Restoring reliability of the North-South and East-West Lines (NSEWL)

Restoring reliability of NSEWL_Header

While discussions on the detailed plans are still on-going, the principal elements of the strategy to restore the NSEWL’s reliability are becoming clearer to us.

First, replace, overhaul and upgrade. The NSEWL are nearing their 30th year. Just like car parts need to be periodically replaced or extensively overhauled, the NSEWL’s station facilities, trains, tracks, signalling and power systems are similarly due for such an exercise. These replacement and refurbishment exercises are also an opportunity to upgrade the equipment. For example, not only must old electric motors be replaced, the power supply system may need to be upgraded to meet new demand. All these require very costly capital expenditures, but they are necessary to improve safety and reliability.

This process has begun. All the sleepers for the entire North-South Line have been replaced; the replacement on the East-West Line began in May. We have also begun replacing the third rail, which provides electric power to trains. We are also upgrading the signalling system to allow us to run trains at shorter intervals, and thus increase capacity by up to 20%.

When all these works are completed by 2018, we will essentially have an ‘almost new’ NSEWL.

Second, ramp up maintenance. The current level of maintenance is inadequate. SMRT and SBST have agreed, and are committed to significantly ramp up their maintenance resources, including manpower.

Building up the numbers is one thing. Building a strong engineering core with deep skills is another and will take time. The availability of skilled manpower is a challenge which we must overcome. To this end, we must also work hard to retain existing professionals and up-skill them at every opportunity.

Restoring reliability of NSEWL_PictureThird, better support maintenance. Currently, the maintenance crew has a limited window of engineering hours to carry out routine maintenance and major overhauls. They have asked for more time, during off-peak periods, to be set aside for maintenance. Examples include early Sunday mornings and especially during school holidays. If revenue service can be reduced by even half an hour during such off-peak periods, it will mean a lot to the maintenance crew, especially for the inspection and repair of tunnels and tracks.  We hope to get commuters’ support for such a measure.

Fourth, clear corporate and top management focus on engineering excellence. Rail technology requires advanced multi-disciplinary engineering, discipline and operational excellence to achieve a high level of reliability. Corporate focus on engineering excellence is essential and the management must reiterate it at every opportunity. SMRT’s top leadership have expressed strong commitment to me, to raise rail reliability. Frequent rail disruptions tarnish their reputation and demoralise their staff too. Shareholders  too, must, first and foremost, realise that they are buying into a specialised engineering company.

Fifth, ramp up LTA supervision. We are strengthening our regulatory regime, so that we can catch problems upstream, before they result in disruptions and delays to commuters. Till recently, we have taken a more outcome-based approach. But really, by the time a fault happens, it is too late. This is where doing things right is as important as doing the right thing. LTA is formulating a stringent set of maintenance performance standards, with more prescriptive, process-based requirements for the operators. This will complement the current outcome-based approach. A stronger maintenance culture cannot be cultivated overnight, so LTA will also help drive this by embedding dedicated teams in the NSEWL for a start to provide engineering expertise.

Sixth, forge an integrated team. As I have stressed before, rail reliability concerns everyone. Problems can emerge from design, operations or maintenance. (It may also be caused by an unintended act of a commuter.) When a problem emerges, it is more important to focus first on understanding the cause and addressing it, rather than to attribute fault (which can come later especially if it is criminal or negligence). I believe that the outcome everyone wants is for commuters to enjoy reliable service. Finger-pointing in the first instance will not get us anywhere near this outcome; it only causes distrust between parties or worse, leads to under-reporting or even cover-up. We need an enlightened approach of transparency and open collaboration amongst all parties, and I am insisting on such a culture.

Seventh, integrate the industry structure. For a complex engineering system like our rail network, we need a tightly integrated approach to achieve optimal results. All parties involved in the different stages – design, build, operate, maintain – must work closely together. For example, the designer must appreciate the operational complications and learn from them, so that his future designs can address these issues. As an engineer, I subscribe to the mantra that “a good design is easy to build, maintain and operate”. The rail industry structure must promote and facilitate such an integrated approach. There is room to improve the integration in the current MRT industry structure, with the regulator, designer and builder, working even more closely with the operator and maintainer. We will have to consider whether to rework the structure or perhaps implement new processes to realise the ideal outcome. This is a strategic issue which we are currently thinking through.

These seven elements will collectively transform the state of rail reliability. The desired outcome is for good engineers to be able to do good work, for the larger public good, undistracted from secondary non-engineering objectives. It is a multi-year effort, but if we stay the course, we can experience distinct improvements in rail reliability in the coming couple of years.

The above approach applies to the NSEWL, as well as the other lines run by the SMRT and SBST. Indeed, the approach will also guide us in starting the new line, the Thomson-East Coast Line, on the correct footing from day one, unencumbered by legacy issues.

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