Helping commuters cope in a major MRT breakdown: What do experts say

What if last Tuesday's MRT shutdown repeats itself? Danson Cheong and Samantha Boh talk to the experts on how best to handle the situation. Last Tuesday night, when SMRT had to shut down the two lines which are the backbone of the train system, thousands of commuters spilt out of the exits of 54 stations.

Others arrived to find the stations closed during the breakdown of the East-West and North-South lines, which lasted more than two hours and affected more than 250,000 commuters during the Tuesday evening peak hour.

Many who were left stranded in unfamiliar neighbourhoods took more than two hours to get home as they tried to figure out alternative ways to complete their journeys.

Despite a series of recommendations by the Committee of Inquiry in 2012 following two major breakdowns in 2011, the problem of dealing with commuters in the aftermath of a breakdown remains.

The COI had noted, in particular, that improvements to bus bridging must be made to help stranded commuters. It recommended that SMRT consider designating dedicated bus pick-up points and have bus-bridging services at unaffected MRT stations.

However, on Tuesday, SMRT did not activate this bus-bridging service. Instead, it said, it deployed any available bus resources to supplement regular bus services which were free to commuters.

SMRT has acknowledged this was one of the gaps in its service recovery that evening.

Experts agreed that additional buses that evening could have been better utilised to disperse the crowd. A more effective way would have been to arrange for buses to take commuters to transport nodes, including bus interchanges, where commuters will have more bus services to choose from.

"These buses should take passengers to designated centres, not run their regular routes - you could take (commuters) to neighbourhoods such as Buona Vista, Jurong East or Tampines," said Mr Jair Smits from engineering consultancy Witteveen+Bos, which also specialises in urban transport management.

Another good way to deploy the buses is to have them run parallel to the train line, noted National University of Singapore transport researcher Lee Der Horng. "This means people can still use it in lieu of the MRT," said Prof Lee.

Other experts, such as Professor Lau Hoong Chuin of the Singapore Management University (SMU), suggested using existing transit card data to understand commuters' travel patterns at different stations and plan shuttle buses accordingly.

"You can very quickly optimise your bridging services. For instance, during office hours most commuters will be going to Raffles Place. So if Ang Mo Kio has a disruption, you will want to take commuters to Raffles Place," said Prof Lee, who is director of SMU's Urban Computing and Engineering Corp Lab.

MP (Mountbatten) Lim Biow Chuan, who is on the Government Parliamentary Committee for Transport, noted however that it was not economically feasible for public transport operators, SMRT and SBS Transit, to have too many buses on standby in depots.

"The struggle we have is how many buses do we want to put on standby, do we plan (contingencies) on the basis of one, two or three MRT lines being down?" he said.

To solve this problem of redundancy, experts suggested roping in private bus operators to fill in the gaps during a major breakdown.

Woodlands Transport's general manager Roger Wong, said his company with about 350 buses, would be happy to provide assistance.

"As a home-grown private transport company, we are committed to serving the local community," he said.

Additional reporting by Cheow Sue-Ann

Keep commuters in the loop to reduce anxieties

Undergraduate Gillian Ng, 20, only realised there was a massive MRT disruption when she got to Braddell station on Tuesday evening.

She said there were no signs outside the station to inform commuters of a disruption, and it was only after she was denied entry that she realised that service had stopped.

Many commuters such as Ms Ng provided feedback on the limited information that was available on the disruption. Commuters, left stranded when the North-South and East-West MRT lines were closed, said they were unsure of where to go, who to speak to or what to do.

Experts said the lack of information given to commuters could have added to the severity of the situation. They noted that in such a situation, the key information that needs to be conveyed to commuters is: Should they wait in the station; how long the wait will be; and where they can board a bus if they have been advised to leave the station.

Mr Cedric Foo, chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Transport, said commuters would feel even more inconvenienced if they did not know what to do and naturally tempers would flare because of the uncertainty.

Mr Foo said commuters should be given the correct information "even if it means telling them it will take three hours for the system to get back up, because that means they can at least plan their route."

Service disruptions also need to be communicated to those who are on their way to the stations or are on unaffected lines, so they do not add to the congestion at closed stations.

This could be done through announcements at stations, interchanges and on buses, as well as through the mainstream media and social media, added experts.

Many of the initial announcements of service disruptions are now disseminated through social media such as Twitter and Facebook.

Many of the commuters caught in the congestion that evening also noted they were unable to speak to any station staff .

"These staff cannot be just inside the station, but also outside at bus stops or taxi stands," said retail manager Alicia Lee, 34 who was stuck at Jurong East station.

SMRT said it had deployed about 250 more staff across its 54 stations to help commuters.

Professor Lau Hoong Chuin of the Singapore Management University (SMU) said that with Singapore having one of the highest adoption of smartphones, the next step could be to develop a smart application which will give users more prompt updates on the situation.

It should also be able to detect the user's location and suggest alternative routes, taking into consideration the disrupted lines.

"Way finding is the next level; telling people where the bus that can take them out of the location is," said Prof Lau, who is director of SMU's Urban Computing and Engineering Corp Lab.

Transport consultant Tham Chen Munn said it would also be useful to identify the more popular routes and prepare signs with the directions. These could then be displayed as soon as a disruption happens.

But despite all the unhappiness, former UniSIM transport expert Park Byung Joon noted that before Tuesday, SMRT only had to deal with partial breakdowns of the system.

He said it is almost impossible to prepare for a breakdown of such a magnitude and that SMRT's response has improved from the first major breakdown in December 2011.

"It comes from experience, (breakdowns) have happened a few times before; the way resources are deployed is much quicker and staff in the station now know how to direct people," said Dr Park.


This article was first published on July 12, 2015.
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