Local transport operator SMRT has refuted a customer service email one of its own staff members sent out, claiming that SMRT train brakes are lined with asbestos – a hazardous fibrous material that can cause serious and fatal illnesses like lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis, if inhaled.
The Government has prohibited the importation of the asbestos and products containing asbestos for use in Singapore since the late 1980s. The National Environment Agency (NEA) confirmed, “The prohibition was extended to include asbestos (in the form of chrysotile) containing vehicle brakes or clutch lining installed in any vehicles.”
Last month, the statement claiming that new SMRT trains use “composite brake blocks made of fibre asbestos with metallic grains” was emailed to several commuters who wrote in to customer services, complaining about a burning smell on trains and station platforms.
The SMRT customer services staff assured concerned commuters that although the brakes allegedly emanate a “strong smell” when heated, due to the asbestos, the smell does not pose any health risk. The staff added, “This will gradually reduce as the brakes become seasoned over time.”
When contacted by reporters, SMRT refuted the allegations made in the customer services email. Asserting that “asbestos is not used in any part of our MRT network,” SMRT’s chief commuter engagement officer Elaine Koh said the confusion occurred due to a “human error caused by one of our customer relations staff putting his own words and sending the e-mail reply to a commuter too quickly.”
Koh added: “We are tightening the clearance process for all reply letters. We are sorry for the unnecessary alarm caused.”
Commuters, however, remain wary and are calling for more transparency from SMRT. Given reports – from public awareness groups such as Asbestos Global – that trains imported from China to New Zealand and Australia were found to contain asbestos as recently as 2014, commuters are calling on SMRT to be transparent about where locals trains are imported from.
Facebook user Chengmin Wang shared a screenshot of the original customer service email and asked:
“How to believe this government! Some trains supplied to Australia and NZ by China contained asbestos materials in the brake as early as 2014.
“SMRT must reveal the origin of the trains in question and if the brakes materials contained hazardous substances, just admit it openly and put the train out of service for emergency replacement. Not sweeping the fire under the carpet!
“Usually, the first statement is true, subsequent one is just toilet paper for wiping their white backside!”
Meanwhile, SMRT clarified that the strong smell that commuters initially complained of is a result of the heat that is generated when trains apply brake shoes directly onto the train wheels to come to a halt through friction braking. Koh added: “We are working with the Land Transport Authority on reducing such occurrences on the network.”
Interestingly, this latest clarification comes after the transport operator initially claimed that investigations into the smell yielded no results. The Straits Times reported on Thursday, “ST had previously contacted SMRT about the burning smell but was told that its investigations had found nothing amiss.”
It is unclear whether SMRT will point to “human error” to explain why ST was first told that nothing was amiss in the investigations.