Monday's NEL breakdown: Train testing needs to be fine-tuned, Khaw

SINGAPORE - Monday's two-hour train breakdown on the North East Line (NEL) caused by a new train could have been avoided with better scheduling.

Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said in a blog post today (Oct 30): "In hindsight, the LTA (Land Transport Authority) agreed that it could have limited the testing to only Saturday night or Sunday morning, rather than Sunday night, eating into Monday morning."

This is a scheduling detail which LTA and operator SBS Transit has learnt through this episode, he said.

The disruption had affected some 41,000 commuters, including students taking their O- and A-level examininations.

"Since breakdowns cannot be completely eliminated, we must be prepared for Murphy's Law and expect the worst. Even when things are tried and tested, we must anticipate and buffer for further glitches and failures, so we do not let the stress of something unplanned happen during stressful events, like our children's national examination," Mr Khaw said.

The new train that was being tested pulled a wire on the North East Line's (NEL's) overhead system and caused a power failure. It was among 18 new trains that LTA had acquired to increase NEL's capacity.

This was the first of a series of tests for a batch of five new trains, he said, adding that the five trains have already clocked 200km on test tracks before being tested on the NEL over the last two weeks.

According to Mr Khaw, testing is is done progressively - first during off-service period at night over weekends, during off-peak hours and then finally during peak hours.

"This 'last mile' - that of de-conflicting and not allowing two critical events to occur at the same time - is the sort of fine-tuning we need to do, while stepping up reliability of trains." Mr Khaw said he was also struck by the "close relationship" between the Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board (SEAB) and LTA.

"SEAB was the first agency LTA contacted the moment it realised it was going to be a major disruption. Immediately, SEAB swung into action to inform schools and activate the contingency plans."

When Monday's breakdown happened, contingency plans were rolled out quickly, he said

"SEAB took a deliberate flexible attitude towards students affected by the disruption. I was impressed with the SEAB response and the collaborative spirit between SEAB, LTA and our public transport operators."