The first hour

The first hour_Header

Our recent emergency exercise, simulating a very severe train disruption which impacted all stations across the East-West Line, was useful to test our ability to mobilise additional bridging buses and to raise awareness. But realistically, we know that for a train disruption of that scale (as experienced on 7 July), no amount of service recovery can ever be satisfactory. This is because bus capacity and train capacity are like day and night. It takes about 12 to 13 double-decker buses to carry the same number of passengers in a six-car train. And this doesn’t even take into account the fact that trains run more frequently. Assuming train intervals of 2.5 minutes, we will need at least 24 double-decker buses every five minutes!

So we must not pretend that we can have a comprehensive recovery plan and a happy outcome in such situations. The only way forward is to prevent such a severe train disruption in the first place. This we are committed to do.

But there will still be disruptions, less severe in nature, affecting a couple of stations. When it happens, we will mobilise resources from elsewhere, to provide service recovery as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the mobilised resources will need some time to get there.

But I know the first hour of incident response is critical. Commuters will judge us by what happens during this first hour. What we do or fail to do will shape their impression of the transport system, and feelings towards it. Will there be confusion, lack of information, wrong information, poor signage, long queues, rowdy behaviour?

The first hour_PictureThe immediate incident management is by the local station staff. There are only a handful of them at each station. Operators are increasing the number of staff at each station. Even then, they will have a dozen things to do, besides having to deal with a crowd of hundreds or thousands of commuters, while awaiting reinforcements from other stations and supporting agencies.

At the Changi Airport emergency exercise, I saw how the Changi Airport Group, CAAS and all the stakeholders worked together to plan the exercise, put the plan into action and learn from it. In a similar vein, SMS Josephine Teo suggested that we work together with the shop-keepers working in the station, with a view to them playing a role in contingency plans. Even if it is simply to help guide the commuters to the right bus stop or to the right queue, it will be a great help to reduce confusion amongst commuters. This requires us to proactively share clear information and instructions with them. This also means that we work together as one family (like the Changi Airport Family), forge the right culture, to want to do well, as One Team, during normal times, much like close neighbours who will not hesitate to chip in and help when help is needed. This is the kampung spirit that we must inculcate in every MRT station. It will not be easy to forge such a culture, and it will take time, but it is the right direction to take.

Such “family-ness” will be important not just when there is a technical breakdown, but even more critical if there is a terrorist-led sabotage to our rail system. If we are used to working together as One Team during “peace time”, we are more likely to work together during crises. I have asked LTA, SMRT and SBST to think through this idea and see if it is practical.

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