Sunday 18 December 2011

Do you hear what I hear? Is the MRT train falling apart?

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to take the MRT train from Yishun to Yew Tee.

As always, should you or any of your family be delayed or killed, SMRT will disavow any knowledge of your existence.

It may not sound like much of a mission - until the train you’re on seems like it’s about self-destruct in five seconds.

That was what happened on Thursday evening after I took my kids to see Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol at GV Yishun.

While waiting for the train home on the crowded Yishun platform during the evening rush hour, I half-heard a pre-recorded announcement about a one-hour delay for trains headed for Jurong East due to a track fault.

I didn’t know whether to be impressed that there was a pre-recorded announcement or be dismayed that one-hour train delays occurred often enough that there was a pre-recorded announcement.

How could SMRT have another service disruption less than 48 hours after the Circle Line breakdown? Could the publicly-held train operator be so inept?

Just then, the train headed for Jurong East arrived, which confused me. I thought there was going to be a one-hour delay. Did I mishear the announcement?

I hesitated for a moment, but people were getting on the train as if nothing was wrong and so my two kids and I followed suit.

I mean, what was the worst that could happen?

Once on the train, I quickly checked my Twitter feed on my iPhone for news about a another possible MRT breakdown.

At the time, the closest thing I found was a tweet that said, “Just heard: all commuters chased out of #SMRT City Hall station. No alternative transport. No explanation.”

That sounded serious, but City Hall was about a dozen train stations away in the opposite direction, so I figured we were safe.

I relaxed a little. After the Woodlands station, the kids and I even found seats in the last car of the train and I was playing Angry Birds’ new Birdday Party levels on my iPhone when suddenly, there was a loud clanging.

Then it stopped. It sounded like the train had hit a piece of metal on the tracks.

The passengers looked at each other, silently asking, “What the hell was that?"

But the train was still speeding along unabated and so we thought (or hoped) it was nothing.

Just before reaching Yew Tee station, there was another clanging sound. This time, it was louder and lasted longer.

Now people were starting to panic. Were we all going to die?

As the train arrived at the station and slowed down to a stop, our train car rattled with an ungodly roar that sounded like it was about to fall apart.

When the train doors opened, most of the passengers (including me and the kids) rushed out as if our lives depended on it.

The few who remained behind looked confused as to why people were suddenly fleeing the train.

Maybe those few had their headphones on. Or maybe they were waiting for an official announcement to evacuate.

Fortunately, it was my stop anyway, but for many of the passengers who alighted from the same car as us, it wasn’t theirs. As I headed for the escalator, they were nervously waiting for the next train.

Curiously, only the last car, which we were in, was almost deserted as the train left the Yew Tee station. The rest of the train seemed unaffected.

When I reached home, I searched the Internet for news about an MRT train disintegrating on its way to Jurong East. What I found out instead was worse (or not as bad, depending on how you look at it).

That was, of course, the night of The Great MRT Breakdown of 2011.

Four trains north-bound had stalled between Braddell and City Hall stations after being damaged by a faulty power rail.

Now I wonder if the train that my kids and I were on was also damaged, which would explain the horrific noises.

Yesterday, the north-south line was disrupted again.

Not a good week for commuters.

It had started with a taxi fare hike despite taxi operators failing to meet service standards. Then came news of the SBS bus driver who got lost for two hours. Then came three epic MRT fails in four days.

Even the Prime Minister called for a public inquiry.

Looks like fixing our “world-class” public transport system is going to be a - yes, I’m saying it - mission: impossible.

Tom Cruise for Transport Minister!

- Published in The New Paper, 18 December 2011