From iTODAY:Finger-pointing on Day01 of Train Breakdown Inquiry
Sumita Sreedharan 17 Apr, 2012
LTA takes issue with SMRT’s maintenance regime but operator says it is more stringent and goes beyond recommended standards
SINGAPORE – Even after the Government’s legal representative made it clear that the public inquiry should be a “fact-finding” exercise and not adversarial, fingers were pointed over which party – the SMRT or the Land Transport Authority (LTA) – was to blame for the major train disruptions that hit the North-South Line on Dec 15 and 17 last year.
Yesterday was the first day of the Committee of Inquiry (COI) into the train breakdowns which affected more than 200,000 commuters.
The three-member committee, chaired by Chief District Judge Tan Siong Thye, heard opening statements from the Attorney-General’s Chambers, the LTA and the SMRT as well as a report from the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), with Second Solicitor-General Lionel Yee pointing out from the start that the inquiry “is not an adversarial proceeding but a fact-finding one”.
Nevertheless, LTA’s lawyer Andrew Yeo, from Allen & Gledhill, took issue with the SMRT’s maintenance regime which could be improved, although it was “comprehensive and satisfactory”.
Citing a report by the transport operator’s internal investigation team, Mr Yeo said: “SMRT’s maintenance expenditure and manpower headcount for the maintenance of trains and trackways has not been increasing in recent years, at the same rate as the increase in kilometres travelled per train,” said Mr Yeo.
According to Mr Yeo, SMRT records showed that there has been a reduction in the number of wheel-profiling works between 2009 and last year even though there has been an increase in incidents of wheel defects over the same period. He also said that SMRT’s maintenance budget had not kept pace with the increasing ridership.
SMRT also “could do better” in terms of record-keeping, especially in the tracking of defects. “That would in turn enable any lapses or deficiencies in maintenance work to be easily detected and rectified,” Mr Yeo added.
Mr Yeo’s comments drew a response from SMRT’s lawyer Cavinder Bull. The Senior Counsel from Drew & Napier asked: “Whose duty is it to do what?”
He pointed out that the infrastructure was technically owned by the LTA. Also, any modifications to the infrastructure “must be submitted to the LTA for their review and approval”, Mr Bull said.
Alluding to findings from a team of experts, Mr Bull said that the SMRT has acted with “appropriate due diligence” in terms of its maintenance and engineering regimes.
Mr Bull added that any wheel defects or third rail gauge variation – which may have contributed to the higher vibrations, which in turn may have contributed to the dislodgement of claws – “did not occur due to a lack of maintenance”.
In fact, he said, the SMRT’s maintenance regime has been more stringent than what is recommended by the manufacturers: The various checks on the third rail are done every three or six months, which is more than the yearly inspection which manufacturers recommended.
Mr Bull also stressed that the dislodgement of the multiple claws which led to the breakdowns was caused by “a rare confluence of factors, none of which individually could have resulted in the incidents”.
Reiterating that it was not the SMRT’s intent “to shirk its responsibilities”, Mr Bull said that after discussions with the LTA, SMRT intends to change all the claws to “fifth generation” ones, which are installed on the Circle Line, as well as the Changi Airport and Boon Lay Extensions.
Apart from the SMRT’s maintenance regime, Mr Yeo said that the transport operator’s communication to the public during the disruptions “could have been better”.
According to Mr Bull, the SMRT acknowledged it should have done better and it has learnt from the experience. The SMRT has put in place measures such as more timely announcements and the setting up of information counters during service disruptions.
The inquiry will last for six weeks, with more than 108 witnesses testifying.
Yesterday, the CID’s Assistant Superintendent Roy Lim ruled out sabotage. More details of the CID report would be revealed in about a fortnight as some investigation work has not been completed, ASP Lim said.
At the end of the hearing yesterday, COI chairman Tan Siong Thye asked the parties to address questions such as whether the trains could have gauges onboard to indicate a missing “shoe”, whether a transparent cover instead of the opaque fibre-glass one that is used now could facilitate easier inspection, and whether the 45-minute power supply the battery currently has was an adequate supply.
The judge also remarked that bus bridging during train disruptions was not the ideal solution, due to the build up of commuters at stations during a disruption.
“LTA (represented by Allen & Gledhill) and SMRT (Drew & Napier) brought their expensive lawyers into the Attorney-General’s Chambers for the long overdue Committee Of Inquiry (COI) hearing. That Second Solictor-General Lionel Yee had already set the tone by making it clear the inquiry “is not an adversarial proceeding but a fact finding one,” did not dissuade the two contestants from coming out slugging. Maybe it had to do with the presence of the CID, and the implication that a criminal element would not be discounted.
At the end of the wasted day (day one of a protracted 6-week wayang) COI Chairman Tan just had to direct the warring factions to focus on certain key issues, elementary stuff like:
- whether trains could have gauges to detect missing collector shoes;
- whether a transparent cover could facilitate inspection;
- whether the 45 minute power supply backup was sufficient.”
(yù bàng xiāng zhēng, yú wēng dé lì)
“One fine day, a mussel went out to the beach to sunbathe. Meanwhile a sandpiper bird with a long bill caught sight of the tasty tidbit. He plunged to bite the meat. But the mussel immediately closed up, meaning the sandpiper could not pull out its beak out of the shell. Both of them became locked in mortal combat. Along came a fisherman and bagged them both.
The Chinese idiom refers to a mutually-destructive battle between two parties, thus leaving the coast clear for a third party to swoop in late and sweep up the spoils!”
Now back to the above court drama. If we apply the above timeless Chinese idiom which every school boy knows, the ‘fisherman’ in this case obviously refers to those first class expensive lawyers easily affordable by both parties when the bottom 20% of our citizens are struggling to make ends meet!
At the end of the 6 week slugging out between both warring parties i.e. SMRT & LTA, only those brilliant super rich lawyers are the real winners. They will reap handsome dividends out of this keenly watched drama – not only locally but also internationally (rail operators around the world). That is a hallmark of our world class transport system – the best in South-east Asia.
All the brilliant lawyers from the top notch law firms will be congratulating each other for their work well done even though they represent opposing sides as they laughing all the way to the banks! We will be laughing as well.
Who pays for all the legal costs and court charges lasting six weeks? Who will foot all the legal fees? Why should the Land Transport Authority (LTA) hire private lawyers when it’s part of the government machinery? I don’t know. I’ve no idea at all.
One thing I know for sure, 鹬蚌相争, 渔翁得利 (yù bàng xiāng zhēng, yú wēng dé lì) best describes the above court room drama. The blockbuster is still on. It’s only Day02 of the six week season at the subordinate courts. Don’t miss the fun, excitement and action packed court room drama with lots of thrust and parry.
“The opinions expressed here are my own and do not reflect the official policies, practices or opinions of SMRT or any organisation with which I may be affiliated”.