Our SMRT trains have been on the headlines for the past week. I decided that I need to weigh in my own two-cents about the whole episode. The problems that have been occurring of late have hit on an unprecedented scale in our public transportation history. The MRT trains which so many people are dependent on for the daily commute are expected to run flawlessly. How can they fail us?
Most of us have been venting our anger at SMRT. Many people never expected that the MRT could ever experience such a catastrophic fault as had happened. Taxi fare hikes and other public transportation fare hikes fueled the strong emotions of commuters. But let’s look through these emotional outbursts and see what exactly did SMRT do wrong.
One of the big gripe is the amount of time it took SMRT to take action. For example, commuters were trapped for “too long” before they were detrained and asked to walk to the nearest station. I don’t disagree that SMRT was slow to take action, but whether they were inexorably slow or not is up for debate.
A problem of such a magnitude has not happened before. Even if all the emergency plans were in place, and everyone followed the procedure, albeit slower than ideal due to inexperience, it will take some amount of time for action to be seen. Perhaps it wasn’t the best plan, on hindsight, but I believe people were working behind the scenes to do something to deal with the situation.
According to the timelines reported in the news, it may seem like SMRT wasn’t very quick in recalling staff or activating bus bridging services. These procedures probably need to be fine-tuned and improved. Still, I don’t see any of these to be a huge failing of SMRT.
Where I see a huge failing is in communications. Many levels of communications. Not just the inability of the train driver to tell trapped commuters about what was going on, but also much higher up, such as the company’s public relations and ability to do damage control, and even the CEO’s own failing to communicate and connect with the very people they serve.
SMRT reiterated in the media that passengers should not break cabin windows if a train should stall in a tunnel. Just stay calm and wait for help. It’s in their emergency manual. In some other day and some other time, this could be a useful reminder to commuters about what they should do in an emergency. But in the context of what has happened, it seems totally inappropriate for SMRT to talk about this. The cabin was stuffy. People needed air. All SMRT could say was to not break the cabin windows? It seems like the management, or the PR people, have absolutely no understanding of what was happening.
In this age of instant communications, realtime news, everything and everyone always online, we’ve all come to expect to be kept updated with information. SMRT’s failure to catch up with the expectations of commuters is one matter. Their subsequent handling of their failure is equally bad.
So SMRT tried to be “more real time” by setting up a Twitter account. Unfortunately the Twitter account quite boldly declared they operate only during office hours. (That operating hours message has been removed now, apparently.) It shows how sincere, the lack thereof, they are about improving their communications. Oh yah, don’t tell me, it’s another “template” that an inadequately trained staff slapped on without thinking. Hey, SMRT, you cannot afford to make any more mistakes. This was an opportunity to do something right, but you have to spoil it. Everyone’s watching your every move!
Back to the newspaper reports, one thing that caught my attention was how SMRT responded to commuter reports of the lack of lighting and ventilation. SMRT claimed that the trains have backup power that will provide ventilation and lighting, and that they would investigate those reports. Eh, the “meaning” that comes across to me, whether that is what they actually meant, was that they will investigate whether those claims were true or not. But, with all those photos and videos already gone viral on social media showing the lacking of lighting (pity you could not prove the lack of ventilation), what is there to investigate? Just go fix the problem! It’s yet another example of how I thought their communication truly failed.
After reading so much about all that has been happening and discoveries being revealed, I’m beginning to feel a little unsafe about our MRT trains. So many bits and pieces of things have gone missing, fallen off, etc. Why were they not detected earlier? What is a piece had fallen strategically on a rail, could it have caused a derailment? If not, could it not have started off a chain reaction that culminated in some serious accident?
The Eschede train disaster in Germany, for example, started with a single fatigue crack in just one wheel. It ended up in a disaster that killed 101 people and destroyed a 300-tonne road bridge.
Are the problems on our MRT signs of the little problems that we need to critically examine? I mean, to date, no one has been able to explained what caused the parts to go missing. The root cause has not been found. The problem might well come back again. How safe do you feel about riding on the MRT now?