Remember Murphy’s Law

Remember Murphy's Law_header

A new train being tested in the early morning caused a power failure on the North East Line (NEL) earlier this week.  I do not know yet why the new train failed, but I made two observations about the incident.

First, I was struck by the close relationship between the Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board (SEAB) and LTA. There is a standing contingency plan between 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.  This is a long standing arrangement among SEAB, LTA and our public transport operators.  Every year, SEAB sends out key national exam timetables (from PSLE to A Level) to SMRT and SBST.  In turn, public transport operators are expected to alert SEAB officers immediately should there be any disruption.

On 26 October morning, SBST which runs the NEL alerted the SEAB Director of Operations and his team in the early hours of the morning.  Contingency plans were rolled out quickly. 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.

Second, new trains had to be tested, but why was the testing done during a major exam period, especially on its first day? LTA explained that the train test was not a daily affair. We had acquired 18 new trains to increase NEL’s capacity, and this was the first of a series of tests for a batch of five new trains. The five trains have already clocked 200km on our test tracks before being tested on the NEL over the last two weeks.

Testing is progressive, first during engineering hours (off-service period at night during which maintenance and testing is carried out) over weekends, then during off-peak hours and then finally when ready, into peak hour traffic.

Monday’s incident came after the testing during engineering hours. In hindsight, LTA agreed that it could have limited the testing to only Saturday night/Sunday morning, rather than Sunday night, eating into Monday morning. This is a scheduling detail which we learnt through this episode.

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.

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. As Mr Tan Gee Paw has reminded us, we need “rat catchers” to list down all possible problems “rats” can cause and spare no effort in preventing them from happening; or if things still do happen, to remedy them most quickly.

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