SINGAPORE: In the wake of SMRT’s tunnel flooding episode, the rail operator must assume responsibility and set things right because “it begins from the top”, said Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan on Tuesday (Nov 7).
He was delivering a ministerial statement in Parliament on the issues which have embroiled the rail operator since last month, when heavy rains flooded a tunnel at Bishan MRT station, disabling the North-South Line for more than 20 hours.
An internal probe uncovered falsification of maintenance records and yesterday SMRT announced disciplinary action against six staff along with an inquiry into another seven at managerial level.
These led to nearly a dozen Members of Parliament (MPs) tabling related questions for Mr Khaw to address.
“The tunnel flooding incident was preventable. It should not have happened,” he reiterated. “It was not due to any inadequacy in the design of flood prevention measures. Neither was it due to an extraordinary storm.
“It was due to poor maintenance and neglect of duties by the specific SMRT maintenance team responsible for the Bishan storm water sump pump system.”
“NOT BEEN MAINTAINED FOR MONTHS”
Mr Khaw explained how MRT tunnels are fully protected against flooding, primarily by the aforementioned sump pump system which collects storm water and pumps it out to external drains to prevent it from flowing into the tunnels.
“The flood protection system at Bishan has served us well for the last 30 years and is designed with a huge buffer,” he said. “However, the lack of maintenance, including the failure to check that sub-systems were in working condition, has led to this incident.”
Mr Khaw noted that all three pumps in the Bishan storm water sump pit were functional, along with each of the five float switches controlling the system. “Why these float switches failed to function normally on Oct 7 is a subject of the ongoing LTA investigation,” he said.
Still, based on SMRT’s findings, “it appears that the Bishan flood protection system had not been maintained for many months”, said Mr Khaw.
“Maintenance records were signed off and submitted for December last year, March this year and June this year. However, these records do not match any corresponding logs for track access and pump activation. No track access approvals were issued for preventive maintenance of the Bishan portal sump pumps on these three dates. Pump logs also showed that the pumps were not activated for these same dates, which were required as part of the maintenance procedures.”
“In other words, the maintenance records may have been falsified.”
"PUMPS AT KEMBANGAN, LAVENDER NOT SERVICEABLE"
The maintenance team responsible for Bishan’s flood protection system comprises a manager, an engineering supervisor and four other crew members, Mr Khaw revealed.
Three of these have been with SMRT for more than 20 years, with one employed for 28 years. Two were with SMRT for six and eight years. One had joined for a little over a year.
All six have been suspended, Mr Khaw stated.
Aside from Bishan, SMRT has found that two out of eight pumps at Kembangan and three out of four at Lavender - both tunnel portal locations - are not in serviceable condition.
The rail operator is investigating the relevant teams, said Mr Khaw, but meanwhile the head of the Building and Facilities maintenance group, Vice-President Ng Tek Poo, has been suspended along with six other managerial staff.
These include another vice-president, a chief engineer, a deputy director and three managers.
Elsewhere in SMRT, the organisation has not found any evidence of falsification or wilful dereliction of duties in the core railway maintenance and engineering groups, said Mr Khaw.
There will next be a series of audits by SMRT’s Readiness Inspection teams and regulator LTA will also separately assess SMRT’s findings.
“While investigations by LTA will take a few more weeks to complete, the facts of the Oct 7 incident are not complicated, and the cause of the incident is clear. My ministry will therefore not be convening a Committee of Inquiry,” Mr Khaw announced.
RECTIFICATIONS BY SMRT, LTA
Mr Khaw then noted the immediate steps taken by SMRT and LTA: “First, SMRT has replaced all existing float switches at the Bishan storm water sump pit. Second, LTA has enhanced the resilience of the flood protection system by replacing the pumps at Bishan with heavier-duty ones capable of handling water with more sediments, and installing additional parallel float switches.
“Third, a new radar-based sensor system has been added to independently monitor water levels in the storm water sump pit. Fourth, the sump pump control panel has been relocated away from the tracks, to enable easier manual access to pump operations if needed during operating hours.”
“The removal of accumulated sludge, silt and debris in the sump pit is also in progress,” he added.
“For the other portal systems at Kembangan, Lavender and Changi, SMRT has replaced or repaired all the non-serviceable pumps. The float switches were also replaced as a precaution.”
Internally, SMRT has also reorganised the unit overseeing the maintenance of the flood protection system. Vice-president Ng Tek Poo has been replaced by existing employee Siu Yow Wee, a mechanical engineer.
Further, the rail operator has upped the maintenance frequency for flood protection systems from quarterly to monthly, and is tightening its flood recovery plans and intends to strengthen coordination with the SCDF and PUB through regular exercises.
Additional emergency equipment such as portable pumps are also being procured.
SMRT has also invited a team of experts from Taipei Metro to do a thorough and independent review of its operations, to flush out any gaps and recommend improvements.
“Last but not least, to develop and cultivate a stronger culture of accountability, ownership and open reporting across the whole organisation, SMRT is strengthening internal processes and staff support,” said Mr Khaw.
He also emphasised that SMRT's larger mission was to raise train reliability - part of which involved renewal works on older lines.
"In the short term, this may cause disruption to commuters," said Mr Khaw. "Metros elsewhere have the option to close down an entire line. We do not. Closing a major rail line like the North-South and East-West Lines to expedite these renewal works would certainly help us get to our destination sooner."
"Until all these key ageing systems are replaced or renewed, the North-South and East-West Lines remain at risk of major disruptions, even with diligent maintenance."
He pointed out that "limited engineering hours" were a significant obstacle to achieving renewal.
"For the re-sleepering project, we shortened operating hours marginally on Sundays. That was a great help. Given the scale of outstanding asset replacement programmes, we will need many more extended engineering hours, perhaps even on weekdays."
"Line closures will of course inconvenience commuters. I seek commuters’ understanding and patience should we decide to do so."
“THIS IS OUR SINGAPORE WAY”
Mr Khaw commended SMRT chairman Seah Moon Ming “for taking these steps and for emphasising that it is the responsibility of management to set the right culture of professionalism and excellence”.
“It begins from the top,” he said.
"If there is poor work culture, the CEO is responsible. You set the corporate culture ... This is our Singapore way.”
Mr Khaw then promised that "flooding will not recur" before concluding by repeating that the incident should not have happened.
“SMRT management has accepted full responsibility over this sad episode,” he said.
“I have interacted with many SMRT staff ... They are committed to the goal, they are determined to regain the trust and confidence of our commuters. I know they are just as upset as me that some of their colleagues in charge of maintaining the tunnel portal sump pits have failed us.
“I share their disappointment and also embarrassment, deeply. But we are determined to get back on our feet, back to our work, and soldier on.”
Said Mr Khaw: “The heavy-lifting has to be done by SMRT. But they will not be alone. The resources of LTA, MOT will be there to support them. Other agencies, especially PUB, DSTA, DSO and GovTech, have offered their expertise to help us in this journey.
“I am grateful for their assistance. This gives me the confidence that we can complete this job of raising train reliability … We just have to lean in, redouble our efforts and work smarter.”