First, it was teachers, then, it was nurses. The latest has our government saying we need more engineers. Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan had urged the Land Transport Authority (LTA) to beef up its engineering team, in the light of all the frequent and major MRT breakdowns. Yes, we need more engineers. I think we need more common sense too.
Reading about the Bukit Panjang LRT train skipping three stations, I first thought that, yah, SMRT must have had too many managers in the engineering department, and not enough engineers. This is how SMRT explained the incident:
- The train missed the stops at three stations because a faulty antenna prevented it from picking up signals to stop.
- Pressing the emergency stop button did not stop the train, because it only works when the train has already come to a complete stop.
- No one answered the emergency phone, because it was on queue after the Operations Control Centre (OCC) received another intercom call from a station.
Eh, what did I just hear? I was shocked.
If the entire ability of a train knowing when to stop rested on one antenna, surely there must be a redundant, backup, antenna? Or, was there in fact another antenna, but it was already spoilt, and left unfixed? After all, it is not unimaginable that even redundant systems can fail because all redundant parts of it are broken. This sounds like just lousy engineering, or really lousy maintenance.
Never mind the antenna. More unbelievable is the emergency stop button. The emergency stop button works only when the train has already come to a complete stop. As absurd as it may sound, that’s pretty much what SMRT tells us. Their emergency stop button, or more correctly called the emergency halt request button, works only when the train is already stopped.
Now, a “halt request” might perhaps make sense, although I’m sure it is still up for debate, on other types of trains. The regular SMRT trains on the NSEWL, for example, are manned, with a driver onboard who can see and know first-hand what is happening on the train. Perhaps in such a situation, the design thinking might be that, once a train is already in motion, what sort of emergency might there be that a passenger will know, but not the driver, which requires an emergency stop? I think there are, but perhaps SMRT disagrees.
The LRT lines are different. There is no driver on the train. The only people who will know first-hand what is happening on the train are the passengers themselves. LRT trains are also really small, and they travel only aboveground where passengers have good view all around their train. If there were any emergency conditions, the passengers will know better. Does it not make sense to have a working emergency stop button that will actually immediately halt the train? For example, if passengers were to see danger ahead, like say the boom of a mobile crane had fallen across the LRT tracks, it seems passengers are likely to know it first before the the fellows at the OCC some place far away.
Did SMRT think it not necessary because staff at the OCC can monitor the train conditions through CCTV continuously? Yeah, maybe. But if you do it remotely, and when you’re not there yourself, surely your ability to monitor the train conditions are limited. Plus, you might not truly pay attention at all. How was it that the train could zoom past three stops without anyone at the OCC noticing? Either there was actually no ability to monitor the train almost as good as if someone was actually on the train, or they simply weren’t doing their job properly.
Then, the bit about the emergency phone is even more shocking. For goodness sake, it is an emergency phone. As reported, the words used were “on queue”, not “on hold”. It sounds to me that the entire LRT system, including all the trains and all the stations, simply shared a single-line system that can only handle one call at one time. As a station intercom had already been used to call the OCC, the train’s emergency phone was put “on queue”.
Faulty antenna could be lousy engineering, or lousy maintenance, or both. The only way I can think to describe the emergency stop and emergency phone not working the way anyone would expect them to work is just plain lack of common sense.
I don’t even want to get into how a train could just zoom past three stations without OCC knowing about it. Wasn’t anyone even watching what was happening on the tracks? We shouldn’t even have to come to deal with faulty antennas, non-working emergency stop buttons and illogical emergency phone, had the system itself been designed to be able to deal with a runaway train.
Yes, in this case, the LRT train had runaway. That the train system could not detect the condition is quite shocking. Then, for the humans at the OCC who are supposed to watch over the system to also not know it, wow.
We are supposed to be first world, but sometimes it looks like we’re still struggling in the trenches of third world engineering. Maybe our SMRT (and LTA) has too many managers who know nuts about engineering. But this isn’t just about needing better engineering. It’s about needing more common sense.