Train stalled? It may be balloon's fault

Did you know that your shiny, metallic helium balloons could disrupt MRT train services?

It is no laughing matter if your Minion or Minnie Mouse balloon flies up and away, and posters have recently been put up at stations on the North East Line (NEL) to remind commuters to hold on tightly to their balloons.

In the poster, train operator SBS Transit explains: "If (the balloons) get caught in the overhead power lines, they can cause a power trip and bring train services to a halt."

SBS Transit told The Straits Times that it decided to put up the posters two months ago after a train disruption happened on April 6 last year.

In that incident, train services on the NEL were disrupted for close to an hour in both directions between Farrer Park and Boon Keng stations due to a power trip.

Investigations by the Land Transport Authority showed that a passenger had accidentally released an aluminium foil helium balloon, which slipped into the tunnel at Boon Keng Station when the platform screen doors were opened.

The balloon then came into contact with an electrical insulator of the overhead catenary system - the power supply system installed on the ceiling of the train tunnel - and caused an electrical fault.

Said Professor Liew Ah Choy from the National University of Singapore's Electrical and Computer Engineering Department: "The aluminium foil is an electrical conductor and when it comes into contact with the live overhead wires a short circuit occurs. This would trigger the circuit breakers to trip, to prevent further damage to the electrical equipment."

Meanwhile, SBS Transit's senior vice-president of corporate communications, Ms Tammy Tan, told The Straits Times: "There has not been a recurrence of last year's April incident, but prevention is better than cure and the posters have been put up as a precautionary measure."

The 16-station NEL is the only MRT line here powered by overhead catenary systems instead of a power-supplying rail on the ground, so the posters are put up only in NEL stations.

But the posters can be hard to spot, as several stations have just two or three posters put up along the platform. A few commuters who frequent the Clarke Quay Station told The Straits Times they saw the posters only in recent weeks.

While incidents of balloons causing power trips are rare here, they happen more often in cities like Hong Kong, where there are signs telling people not to take balloons into train stations.

According to a Hong Kong magazine, the ban was started in 1996, when a Minnie Mouse balloon floated into a tunnel at rush hour. The resulting short circuit halted all trains between Admiralty and Quarry Bay - both interchange stations - for 1½ hours and affected 100,000 commuters.

This article was first published on October 16, 2015.
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