No amount of service recovery can ever be satisfactory: Khaw, on train breakdowns


When there is a major train disruption, like the one on 7 July this year, “we must not pretend that we can have a comprehensive recovery plan and a happy outcome in such situations.”

That was what Transport Minister, Khaw Boon Wan, said in a post on the Ministry of Transport blogsite on Saturday, 24 October.

“Our recent emergency exercise, simulating a very severe train disruption which impacted all stations across the East-West Line, was useful to test our ability to mobilise additional bridging buses and to raise awareness,” Mr Khaw said. “But realistically, we know that for a train disruption of that scale (as experienced on 7 July), no amount of service recovery can ever be satisfactory.”

The minister explained that this is because bus capacity and train capacity “are like day and night.”

“It takes about 12 to 13 double-decker buses to carry the same number of passengers in a six-car train,” he said. “And this doesn’t even take into account the fact that trains run more frequently. Assuming train intervals of 2.5 minutes, we will need at least 24 double-decker buses every five minutes!”

Mr Khaw, who is also Coordinating Minister for Infrastructure, said that “the only way forward is to prevent such a severe train disruption in the first place.”

“This we are committed to do,” he added.

However, he also said that despite the best of intentions, disruptions will still happen, and that at such times, resources will be directed to the affected stations.

“Unfortunately, the mobilised resources will need some time to get there,” Mr Khaw said.

“But I know the first hour of incident response is critical. Commuters will judge us by what happens during this first hour. What we do or fail to do will shape their impression of the transport system, and feelings towards it. Will there be confusion, lack of information, wrong information, poor signage, long queues, rowdy behaviour?”

He said that while the immediate and initial management of such situations will be done by station staff, they are often just a handful of them, and they would need to handle hundreds or even thousands of commuters besides having “a dozen things to do”.

The minister then related what Senior Minister of State for Transport, Josephine Teo, had observed at the recent Changi Airport emergency exercise, where “Changi Airport Group, CAAS and all the stakeholders worked together to plan the exercise, put the plan into action and learn from it.”

“In a similar vein, SMS Josephine Teo suggested that we work together with the shop-keepers working in the station, with a view to them playing a role in contingency plans,” Mr Khaw said. “Even if it is simply to help guide the commuters to the right bus stop or to the right queue, it will be a great help to reduce confusion amongst commuters. This requires us to proactively share clear information and instructions with them.”

This, Mr Khaw explained, was the “kampong spirit that we must inculcate in every MRT station.”

“It will not be easy to forge such a culture, and it will take time, but it is the right direction to take.”

The minister said he has asked LTA, SMRT and SBST to think through this idea and see if it is practical.

“Such ‘family-ness’ will be important not just when there is a technical breakdown, but even more critical if there is a terrorist-led sabotage to our rail system,” Mr Khaw wrote. “If we are used to working together as One Team during ‘peace time’, we are more likely to work together during crises.”

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