COI – Train Breakdown Inquiry


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.”

Quoted from The Singapore Notes.


鹬蚌相争, 渔翁得利
(yù bàng xiāng zhēng, yú wēng dé lì)

English translation here.

“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.

Read related article here.

鹬蚌相争, 渔翁得利






“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”.


About Gintai_昇泰

I'm a Chinese Singaporean living in the Eastern part of Singapore. I tweet on current affairs & inspirational quotes. I blog on issues or events if they interest me. I write for pleasure. I also write mainly for my family and friends.
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18 Responses to COI – Train Breakdown Inquiry

  1. kinjioleaf says:

    Why should LTA hire private lawyers?
    Being a statutory board, LTA is self funded except where major projects are undertaken. While certain rules and regulations have to adhere to state policy and AG can be consulted, statutory boards have to engage their own lawyers should it be necessary.

    What I don’t understand is the purpose of COI in a court room with lawyers. If it’s merely fact finding, can’t SMRT and LTA sit down to present their reports, discuss over what can be done to improve the service? With perhaps PMO/MOT or an independent party to arbitrate? And finally to present the report in parliament?

    Also, base on what is reported in iToday, I feel that LTA do acknowledge that SMRT fulfils the adequacy test but suggested that it can be better. SMRT tends to be defensive… just my gut feel. Question is, what is the outcome? Is the court empowered to order SMRT/LTA to carry out certain recommendations for improvement? Can aggrieved commuters take out a civil suit against the party based on the facts established?

  2. Pingback: Daily SG: 18 Apr 2012 « The Singapore Daily

  3. Hi Ape,
    Just to put on record, SMRT being the operator is NOT 100% in control of its rail operations. SMRT runs the system but still subject to the “whimps and fancy” of LTA. For example, if LTA being the regulator were tell SMRT that we want YOU to run the system for 24 hrs a day with the max nos of trains in the system, SMRT can’t say no even it is illogical and not practical. You got the message? This is partly the problem. I am not going into details to elaborate. I’m sure you are perceptive enough to understand what I am trying to say here.

  4. kinjioleaf says:

    Gintai, what you said is the reality. What I thought (饮茶吃包子,好好谈 or settle down and work things out together) should have been the case. I’m being too idealistic. :p

  5. Gintai says:

    If you look at the news headline ‘From iTODAY:Finger-pointing on Day01 of Train Breakdown Inquiry!’
    It’s quite obvious that it’s a case of ‘Finger-pointing!’ right?

  6. Yao mo gao chor ah? Cannot use own finger to point, must get lawyers to point for them.

    • Gintai says:

      It’s called ‘out sourcing!’ Expensive out sourcing lah! Thks for dropping by.

  7. patriot says:

    Whilst the COI is in progress, another breakdown this morning, lol…….

    It seems they are serious this time, the Court and the Police are involved,
    let us see what will transpire.


  8. KKNCCB says:

    It might have to trace back to when the MRT was being built. Who built it? Who maintain it? Who is responsible what? There are more data there perhaps leading to current situation. By looking at this case in isolation, it will never solve the root problem. It is likely an admin/management issue rather than technical/engineering issue.

    Given the lawyers representing each party, it is no long a fact finding COI but finger pointing wayang with no eventual responsibility bearers. What the lawyers know about technical/engineering issue? They are talking about admin/management issue on first day of COI. Who has to pay for these expensive lawyer fees?

    How about asking the COI to also look at the case of SMRT maintenance man killed by the light rail no too long ago? All these may have linkages to the present situation.

    • Hi,
      Thks for your comments. You spoke like an insider. You shld be giving evidence to the on going inquiry lah. That will be interesting indeed.

    • kinjioleaf says:

      Where it used to be individuals responsibilities, usually the engineer or operator take the rap, many industries, particularly those who are safety intensive such as oil refineries, power plants and transport, are looking at comprehensive safety management.
      Put in the simplest form, senior management are accountable for a safety (or the lack of) culture.
      A train disruption of such scale can no longer be an individual’s fault unless there’s ground to establish sabotage. Thus, it’s no surprise to me that lawyers are brought in to defend their customers who are sitting in senior management positions.
      Anyway, it’s too early to form any conclusion. Let’s see what else may unfold. The implications can go beyond our public train system. There will be lessons to be learnt by others such as our sea and air transport stake holders.

  9. expensive profits says:

    PTO have evolved to become the “hybrid monsters” as they are now. Profits are privatized whilst investment and maintenance cost are socialized. The Govt will invest $$1.1B for 550 new buses and $900M for MRT maintenance. It is obvious that the business model is not working as hoped or planned and we are all suffering for it.
    The COI is showing everybody pointing the finger at the other party – nobody seems to be responsible or have contributed to the mess. We now need to pay a lot for somebody to help us assign and apportion blame. Lucky lawyers representing the interested parties.
    With these massive cash infusions, we sud consider re-structuring and de-monsterize the existing PTOs since they are already flawed.

    • The fact that our metro train system has become an integral part of our daily landscape moving millions of pax trips cannot be over emphasized. There will be more train lines opening up soon with the billions of public funds committed to it’s network expansion. It is now timely for a thorough review and revamp of the entire rail system i.e. the model of full or partial privatization or nationalization in the form of setting up a Statuatory Board to run the entire rail network system autonomously and independently without any third party interference!

      Obviously the current model of fully privatized business entity with LTA as the regulator doesn’t seem to work anymore. The natural tendency for a private enterprise to aim for maximum profits and minimum costs by cutting down on expensive assets maintenance & operation costs is clearly in conflict resulting in our present sorry state of affairs. If there is no problem then why this high powered COI lasting 6 weeks parading in a public court? Whilst the COI is in progress to probe into the system’s failure on last Dec, yet the trains are still breaking down even more frequently.

      The instabilty and unreliablity of the rail network is so obvious to the public that any more self- denial simply won’t assuage an irate discerning public. A re-think and revamp of our current model is therefore timely. Already universities and polytechnics are arranging for alternative transport on exams period just in case. The trust is no longer there!

      There are advantages of nationalization. Instead of the LTA as regulator telling the train operator what to do and how to run the trains now the stat board will decide everything on its own. The blaming game stops there and now. As it is from the on going court case, LTA and SMRT getting first class expensive lawyers to ‘finger pointing’ each other. Pushing blame to each other to the chagrin of an appalled public! WTF! The commuting public actually suffer and at the losing ends with two fellows fighting over whose faults or incompetency that resulted in our current mess!

      • expensive profits says:

        The owner (LTA) tells the operator (SMRT) what to think and do, but can never “fire” the operator, no matter how inept or incompetent. The operator cannot determine any passenger fare without the approval of the PTC. Wonder how this works?

        I know now that it does not.

        We need to restructure NOW especially before the Govt starts pouring more of our money into a system that is outa control.

        $$2B will buy a gargantuan amount of peanuts. Will this get us more monkeys or a really world class PTE (Public Transport Ecology), as promised and espoused for so soo long alredi

        • I do agree with your points. But LTA can still fine the PTOs even though it can’t ‘sack’ the PTOs. Don’t forget that there is a operating license for PTOs. SMRT ‘s 30 yrs license is coming to end in 6 to 7 yrs’ time. SMRT may not get the license renewed. Another operator may run the system. In a way it is not forever.

          • Expensive price says:

            The biggest flaw in the Singapore context is the lack of an independent non vested regulators for each of our crucial service sectors. Ideally the regulator should be a body of persons with integrity who are neither beholden to or have any interest beyond the agreed mandate.

            The owner (LTA) sud never been the regulator – they are vested, they built and specified the whole system – this is reflected in the current COI – instead of being the inquisitorial, (finding the facts and causes without trying to assign blame) the parties started an
            adversarial contest (blame is apportioned and assigned). Believe the second process will not allow to learn the lesson to truly solve our problem in developing a world class PTE.

            My appreciation and gratitude to your unseen colleagues working to deliver the service we need everyday. Sorry that you have been let down by leadership at the LTA and SMRT

        • Yelp quite agree with you on that. Lets see ow it goes after the COI. They will have to put up recomendations after the trial or hearing.

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