Singapore SMRT Trains

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The three most powerful and influential persons i.e. The PM, Transport Minister and SMRT CEO have spoken in the wake of the recent major train disruptions within 4 days – last Wed, Thu and Sat – on the Circle line and North/South line which are run by SMRT.

I operated one of those trains on the East/West line. I had never operated a train on the North/South line until yesterday (17/12/11 Sat) and this morning (18/12/11 Sun) when my train was routed from Jurong East Bound via Raffles station due to operational exigency.

On this post, I have to be politically correct and extremely guarded on my comments. I shall stay within the OB markers. I shall not bite the hand that feeds me! Surely with more than 16 years of train driving experience, I could offer some insights and my two cents’ worth from my own perspective.

Rain or shine, day in and day out regardless of public holidays, weekdays, weekends, school holidays etc almost 400 of us – Train Officers – operate the approximately 100 trains in the system. We bring out all the trains before 5.30 am from the 3 depots i.e. Changi, Ulu Pandan and Bishan. After traffic hours past 1 am, all those trains are brought back to the 3 depots for overnight stabling. 365 days a year for the past 24 years or so SMRT trains never cease operation until recently.

Train Officer’s pay is on similar grade to station staff. However, our responsibility is onerous. No matter what work mistakes the station staff made, they will never get the sack. Whereas, if any Train Officer made a work mistake, the repercussions can be disastrous which usually involves passengers’ safety.

Imagine if the Train Officer opens the wrong side of the doors and if any passenger falls as a result, injury or death may occur. The 3rd rail is deathly with live voltage of 750 DC. Touches it instant death follows.

Do you still remember the 2 works trains collision in the early morning hours on 21st Jan 2008 near to Simei station leading to a 7 hour shutdown on the eastern line? Train services stopped from Tanah Merah to Pasir Ris. All trains turned around at Tanah Merah station. That was the worst human negligent error leading to much chaotic situation in the morning rush hours. It pales in comparision with last Wednesday and Thursday train disruptions.

I remember just before I joined SMRT in 1995, there was an unprecedented train collision at Clementi East Bound! That langgar incident sent shock waves round the world. How could it happen with all the built in full proof safety features in place?

To side track a little, this morning (18/12/11) when I was shunting the train at UPD, the traffic signal light was on RED aspect. I was shouted at and ordered to proceed to another track. I kept telling the DCS – Depot Control Supervisor – that it was on red aspect and I was right infront of signal U58! He “die die” insisted that his control panel indicated that the correct route was set for me and that I should proceed to shunt the train without delay and stop arguing.

Out of exasperation, I asked him if he trusted his computer or me on the ground? He then instructed me to ‘COUNTERMAND’ and “go” against the red aspect!

I gave up.

I called YM – Yard Master – over the cellphone and asked him to come take a look.

This true incident serves to remind us that machines can never replace a thinking human with flesh and blood.

Do you think that my CEO is correct to describe us as “train drivers” instead of explaining to the whole world that we should be respectably addressed as “Train Officers?”

Our job description on the official appointment letter states clearly that we are Train Officers. Although we are paid only peanuts at a starting salary of $1,250 we are still more than a “train driver”.

Do you term aeroplane pilots as airplane drivers? Or ship captains as ship drivers?

In fact, all our bus drivers are officially known as bus captains! It could be due to their expanded job scope where they are more than bus drivers! They not only drive the bus but need to ensure passengers’ safety, be customer oriented, knowledgeable on places etc.

If an outsider or a reporter addresses us train drivers we could understand. Our bosses should know better and correct this misnomer. They should do the right thing and not degrade us.

The PM made it clear that a committee of public inquiry will be set up comprising independent experts to investigate those glitches and probe deeply into SMRT. There will be no covers up. All shall be laid out bare for all to see. A detailed voluminous report will be published.

Usually, many revelations or skeletons and cobwebs from the cupboard will be unraveled and thrown out in such a thorough examination. Heads will roll. Some will bite the dust. No more free rides.

Transport Minister prefers to say “health check” in a rather mild term. We feel that the digging will surely lead to lots of changes on our established, entrenched SOPs.

Our job as Train Officers is definitely going to be much more tougher, exacting and zero tolerance expected for mistakes in terms of passengers’ safety. No more leeway on margin of errors! We will be under the spotlight for a long time.

After all we are the ones operating those trains in and out of depots for mainline revenue services. We bring in the dollar.

We face the wrath of irate public. Some of my colleagues have avoided walking about in uniform to avoid those accusing eyes and pointing fingers. A Train Officer from AMK had his tie pulled by an angry passenger and shouted at “You stupid MRT!”. Some declared straightaway “I drive bus NOT train when neighbours questioned about our failures and inadequacy. There are many more horror stories where we are targets of irate and irrational public! We bear the brunt.

Without Train Officers, the trains do not move. Since safety of passengers is of paramount importance as higlighted by the PM and the Transport Minister, Train Officers must be more than “train drivers.”

It must be so!

To promulgate otherwise is to defy logic!

As the saying goes – “You pay peanuts you get monkeys”

My two cents’ worth.

‘When the rate of change outside exceeds the rate of change inside, the end is in sight’ Jack Welch

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About Alan Tang

I'm a Chinese Singaporean living in the Eastern part of SG. I tweet on current affairs & inspirational quotes. I blog on issues or events if they interest me. I also share some of the interesting jokes, stories or anecdotes from my friends or observations on my blog. Thanks for visiting my blog.
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41 Responses to Singapore SMRT Trains

  1. You write so well that it’ll be difficult for any layman or outsider to believe that you operate a train. Many people are still of the opinion that yours is a lowly job requiring no special skill, knowledge or judgement. As for judgement, I think even your superiors give you less credit than you deserve. Please bear with their ignorance. 加油!

    • Thank you for your encouragement. 谢谢!TOs came from many backgrounds. Some were formerly civil servants, skilled tradesman such as mechanics or electricians. We also have few diploma holders amongst us. I got my full “A” levels in 1982! I hope you have gained some insight of our job. Thanks for dropping by.

  2. Jeffrey Lim says:

    thank you for the work that you do, and for doing this! And thanks for sharing it with us as well, so that we can understand…

  3. Zaid Apdan says:

    Be patient, my friend. It’s a Singaporean mentality to complain about anything which don’t go our way, and scrimp on compliments. Those who are never in our shoes will never understand what we have to face everyday at work, from our bosses, from our customers/passengers. I work in retail. When a product doesn’t work, it’s straight away my fault, even though it’s user issues. Just be patient and do your best at work.

  4. Pingback: Video Clips: Inside the SMRT Train Delay & the CEO’s Response | Singapore Actually

  5. Aaron says:

    Respect bro…
    Definitely inspiring from the way you relate your story.
    This blog entry should be broadcasted on Yahoo news…

  6. SG Girl says:

    Personally I believe if there’s a lack in the station crews being unable to communicate properly to the passagers during train service disruption, it is due to the lack of proper training that’s supposed to be provided by the management. Station crews did not get the right information to pass on to the passengers is the fault of the controlling centre eg. passengers at the circle line stations should be informed of the train service interruption at those stations that they intend to continue their journey. This would give the passengers a choice not to even board the cirle line train, making unnecessary trips, and less crowded at the other end. They can brat about how good their trains are and maintenance of tracks and all are carried out properly. It takes one incident like last week’s to really tell.

    I believe you are a hardworking and responsible Train Officer. Keep up the good work.

    • I do agree with what you commented. We are quite poor at communications to pax. Hope it will improve when the COI look into it. In the meantime pls bear with us. We will try our best to improve. Thank you for your encouragement. Thank you for dropping by. I really appreciate that!

  7. Toh Boon Yi says:

    Although I am not a regular train commuter, I will like to thank you and your colleagues for your diligent work. Many Singaporeans are unable to accept the current state of affairs and I think we can all appreciate why this may be so. Obviously, safety is paramount and it is better that technical problems are discovered and rectified early. After the immediate technical problem is addressed, inquiry into how organisational culture and policy lead to the those technical is crucial. I recall watching a documentary on a Japanese train collision some time back. The finding was that a culture of train punctuality at all cost put pressure on crew members to take unnecessary risks. Inappropriate culture can be be fatal.

    Once again, thank you and your colleagues for your work.

    • Yes I am aware of the Japanese train collision case. It was a sad case based on train timing pressure. I hope we dont commit the same mistske although train timing adherence is always on our mind.
      Thank you for your encouragement. Thank you for dropping by. I really appreciate that!

  8. Hum Yee says:

    Keep up the good work, Captain.

  9. abc says:

    Good to hear from the ground how challenging running a train system actually is. Especially if the train system is the de facto mode of transport for the country, due to the 300% tax on cars. At least 1.5M people travel by MRT daily during weekdays.

    Thus all the more important that the top management be replaced. Is not a matter of “staying on the battlefield” to solve the problem. It is a matter of getting the right people who actually knows the technical and social challenges of operating a Mass Rapid Transit system in a congested metropolis, and has the right experience and attitude to prevent more slaughter on the battlefield.

    Look at how SMRT earns its money and you know the mindset is just not quite right. 45% of revenue now comes from renting shops at MRT stations. 10 years ago it was probably 5% of revenue. I think if the top mgmt want to play property tycoon and retail tycoon, they should go work for Capitaland Malls, JTC or Ascendas instead. I hope SBS don’t follow this bad trend — for now, the NEL stations still haven’t turn into mini-shopping malls yet.

    Frankly SMRT should spend more resources on getting more technical staff, training people to be able to handle the actual train operations with intelligence and empowerment, more serious attitude and action on maintenance and emergency / security processes.

    • Silverelf says:

      Actually, I am not against SMRT capitalising on the retail opportunities if that can bring in more money for the company. However, what I feel is that this should then translate into either:

      a) Higher remuneration / benefits for SMRT ground level staff. They should also invest more into retention of experienced staff and the personal / profession growth for staff. Ground workers are more important than some people believe them to be.

      b) Improved maintenance. Since they would now have more money to invest in maintenance than they used to.

    • Lets hope that your views will be taken into account by COI.

      Thank you for your encouragement. Thank you for dropping by. I really appreciate that!

    • Yes the train transport is the defacto mode of travel fir most of us. I do see your points raised. Lets hope that COI will look into those issues raised by you. They will have to decide if SMRT shld go to its basics ie solely running an efficient and reliable train system.

      Thank you for your encouragement. Thank you for dropping by. I really appreciate that!

  10. Ms says:

    Thank u pilot! U guys operate and are responsible for as many lives on a commercial plane. Heavier responsibility than that of a bus captain. My full respect to ur commitment and professionalism and pride in doing ur job. Qualities that most patriotic Singaporeans show. Keep it up!

  11. Everybody hates “stupid” boss. Hope that you will get new boss very very soon :).
    One that really appreciates your work contribution, and dedication to the heavy responsibilities. Keep up the spirit bro!

  12. Silverelf says:

    It’s got to be some trying times for you guys right now, so you just have to stick it out. I’m surprised to read that some SMRT staff were accosted by people physically but I suppose that kind of thing would happen.

    Hope the ground people get through this time decently… it’s all gonna be hard hard work.

    I have to admit I didn’t know the proper designation was ‘Train Officer’, I’ll try to keep that in mind from now!

    P.S. Ship Captains really can’t be called drivers cos they are not the ones who make the ship move :D *Sorry, out of point I know!*

  13. Melody says:

    Thank you for your sharing! :-)

  14. SpeakSpokeWriteWrote says:

    Hi . thanks for dropping by and reading my rants. In any case, i am very glad to read ur blog too. i have never thought that train officers are to be blamed for the current situations in smrt. Heck, i think the gap between salaries of top management and the “working” class is way overboard! the problem has to be addressed by top management. So continue the good work, and keep writing

    • Oh I really like to read you blog! It is few of the “must read” blogs I keep track! I just cant wait to read your latest post. Thks for dropping by. I really appreciate your comments. We can only hope that COI will put things right for the benefits of all. Merry Xmas!

  15. nadzri deres says:

    “Some passengers affected by the disruption on Thursday night had complained that they did not understand the announcements in English.”
    this was said by ceo saw.

    so the passengers did not understand not that the TOs did not speak well enough. so where did sht get his info from?

  16. I think there is lacking in our communications that we need to improve on. Thks for your comments. Cheers!

  17. Terence Au says:

    Dear sir,

    It would be encouraging if all train officers in Singapore think the way you do, observing safety as paramount. It has occurred to me many times that train officers read newspapers, play with portable game devices like PSP, play with iPhone and mobile devices while operating a train. To me as a long time rail enthusiast (i specialize in Rolling Stock, how a train is designed, built, operated, motors and traction control systems down to bogies and transmission), i feel saddened by such activities. Comparing the starting pay that a MRTC/SMRT TO demands than overseas it indeed is a small amount, perhaps because of the high level of automation in daily operation (no need to drive manually unless rain/construction)? i don’t know about this, however as a rail enthusiast i bet there could be something done about the low skill level impression that a local TO gives to others in terms of pay.

    i specialize in Japanese systems, there is rarely something that i do not know about Japanese trains, be it JR or private rail, electric of diesel, 300 thru 60 km/h. Through my experiences there and with train drivers (運転士) and train conductors (車掌) of whom some became my friends, i know their job is way more demanding and way more trained, they need to take 2 to 3 years to get to the job, driving a train independently. Their pay also ranges higher, starting about 2500 SGD equivalent. The increased demand also follows, ranging from handling passenger accidents (人身事故), operating the train-board signal systems etc.. Of course among drivers there are sure to be black sheep, nonetheless the long period of training has eliminated many of these, only the top of the cream can make it to be a driver on mainlines. Just a simple look at JR West (the JR Group company that was involved in 2005 Fukuchiyama Accident/JR福知山線脱線事故), their reputation has gone into the drain following such a large scale accident, which dug up the bad practices that the company harbored. A train driver who overran a station during service will have to serve a day of corrective-order (日勤教育), which involves shouting safety messages on the roof of JR West HQ at Kyobashi/京橋, bowing and saying thank you to every customer who leaves the gates at stations.. Do we need these? i would say no, we can do education a better way than these. Many train drivers and conductors whom i met in Japan are those who observed safety on top of everything; some have 20+ years of accident-free career, doing the job day-in-day-out, but with a heart for the passengers, with company at the back of him, and safety always in consideration.

    Last but not least i would hats-off to train officers like yourself who put safety as paramount. When i take a train, i would expect the person controlling it to be observing safety aspects, for the safety of the train, passengers and himself. Only doing so will the company’s reputation, his own reputation and most importantly the passengers’ safety be protected.

    Best Regards,
    Terence Au
    Rolling Stock Specialist (Singapore Enthusiasts)

    • ミニバス株式会社 ☆世界、つなげよ | Connect the World☆ ♫Powered By Siemens♫ – About

      Minibus Group was first opened in April 2009, with a focus on the transport scene in Singapore. The Site Admin’s interest in passenger rail rolling stock hopes to bring the level of public understanding in this field to a new level, explore the methods to enhance passenger rail experience and service through new technology in rolling stock and working hand-in-hand with scheduling to bring about a World connected by rail, much convenient and faster than ever before.

      Rome was not built in a day; the Site Admin started his interest in rolling stock since 2002, the first time when he visited Japan, the Land of the Rising Sun and the birthplace of the World’s fastest, safest and most importantly, timely high speed rail, the 新幹線 (Shinkansen). After visiting Japan numerous times, he decided to focus his rail hobby on Japan itself, and by learning the language, began exploring technologies used on rolling stock in Japan. Scheduling services for passengers came next in the line of interest, where he aims to combine rolling stock technology with the ability to produce better train schedules to enhance the overall travel experience of commuters.

      The quest for better connections does not end here, in fact, it is just the beginning..

      More information on the Site Admin.

      Name: Terence Au
      Hobby title: Rolling Stock Specialist
      Age: 22 years old
      Residence: Singapore
      Highest Qualification: Diploma in Aerospace Electronics (2010)
      Present employment: Air Force Technician (NS), Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF)

      Focal subjects
      Passenger Rolling Stock Technology
      Railway Scheduling and Service Planning
      Exploration of usage of technology in Enhancement of Public Transport Satisfaction
      Contact
      General inquiries: terence767400@hotmail.com
      Mailbox for suggestions and feedback will be set up shortly.

      • Hi Terence,
        Thank you for your long and informative comments. I note that you are 22 yrs and still serving NS in the Air Force. I re-produced your site profile. Hope you dont mind.

        When I saw your comments I thought you could be a China national or Japanese. I never imagined that you are a Singaporean. Your knowledge of rail technology is impressive.

        To tell you frankly, I am not a technical person. I was trained to operate the train, identify faults, defects and report accordingly. If I could handle the defects so much the better. In case of defective train or emergency there are SOPs to follow. I was not trained to repair trains. That is under the maintenance or rolling stocks as you termed yourself to be an expert on that area albeit your hobby.
        Why not make your hobby into a lifelong passion by joining our company? I am sure our HR will be happy to take you. I look forward to see you and working with you.

        A word of caution – it is sometimes wise to be humble for knowledge is limitless. 一山比一山高,人外有人!Do you agree? Yes. There are black sheep amongst us but most of TOs are not like what you said. We do have supervisors to check on us.

        Thks for dropping by. Cheers.

      • Terence Au says:

        Hi Gintai,

        Thank you for posting my site profile, surely, i do not mind.

        My apologies, i should have emphasized that the TOs whom i saw committing the offences is really only a single few; a big majority come clean and are like yourself, concerned about safety on-the-job. i admire those who observe safety, and too trust that train officers go about their job with professionalism.

        i wholly agree with your aspect about the fact that there is a bigger world out there. Hence i always keep in mind that i am only an enthusiast; there are a lot of things i have yet to know. Japanese system wise i got to learn a lot mainly thanks to their open reports about company practices and knowing the language, other than some information from friends there. There are some old MRTC publications where i got information about our local system from, no doubt overseas sources too helped in the research.

        Once again thank you sir for sharing the insights about working in SMRT and i hope your articles will clear the air about the myths and certain misunderstandings in the public. One person may not be able to change the mindset, but with persistence and several comrades may do. All the best on your job and i hope to ride on a train that you are in-charge of one day!

        Best Regards,
        Terence Au
        Rolling Stock Specialist (Singapore Enthusiasts)

  18. Thank you for your encouragement. Pls cont’d with your passion for trains. One thing for sure is that trains are here to stay. The govt is planning to spend tens of billions on train network expansion. Soon Sg will be like London or Jap cities where train network looks like spider webs. It is a growing industry with job opportunities aplenty.

    I’m already coming to 50 yrs – more than twice your age – so I can see the finishing line. Whereas you are diff. Choose a profession where your passion lie so that you will be happy to go to work everyday. Keep up your learning cuz train technology is moving fast in a fast changing world. 24 yrs ago when we started SMRT, we nvr dreamt that one day trains can go driverless!

    Today, not only the Jap, Germans and French are the vanguards of rail technology, you be will surprised that Chinese in China are catching up fast! In fact all our latest trains are manufactured in China.

    Regards.

  19. Teo You Xun says:

    Was so intrigued by your posts I forgot how I even got here…

    Anyway, it’s always good to know what’s happening behind the scenes, despite the dramas coming from SMRT lately. Definitely gained some insight on your lives as Train Officers. I’m a student from SP and have to change trains at JE daily and I noticed it’s only recently that the situation there’s much better after facing so much pressure from that breakdown. (They started to fully utilise Platform A during those hours, can see the increase in frequency). Looks like they’ll only up their game when they have to face someone higher up, do they?

    It’s sad to learn that you won’t be posting too much information about your company anymore. Perhaps more on politics? I’m interested in reading up on that.

    Cheers

    • Thank you so much for visiting. I really appreciate! I hope you can visit my blog more often and offer your suggestion and comments. You may also follow me on twitter. Happy CNY To You. All the best in your studies.

  20. Claudia says:

    Happy CNY! Continue doing a good job =) Some public/bosses can be so insensitive!!

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