to have the project going and budget to be approved, the scale of the MRT system was largely reduced, along with the carrying capacity.

Over the years, Singapore's population has been on a sharp increase, and today, the figure is at a number that is way beyond the population the MRT system was originally designed for.

Jack added that in 2004, the top management of SMRT was very responsible. Only the manager he was under was working under had issues.

In his resignation letter addressed to the then-director of Electro-Mechanical Services and Vice-President of Engineering on 10 September 2004, he wrote,

"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.

When asked about the alteration of reports and mismanagement, he said that his manager was, unfortunately, the newly appointed Chief Executive Officer's blue-eyed boy. So despite his mismanagement on maintenance, she kept promoting him until he reached a position to mess up the entire company.

To show just how strongly he feel on the matter, Jack profess, "if the company decides to press criminal charges against him (the maintenance manager) I'll identify myself and testify against him."