Is this a failure of leadership?


Saturday, October 7, saw heavy rainfall and as expected, rain water got into everything. That’s what water does. We know that. And we design for it.

We engineers have figured out how to manage this. We have pump systems, sump pumps and lots of other means to drain out water that flows into places that should not have water in them in the first place, especially those underground carparks, subway lines, basement floors of buildings and so on.

Visit the National Environmental Agency‘s website and you will see the Heavy Rain Warning page – pretty nify animation of the clouds. Unfortunately, it does not provide any historical data, so I can’t really figure out how much rains fell on Saturday.

So, it came as a surprise that the North South Line experienced flooding in the tunnels. (Note: some people refer to MRT lines by their colour and the North South Line to some people is the Red Line. However, I have never actually heard announcements in the train stations about “blah, blah, blah along the <colour> Line”.)

Water in tunnels are not a good thing and it is very dangerous. If you are stuck in a tunnel, you will not be able to move because the trains will have no power (it might have some battery backup), which means that the trains are stationary and the passengers will have to sit tight – most likely in the darkness – and wait for help to arrive.  It is also likely that the airconditioning in the carriages will stop at some point.

What if the water in the tunnel kept on rising? At some point, the trains will let in water and you can only imagine the terror and panic that will set in.

I wonder if this advertisement by smrtmedia.com.sg was foretelling something:

Screenshot from 2017-10-08 23-46-29.png

While I can appreciate that the subway system, especially both the North South and East West lines are the oldest we have (over 30 years old now), there has been, over the years, a lack of investment in maintenance, especially during the time when the CEO was someone from the retail industry. The CEO of the SMRT is seen to be a oh-anyone-can-run-this type of a post, including military generals (it might be unfair to say this, but the general sentiment of Singaporeans is that these organizations (SMRT, LTA, PUB, ST companies etc) are seen as “retirement” opportunities for SAF scholars/generals).

During the time of the retail CEO’s tenure, the SMRT focused on building up retail spaces in and around the train stations. SMRT was, after all, a publicly traded company and needed to show revenue. This focus on revenue generation via real estate business ventures, lead to the slow and steady decimation of the engineering ranks. These were the engineers who were there at the start of the SMRT and knew the system well. Speculation has it that they were not promoted, were sidelined, and seen as cost centres (please correct me if this speculation is indeed speculation).

The core business of the train operator is to operate the trains. To ensure that the systems work, people are ferried to and fro as designed and also to keep the service levels high which includes a cadence of safety, maintenance, repair, replacement and renewal.

While it cannot be said that the SMRT failed on all counts, if we are to look at each one in turn, the scores would vary significantly. The trains have been maintained well. I have never been in a train that was dirty, without airconditioning, broken lights, damaged seats etc. The train stations are also well maintained befitting a good system.

What, we as customers of the service don’t see is how the supporting system is being maintained. This came to a head in 2011 with significant breakdowns which eventually lead to the resignation/dismissal (pick one) of the retail CEO. SMRT has not recovered properly yet. it has been six years now and the latest fumble is flooding of the tunnels.

Here’s an iconic picture of the SMRT train with water in the tunnel along with a team from the Singapore Civil Defence Force setting up pumps and hoses to drain the tunnel:

(photos from http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/transport/nsl-disruption-water-collecting-in-tunnels-was-due-to-malfunction-in-water)

The fact that the SCDF had to be mobilised to help, speaks to the severity of the situation. This scenario was something the SMRT team could not handle on their own (or even with contractors). Perhaps the SMRT scenario planning did include this contingency (giving them the benefit of the doubt).

I am proud that the SCDF successfully did what they could.

There will be lots of things that need to be done to make sure this does not repeat:

  1. Why did the pumps fail? Friends who are railway engineers/designers tell me that the subway system has multiple levels of back up systems for most everything – signalling, brakes, lights, etc. As of 1030 pm Sunday 8th October, I am told that even the backup pumps failed which then resulted in the flooding. When backup systems fail, that tells me that the maintenance rigour has been compromised. Could shortcuts have been taken?
  2. Looking at the photo above with the train and the water, there are many bigger issues that need to be looked at:
    1. Rusting of rails and supporting infrastructure
    2. Damage to train undercarriage
    3. Structural considerations of the tunnel given that water in large quantities have ingressed it
    4. Electrical power and all of signalling and communications systems.
  3. What is the rescue plan in the event that the floods in the tunnel is rising and there are people still in the carriages?
  4. We are building a “Smart Nation”. Put an “a” in the SMRT to make it SMaRT.

In February this year, a question was posed about the SMRT’s preparedness for flooding and it was carried by one of the local MSM publications. The question was about flash floods in the underground stations, and the answer offered was that the entrances to the underground stations are raised so rain water cannot flow in. It is a pity that the bigger question about water in the tunnels was not posed and hence not explored. I am sure that there will be, over the next few days and weeks, lots of ink spent on exactly that.

The issue of subways being flooded is not new. Here’s an article from ScienceX.com‘s phys.org site about the flooding of New York’s subways following the 2012 Hurricane Sandy flooding and also of Taipei’s and London’s subways. There are no easy ways to prevent flooding ever happening especially if the water coming in completely overwhelms the systems designed to mitigate them. It should not be because the systems failed when called upon to work. Could it be that this SMRT failure episode was a combination of power failure of the pumps and poor maintenance?

I do hope that whatever the outcome, the person down the pecking order is not the one to be the scapegoat.

I am reminded of this speech by a former president of India, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam about handling failure (do watch the video). He was the Project and Mission Director of the Satellite Launch Vehicle in 1979 and he was fully responsible for the launch of the spacecraft. His decision to go for launch even after the computer systems flagged for a no launch, and the subsequent failure of the spacecraft upon launch was his failure. But in spite of this burden, the Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation took the failure onto the Chairman’s shoulder and the Chairman was answerable for the multi million dollar loss. He gave air cover to Dr Kalam so that the engineers and builders of the ISRO can get back to the task at hand and try again. When they re-did the launch successfully a year later, the Chairman asked Dr Kalam to go and take the limelight. Failure was handled by the Chairman, success was given to the Director to assume. That’s leadership.

Is there an equivalent quality of leadership at the SMRT? For the sake of Singapore, I sincerely hope so.

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