Thousands affected by NEL train disruption

Commuters queueing up for shuttle bus services near Dhoby Ghaut MRT station on Thursday March 15.

SINGAPORE: Thousands of commuters in Singapore woke up to another major train service disruption on Thursday, this time on the North East Line operated by SBS Transit.

Services between HarbourFront and Dhoby Ghaut stations were stopped early Thursday after a maintenance check uncovered two snapped power cables.

The problem was resolved at around 1pm. However, when SBS Transit tried running the whole system again, it uncovered an electrical insulation problem.

Services finally resumed at 4.35pm, some 10 hours after the disruption. An estimated 90,000 commuters were affected by the breakdown.

SBS Transit said it discovered at about 5am Thursday that overhead power cables just south of the Outram Park station had snapped.

SBS Transit started repair work immediately, but as extensive work had to be done, normal service operations at the five stations between Dhoby Ghaut and HarbourFront had to be disrupted.

It was the peak hour morning rush and there was a sense of urgency in the air.

Instead of a smooth ride to their destination, thousands found themselves disembarking at Dhoby Ghaut station.

By 9am, long snaking lines had formed, as affected commuters switched to the free shuttle buses provided.

Signs were put up around the station to guide commuters. Staff and "goodwill ambassadors" were also deployed to guide commuters to the free buses.

At any one time, there were at least five buses awaiting passengers.

It was a similar situation at HarbourFront station.

Most commuters told Channel NewsAsia that they heard about the breakdown from in—station and train announcements or from social media updates. But most of them said the best way to notify them is through SMS alerts on mobile phones.

Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew was at the Dhoby Ghaut station to assess the situation.

Speaking to Channel NewsAsia, Mr Lui said that although SBS Transit managed to handle the situation in an orderly manner with frequent bridging bus services, commuters were not aware that they could make use of normal bus services which were also free.

In January, Mr Lui told Parliament that the Land Transport Authority (LTA) is working with transport operators SMRT and SBS Transit to allow free travel on bus services that serve MRT stations where train services are disrupted.

The arrangement applies across both operators so that affected commuters can continue their journey on either operator’s bus services for free, regardless of which MRT line is disrupted.

During Thursday’s disruption, commuters could travel on either SBS Transit’s 124 or SMRT’s 190 services for free.

But Mr Lui observed that very few commuters were aware of this.

"Not many people were rushing to board those buses at all. So we need to do a better job to make sure that people know that there are other services that are also free that will help them to get to their destinations just as quickly," he said.

Meanwhile, SBS Transit’s senior vice president for Corporate Communications, Ms Tammy Tan, apologised to all affected commuters and thanked them for their patience and understanding.

The North East Line is a 20—kilometre track with 16 stations which are all underground.

The line was opened on 20 June 2003 and is the first fully—automated heavy—rail system.

Unlike other lines which are powered by a third rail, the driver—less trains of the North East Line are powered by overhead catenary, which is a system of overhead cables.

The cables supply electricity to the trains.

The last major breakdown of the North East Line was in July 2006, which lasted some seven hours.

This was due to the loss of traction power resulting from the cut of electricity supply to the trains.

— CNA/cc/ir