Ignatius Low – Straits Times Indonesia
Unfamiliar scenes of chaos and confusion unfolded on Thursday night in train stations across central Singapore after the MRT network suffered what is likely to be the worst breakdown in its 24-year operating history.
Just before 7 p.m., thousands of commuters riding home during the evening rush hour were plunged into total darkness as trains on the North-South Line suddenly lost power and ground to a halt.
Many reported waiting for up to an hour in the stifling heat of windowless carriages, where the air-conditioning had also failed, before eventually being rescued by SMRT staff. Some train windows were smashed to let in air.
Commuters then had to walk through the train tunnels to the nearest station in order to exit and find their way home.
In all, 11 stations from Marina Bay to Bishan were affected – the result of what SMRT called ‘a power rail problem’.
They included the busy City Hall and Raffles Place interchanges, as well as the three stations on the bustling Orchard Road shopping belt.
As the extent of the problem became clear, SMRT shuttered the affected stations completely and told commuters to find alternative routes to their destinations.
The Singapore Civil Defence Force also dispatched ambulances and other emergency services to some stations.
“It was pretty much a traumatizing experience,” said Oh Shu Fen, 23, who works in a bank. She was stuck in a train that stalled between the Dhoby Ghaut and City Hall stations.
“There were no lights and ventilation, and it got so dark that at one point of time, the only sources of light were from mobile phones.”
Recruitment manager Joyce Zhao, 38, said: ‘We just waited and waited, expecting the driver to tell us what had happened and what action they were going to take.
“One lady fainted in the train – it looked like she couldn’t breathe. Civil Defense officers tried for 10 minutes to revive her, but they couldn’t. They put her on a stretcher and evacuated her in the end.”
Back at the stations, confused customers waited to hear what to do next.
“None of us knows what is happening – we are all just asking one another what is going on and what we can do,” said Bulan Salim, 63, a legal secretary.
“I don’t know what time I will reach home. A lot of people are still waiting on the platform because the TV screen still says the next train is arriving in two minutes.”
Human resources manager Sarah Lee, 44, said: “I think the situation is being badly managed. There is not enough manpower to direct and provide information. The announcements are unclear. I’ve been walking up and down the station trying to find out what is going on.”
At about 9 p.m., the stations reopened and southbound services resumed. But there were no northbound services between Marina Bay and Bishan for the whole night.
Meanwhile, SMRT raced to provide extra buses, which struggled to deal with stranded crowds who formed long queues for buses and taxis.
At Newton station, IT support officer Loy Kok Nien, 36, said he waited about two hours for a taxi or bus.
“All the buses are full. I have already missed five to six buses heading to Toa Payoh because they were too packed,” he said.
Those who managed to get on a bus or taxi found their trips slowed by traffic congestion.
“I waited for almost 45 minutes before my bus arrived, but even after I got on it, there was a massive traffic jam on the roads,” said public servant Jed Senthil.
Ng Eng Heng, a 49-year-old hotel supervisor who waited more than an hour to get a bus home, lamented: “The fares have gone up and they tell people to take public transport. Yet, the breakdowns are becoming more frequent.”
Thursday night’s SMRT breakdown was the second in as many days, occurring even as the train operator sent out a press release to say that its Circle Line service – which had been disrupted for 40 minutes on Wednesday morning – was back to normal.
In September, a faulty cable on the Circle Line also affected train services. At the time, the entire line was stalled for four hours in the morning, affecting about 26,600 commuters.
Netizens flooded online websites such as Facebook and Twitter with angry messages and photos – they described the breakdown and complained about the unreliability of the train service.
A dramatic picture of an MRT train door with its windows smashed open by a fire extinguisher quickly went viral and was widely circulated.
Other frustrated commuters formed long queues at train stations to wait for fare refunds.
“We sincerely apologize for the inconvenience caused,” said SMRT in a statement issued at about 9 p.m. on Thursday night.
“Preliminary investigation shows that around 40m of the power rail had been damaged between the City Hall and Dhoby Ghaut stations.
“SMRT staff are now on-site attending to the fault. We will work round the clock to repair the damage, and hope to get the northbound train service for this stretch up by tomorrow morning.”
Reprinted courtesy of Straits Times Indonesia. To subscribe to Straits Times Indonesia and/or the Jakarta Globe call 021 2553 5055.