Singapore rattled by week of subway breakdowns
SINGAPORE—Singapore's subway system restarted Sunday after a week of breakdowns inconvenienced hundreds of thousands of commuters and rattled a city-state that sells itself as having a world-class infrastructure.
All subway lines were in operation by about noon Sunday after safety checks shut down service during the morning, operator SMRT Corp. Ltd. said.
The problems started with a 40-minute breakdown Wednesday on the island's Circle line and escalated when the busy North-South line -- which runs from downtown through the famed Orchard Road shopping strip and out to the suburbs -- was shut for five hours Thursday night and about seven hours Saturday morning.
Another line, the East-West, also suffered shutdowns.
SMRT and government officials have struggled to pinpoint and fix the cause of the breakdowns and contain the ensuing commuter chaos in the worst systems failure in the subway's 24-year history. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the government will hold a public inquiry into the breakdowns and SMRT's response.
"Had it just been a one-off matter, I think the operating agencies can take care of it," Lee said. "But when the incidents happened again (Saturday), and same thing, that meant that it wasn't just a random thing, that something more basic has caused it and we haven't quite pinned it down yet."
The Straits Times said 127,000 commuters were affected Thursday and 94,000 on Saturday. Travelers had to wait in long lines for hours for buses or taxis.
Singaporeans were shocked by photos of a window smashed with a fire extinguisher by a passenger who said he was desperate for fresh air in one of four trains stalled Thursday in tunnels for up to an hour.
Vandalism is extremely rare in Singapore because it carries a mandatory caning punishment, but fellow passengers called the man a hero, the Straits Times said. At least two passengers fainted in the stifling heat when emergency lighting and ventilation failed.
SMRT Chief Executive Saw Phiak Hwa admitted her company wasn't properly prepared for the emergency.
"It's not something that we could foresee it could happen," Saw said Friday. "All the energy now is to ensure that it doesn't happen again."
However, it did happen again on Saturday, prompting about 80 people to protest at a downtown park and call for Saw's resignation.
"An immediate concern is the apparent inability of the subway operators and the relevant government agencies to deal with crises of this scale," the opposition Workers' Party, which has six members of parliament, said in a statement. "We dread to think how much worse the situation could be in the event of a terrorist attack or train collision."
Orchard Road business owners are upset that the disruptions hurt sales during the key Christmas shopping season when tourist arrivals increase.
Some opposition politicians were quick to blame a surge in foreign workers during the last five years for overburdening the country's transportation infrastructure. A backlash against higher housing costs and growing income inequality helped cut the overall vote won by the ruling People's Action Party in May's parliamentary elections to the lowest since independence in 1965.
"It's clear that SMRT's current resources are stretched to breaking point by the government's decision to increase our population so drastically through immigration while neglecting to invest in adequate infrastructure," said Kenneth Jeyaretnam, leader of the Reform Party.
Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew said he was disappointed with SMRT's handling of the crisis.
"This is a very, very serious disruption," Lui said. "(SMRT) better take heed, learn the lessons and improve on the systems."