Emergency Button Activations malaise or monkeys onboard?

The curious phenomenon of spamming the emergency-communication button (ECB), which has occurred 73 times over 19 consecutive days in September 2012. If a $5,000 fine was issued for every case, SMRT would have collected a total windfall of $365,000! Is SMRT following Netflix's footsteps in recruiting their own Simian Army?

SMRT has not tweeted any emergency-communication button (ECB) activations since 5 November 2012 ( days ago). Tweets on ECB activations first appeared on 12 September 2012, with the aim to "educate passengers on why trains are held at the stations at times". Has SMRT decided that the public has received enough education, or is it becoming an inconvenient truth?

SMRT reported a total of 165 ECB activations in July, 142 in August and 127 in September. Only 58% of the cases in September (73) were duly tweeted. In contrast with the high volume of ECB activations on SMRT trains, SBS Transit receives about 30 cases every month. [AsiaOne, 4 October 2012]

SMRT operates four rail lines whereas SBS Transit operates two. While this may seem to explain the much higher volume of ECB activations experienced by SMRT, Table 1: Average ridership per car-km of a parliamentary reply dated May 2012 shows that both service operators are increasingly comparable in terms of ridership. Hence, either SMRT or SBS Transit is getting a disproportionately high/low volume of ECB activations.

Pressing the ECB in a non-emergency situation results in a short delay, because the system needs to be 'reset' before the train can resume normal service. While a few minutes of delay may seem trivial, every second counts in the context of train headways. If not, why would the service operators be struggling to cut train headways to 2 minutes during peak hours? In fact, train headway is a key indicator under the Operating Performance Standards set by LTA. Every train that missed its schedule extends waiting time, resulting in the build-up of crowds on the platform.

The Daily Tally

The majority of ECB activations is due to unwell passengers but there is also a high incidence of false alarms ("No emergency incident observed"). How many were mischief cases, and were the perpetuators caught? While the service operators can impose a fine of $5,000, is it an operational challenge for a crowded train running on a tight schedule, to identify and apprehend passengers who misuse the ECB?

Current standard operating procedure is to impose a mandatory delay when the ECB is activated. If the train is at the platform, it will be prevented from moving off. If the train is in motion, it will stop at the next station. If the purpose of the ECB is for passengers to communicate with the train officer onboard, why must a mandatory delay be imposed? Does the ECB serve the same purpose as the Emergency Stop Plunger/Train Stop (which prevents the train from moving off)? Although unwell passengers should certainly be attended to by staff, should the entire train be delayed for cases that are not life threatening? Instead of forcing a blanket delay, can the train officer or the Operations Control Centre (OCC) be empowered to lift the delay instruction once the situation is assessed to be a non-emergency?

Unsurprisingly, ECB activations are concentrated during peak hours. Half of the false alarms ("No emergency incident observed") occurred during peak hours i.e. 7am - 10am and 5pm - 9pm. This underscores the recommendation to remove the mandatory delay that comes with pressing the ECB.

Stations not listed in the chart above have not recorded any ECB activations from 12 September to 5 November 2012.

Where will the Emergency Monkey strike next? Jurong East and Dhoby Ghaut stations experienced a noticeably higher volume of ECB activations, in comparison with other key interchanges like City Hall, Raffles Place, Bishan and Paya Lebar where passenger load is also high.