Battling unknowns

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Trains are a significant cause of our past disruptions. We will spend over $1 billion to expand and upgrade our train fleet. These new trains will help address past train-related faults. 99 new trains will be delivered progressively from now till 2019. This is a considerable but necessary investment to improve our train reliability.

With these new trains, more trains can undergo maintenance during operating hours without affecting service standards. We can also have a number of “hot” stand-by, to be deployed quickly when a train breaks down.

But even with better trains, they still need to be properly maintained, so our focus on train maintenance will remain a perennial priority.

Another major cause of past disruptions was track-side systems, such as the signalling system and third rail. To address this, we are restoring and upgrading the systems. By 2018, we will have new sleepers, third rail, and signalling systems for our oldest North-South and East-West Lines. We would have rejuvenated these older lines, which will then be as good as new.

Like trains, we also have to ensure stringent maintenance standards are adhered to. LTA is deploying more personnel to conduct more regular and tighter audits, as well as to better understand the operational realities.

Three months into the job, I am more optimistic that we know what we need to do. But there are still some wild cards. Unlike incidents that we can attribute to maintenance and ageing, there are some incidents caused by unforeseen factors. Mr Tan Gee Paw called them “rats”. They can cause system-wide disruptions. Unfortunately, they are also the most difficult to prevent.

Here’s an example of such a “ratty” problem: We have in recent years added significant capacity to existing lines by adding more trains, and also running them at higher frequencies. While LTA has ensured that these additional trips are kept within the power capacity that the system was designed for, greater power loading means thinner buffers for faults. Thinner buffers can become a breeding ground for “rats”.

To address the increased loading, LTA had been rapidly upgrading the power system (e.g. expanding the capacity of 10 electrical substations to better support the NSEWL). We would like to do the upgrade faster and complete it earlier, but LTA has the same constraint in the shortage of engineering hours (when train services cease) for these major works and maintenance. But LTA will do its best to speed up the work.

As you can see, “rat-catching” goes beyond routine maintenance. It has much to do with the design of the rail line and system, and a proper understanding of local ground conditions and creating enough buffers to cushion the unknowns. To battle the unknowns, we also have to build up an army of experts with years of experience. This takes time, but we are determined to get there.

One practical way to start off is to tap on the collective wisdom of the industry. LTA is setting up an Independent Advisory Panel for Power Supply, comprising experts from industry, academia and foreign operators, to:

  • Examine all recent power-related incidents,
  • Assess the resilience of the current power system,
  • Identify any potential system gaps and recommend mitigating measures, and
  • Determine the timing for the next power system upgrade.

“Rats” do not exist only in the power system. With more trains plying existing lines, wear and tear of the rail tracks have increased. LTA and SMRT have been carrying out a complete system check on critical components showing recent defects or failure, and are changing out defective and degraded parts ahead of schedule where required.

In addition, LTA will also set up a standing Expert Audit Panel (EAP), with members drawn from the German, Hong Kong and Japanese rail operators. They will visit us regularly, examine the reliability of our rail system, and help us achieve excellence in rail operations and maintenance. I have asked Mr Tan Gee Paw to chair this Expert Audit Panel.

Soon we will welcome the New Year. We are certain that it will be another hectic and busy year for us in the MOT.

We have to ensure Singapore remains a competitive global hub for the aviation and maritime industries. We will press on with the transformation of our public transport system, so that more Singaporeans can move around with ease.

In particular, our eyes remain focused on upping rail performance, minimising train breakdowns, and avoiding large scale train disruptions, while ensuring the timely implementation of several new rail lines.

It will be a busy year for sure. There may still be some disappointments and upsets. I hope Singaporeans will bear with us, and continue to give us your moral support. It means a lot to us working in the trenches and in the wee hours of the day.

Happy New Year, fellow commuters!

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Six days to enjoy free Downtown Line (DTL) ride

Six days to enjoy free DTL ride_Header

DTL2 will start tomorrow, 27 December. We have been working hard and are doing all we can to ensure a smooth service, free from major incidents.

Our immediate priority is for a good start. My worry is that there may be severe overcrowding. It is a Sunday, during a holiday season, there is novelty value, and travelling is free. If too many rush in to be among the first wave of commuters, there will be overcrowding and long waiting time.

We will deploy extra staff to man the stations and many goodwill ambassadors to guide the commuters. We will do our best to ensure a pleasant service for all.

Commuters can help too. In particular, do note that free service will run for six days to 1 January. So please spread out, and there is no need to rush. DTL is here to stay, and there will be plenty of opportunities to experience its wonders, including the artwork in each station.

We will inform commuters of the level of crowdedness at the DTL stations. So do check via MyTransport.SG app and better time your trip accordingly. This way, all can enjoy the new DTL2 and get familiarised with the layout of its 12 new stations. I will be there tomorrow to observe; I hope it will be a good experience for all.

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Cutting teeth

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As a young, inexperienced father, my firstborn’s teething when her first pair of teeth cut through the gums was quite an experience as she became irritable and restless. My wife and I felt helpless, not quite knowing what to do to relieve our girl’s discomfort.

We subsequently became better at managing her younger sisters’ teething. All these happened decades ago 🙂

Well, I will soon experience my first rail line’s “teething” :(.

Cutting teeth_PictureCome 27 December, Downtown Line 2 (DTL2) with its 12 new stations will begin operation. LTA and SBST engineers have spent many months preparing and testing the entire system, from the operations control centre to the trains and tunnels. This includes a very large number of tests on the integration between DTL1 and DTL2. By the time of the opening, they would have chalked up thousands of tests.

Will there still be teething issues despite all the tests?

The engineers told me to expect a “bedding-in” period of several months before the system stabilises. This is common for all new lines. While they can perform all forms of testing in a simulated environment, they cannot fully replicate how the system will actually perform in a live environment involving thousands of commuters. (Remember Murphy’s Law again!)

What was DTL1’s teething experience when it opened in December 2013?

There were two disruptions in January and March 2014. One involved a train’s emergency brake and the other, a power trip. This time round, when we need to integrate a new stretch of the line with another that is already in operation, we can expect more challenges.

But we are working hard to minimise any disruptions in this teething process. We must also anticipate the worst, and have drawer plans for contingencies in the event that disruptions do occur. We want to be proud parents, not stressed-out ones.

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A worthy investment

A worthy investment_header

The first step to improving rail reliability is to know what causes disruptions. There are several reasons: equipment and component failure, operation and maintenance lapses by operators and contractors, passenger action, and design issues. A look back on major disruptions provides some clues. When external factors such as passenger action are excluded, almost half of the major disruptions on our oldest North-South and East-West Lines (NSEWL) were due to train issues, with other factors such as track or power faults causing the rest.

As with all machines, as trains age, we must work harder to keep them in good condition. Like those in London and New York, trains can last us twenty years or longer, if they are maintained properly and refurbished at the right time. Eventually, we must decide when to replace them with new trains. Fortunately, with time, better train models with enhanced reliability features have become available in the market. These trains are also easier to operate and maintain. Adding them to our fleet can therefore make a difference to the overall performance of the rail network and in turn, better our service delivery.

A worthy investment_picFrom this year to 2019, we will be adding 99 new trains: 57 for NSEWL, 18 for the North East Line and 24 for the Circle Line.  These new trains will have improved propulsion systems, and more reliable and durable AC synchronous motors which require less maintenance. The new NSEWL trains will also have electric train doors that need lower maintenance and will eliminate air leakage problems associated with the older pneumatic doors. The operations data for each train door will be logged and stored for the maintenance crew to pre-empt door faults before they occur.

As part of the train purchases, we post our rail engineers and technical staff to the overseas factories where the trains are being built, to monitor the entire assembly process and participate in train testing. This also helps our officers gain valuable experience and enhance their technical understanding of the trains.

These 99 trains will cost us over a billion dollars upfront, but they will be a worthy investment. They will be more cost effective in the longer run. Most of all, they will help us achieve higher rail reliability.

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