Watching out for seniors!


As we get more senior citizens in our midst, we must make special efforts to ensure that Singapore is fully elderly friendly.  I will do my part in MOT.  We will build on some existing initiatives.

LTA’s Green Man Plus scheme at selected pedestrian crossings has been in place for 6 years.  Senior citizens and persons with disabilities can tap their transport concession cards on a sensor at the traffic light post.  Doing so extends the ‘Green Man’ duration so they can take their time to cross the road.

While overhead bridges are the safest means to cross roads, climbing a flight of steps can be difficult for the elderly. To ease their efforts, LTA has started installing lifts at overhead bridges.  Six have been installed so far, and lifts at another 41 overhead bridges will be completed by 2018.  We will continue to look for bridges that are often used by seniors, with a view to building lifts for them.

One recent initiative is to create “Silver Zones”, for us to test out some new traffic features to deliberately slow down motorists so that the elderly can make their way across major roads slowly and safely, without stress. In Bt Merah and Jurong West, we are testing out rumble strips, raised zebra crossings, centre dividers, and pinch points.  And at the upcoming Silver Zone in Woodlands, we will be testing a raised junction.  By 2020, we hope to have 35 Silver Zones island-wide.

Where practicable, we have also reclaimed road space by narrowing our roads to create more space for footpaths for a safer and more enjoyable walk. These have been very popular and we will extend them to other parts of Singapore.

Car entering a Silver Zone Gateway

Car entering a Silver Zone Gateway

Raised Junction - Artist Impression

Raised Junction – Artist Impression

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Remember Murphy’s Law

Remember Murphy's Law_header

A new train being tested in the early morning caused a power failure on the North East Line (NEL) earlier this week.  I do not know yet why the new train failed, but I made two observations about the incident.

First, I was struck by the close relationship between the Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board (SEAB) and LTA. There is a standing contingency plan between SEAB and LTA. SEAB was the first agency LTA contacted the moment it realised it was going to be a major disruption. Immediately, SEAB swung into action to inform schools and activate the contingency plans.  This is a long standing arrangement among SEAB, LTA and our public transport operators.  Every year, SEAB sends out key national exam timetables (from PSLE to A Level) to SMRT and SBST.  In turn, public transport operators are expected to alert SEAB officers immediately should there be any disruption.

On 26 October morning, SBST which runs the NEL alerted the SEAB Director of Operations and his team in the early hours of the morning.  Contingency plans were rolled out quickly. SEAB took a deliberate flexible attitude towards students affected by the disruption.  I was impressed with the SEAB response and the collaborative spirit between SEAB, LTA and our public transport operators.

Second, new trains had to be tested, but why was the testing done during a major exam period, especially on its first day? LTA explained that the train test was not a daily affair. We had acquired 18 new trains to increase NEL’s capacity, and this was the first of a series of tests for a batch of five new trains. The five trains have already clocked 200km on our test tracks before being tested on the NEL over the last two weeks.

Testing is progressive, first during engineering hours (off-service period at night during which maintenance and testing is carried out) over weekends, then during off-peak hours and then finally when ready, into peak hour traffic.

Monday’s incident came after the testing during engineering hours. In hindsight, LTA agreed that it could have limited the testing to only Saturday night/Sunday morning, rather than Sunday night, eating into Monday morning. This is a scheduling detail which we learnt through this episode.

Since breakdowns cannot be completely eliminated, we must be prepared for Murphy’s Law and expect the worst. Even when things are tried and tested, we must anticipate and buffer for further glitches and failures, so we do not let the stress of something unplanned happen during stressful events, like our children’s national examination.

This “last mile” – that of de-conflicting and not allowing two critical events to occur at the same time – is the sort of fine-tuning we need to do, while stepping up reliability of trains. As Mr Tan Gee Paw has reminded us, we need “rat catchers” to list down all possible problems “rats” can cause and spare no effort in preventing them from happening; or if things still do happen, to remedy them most quickly.

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Catching rats

Header_Catching rats (Silhouettes) Final (26 Oct)

There was another disruption this morning. Such breakdowns tarnish our reputation, and we are re-doubling our efforts to improve train reliability. Singaporeans deserve better.

Mr Tan Gee Paw sent me this email recently. His years of experience and insights showed through, as he advised generally on rail reliability:

“When we engage consultants to design a system for us, they follow Codes of Practice and established design practices. When breakdowns become frequent, engaging a third party consultant or external team of engineers to do a thorough check on the system should not be the only solution. They will use the same codes of practice and design practices and often conclude the system is by and large intact and what happened was unfortunate and can easily be rectified.

But that is not the issue. We have to go beyond codes of practice and do preventive risk analysis on the entire system.

To do this, we need to engage street-smart, sharp-eyed practising engineers in systems engineering for rails alongside the third party consultant. They are the ones who will walk through the system and spot the risky parts of the system, beyond the codes of practice and alert us on what modifications must be made urgently.

I call such engineers the rat catchers.  I learnt this lesson way back in the 80s. We worked alongside top German consultants to design our first refuse incineration plant that generates electricity. All parts were meticulously designed to the established codes of practice. A year later, the whole plant suffered a massive total shut down. A rat had tried to jump across two bus bars and short circuited the entire plant. The bus bars were spaced according to standards, but no one was sharp-eyed enough to think a rat would jump across.”

He posed this sharp question to LTA and our operators: “Have you ever tried using third party consultants supplemented by independent street smart, sharp-eyed operating engineers who have years of experience on the job? If we have not done so, then we can never get on top of the current problem. As the system ages, more rats will appear and we will never get over this. Only way is to bring in the rat catchers. We do this in the sewerage system, and we have in PUB engineers who know what must be done beyond the standard codes of practice. Unfortunately our experience is not in rail systems, but nonetheless I will ask my departments if they think they can be of some help in rat catching for rail systems. But you must do a risk analysis on the entire system using street smart, sharp-eyed rat catchers.”

He stressed: “Unless we can get this done quickly, pouring massive engineering manpower to beef up maintenance will never get us out of this mess. No amount of good maintenance can make up for rats running around. It will be most frustrating.”

That is why I asked Mr Tan to be our Advisor. With his assistance, we will tackle this problem of rail reliability.

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Maintenance isn’t sexy

Header_Maintenance isnt sexy (v2)

No one appreciates it until something goes wrong. Sexy or not, maintenance is the most valuable work we need to do well, to keep a complex system humming.

Much preventive and corrective maintenance is carried out in the wee hours of the night, after train service ends. It is critical work because failure to spot and correct any tell-tale sign of equipment wear and tear can result in a major train service disruption. Just to illustrate the point, the maintenance teams do a lot in those 3.5 hours:

• Check all trains to be put in service the next morning – some 190 trains for the whole MRT network.
• Check entire track system, tunnels and viaducts once every 4 to 7 days.
• Change out defective track components, such as rails, power supply, electrical cables.

inset pix_Maintenance isn't sexy

Maintenance also involves pre-planned servicing and testing of equipment that are taken out of service temporarily, and major equipment or system overhauls. This is usually done in depot workshops or by system suppliers/manufacturers.

SMRT and SBST are also installing real-time monitoring systems on trains as well as at critical locations to help detect equipment wear and tear earlier. This raises productivity and enhances our predictive maintenance regime, allowing for timely maintenance before something fails and an incident occurs.

Bottom line: as our rail network grows, and we run more trains and trips, we need many more engineers and technical staff to get all this maintenance done properly. We are still short of skilled staff. We need to expand the manpower for the entire rail industry.

All these improvements will take time, but we are determined to make it happen.

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The first hour

The first hour_Header

Our recent emergency exercise, simulating a very severe train disruption which impacted all stations across the East-West Line, was useful to test our ability to mobilise additional bridging buses and to raise awareness. But realistically, we know that for a train disruption of that scale (as experienced on 7 July), no amount of service recovery can ever be satisfactory. This is because bus capacity and train capacity are like day and night. It takes about 12 to 13 double-decker buses to carry the same number of passengers in a six-car train. And this doesn’t even take into account the fact that trains run more frequently. Assuming train intervals of 2.5 minutes, we will need at least 24 double-decker buses every five minutes!

So we must not pretend that we can have a comprehensive recovery plan and a happy outcome in such situations. The only way forward is to prevent such a severe train disruption in the first place. This we are committed to do.

But there will still be disruptions, less severe in nature, affecting a couple of stations. When it happens, we will mobilise resources from elsewhere, to provide service recovery as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the mobilised resources will need some time to get there.

But I know the first hour of incident response is critical. Commuters will judge us by what happens during this first hour. What we do or fail to do will shape their impression of the transport system, and feelings towards it. Will there be confusion, lack of information, wrong information, poor signage, long queues, rowdy behaviour?

The first hour_PictureThe immediate incident management is by the local station staff. There are only a handful of them at each station. Operators are increasing the number of staff at each station. Even then, they will have a dozen things to do, besides having to deal with a crowd of hundreds or thousands of commuters, while awaiting reinforcements from other stations and supporting agencies.

At the Changi Airport emergency exercise, I saw how the Changi Airport Group, CAAS and all the stakeholders worked together to plan the exercise, put the plan into action and learn from it. In a similar vein, SMS Josephine Teo suggested that we work together with the shop-keepers working in the station, with a view to them playing a role in contingency plans. Even if it is simply to help guide the commuters to the right bus stop or to the right queue, it will be a great help to reduce confusion amongst commuters. This requires us to proactively share clear information and instructions with them. This also means that we work together as one family (like the Changi Airport Family), forge the right culture, to want to do well, as One Team, during normal times, much like close neighbours who will not hesitate to chip in and help when help is needed. This is the kampung spirit that we must inculcate in every MRT station. It will not be easy to forge such a culture, and it will take time, but it is the right direction to take.

Such “family-ness” will be important not just when there is a technical breakdown, but even more critical if there is a terrorist-led sabotage to our rail system. If we are used to working together as One Team during “peace time”, we are more likely to work together during crises. I have asked LTA, SMRT and SBST to think through this idea and see if it is practical.

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Passion and Proficiency

Passion and Proficiency

To horticulturists, cycads are precious find, with a long fossil history dating back millions of years ago.  They grow slowly and live very long – some for as long as 1000 years! There are two known naturally occurring cycad trees (Cycas edentata) on mainland Singapore.  Both were found in Katong, presumably with a long history too, when our Katong was our waterfront.

So when the construction of Thomson Line required the removal of the two cycad trees at Katong, it sent alarm through NParks.  We had two options.  We took the harder option of trying to save the cycad trees and transplant them elsewhere.  We found them a new home at the Coney Island Park.  Many were sceptical that the transplant would be successful.  But passion combined with scientific knowledge and skills brought about a successful outcome.

There is a now a little Katong in Coney Island Park.  Besides the two cycad trees, we planted a cluster of Katong trees (Cynometra ramiflora) to mark this Little Katong in the Park.  They are a symbol of passion and proficiency on the part of our NParks colleagues.

Passion and Proficiency

Avoiding another system-wide disruption

Avoiding another system-wide disruption_Header

The 7 July train disruption was a disaster because of its scale. Two major lines, the North-South and East-West Lines (NSEWL), were simultaneously affected. No service recovery plan can adequately address the sudden and large loss of supply in the public transport system.

The only way forward is to prevent a repeat. The question is how?

Friends who are engineers were puzzled why we built such a closely-linked system where a breakdown caused by a power fault on one line could trigger a failure on the other line. Surely, we must be able to contain any failures so as to reduce their impact?

Avoiding another system-wide disruption_PictureI put this question to LTA, who explained that the two lines were electrically linked to allow trains to move from the NSL to the EWL, and vice versa. The link was, and still is, essential as Bishan Depot on the NSL is the only depot across the two lines with heavy maintenance and overhaul capability. A decision was made in the early 80s to build only one such depot to minimise costs and land-take. (This limitation would disappear when the Tuas West Extension is completed next year, when we will have a depot on the EWL with similar facilities, at the Tuas West Depot.) Other than for maintenance, allowing cross-overs gives operational flexibility. Unfortunately, this also means that a power fault on one line could affect the other.

So what is the best way forward?

Our experts in LTA and SMRT have decided to delink the two lines electrically, by installing electrical breaks at Jurong East and Raffles Place Interchange stations. Under normal operations, these breaks will not be activated as we want to continue to have the flexibility between the NSL and EWL. But when the need arises, the two lines can be electrically disconnected. The electrical breaks will be fully installed by the end of next month. After that, a simultaneous breakdown of NSL and EWL, as happened on 7 July, can then be avoided.

Meanwhile, maintenance of all lines must be stepped up, to avoid any disruption. This is active work in progress.

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