On track to better reliability

On track to better reliability_Header

Yesterday, the North-South Line (NSL) achieved 100 days without any major incident! It joined Downtown Line, which has passed the 178days’ mark and is working towards its 200-day milestone next month!

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For us in the rail industry, clearing 100 disruption-free days is no mean feat: it requires everyone to do everything right.  Any misstep can cause a disruption.

SMRT Resleepering Works (1)

Photo Credit: SMRT

We have five MRT lines, with two having crossed the 100 days’ mark. The entry of NSL is especially inspiring as it is our oldest line. Its success gives us confidence that with hard work and strong determination, we will improve our rail reliability. But today’s success does not mean continued success. Any lapse, and we are back to square one, much like a game of snakes and ladders, and the clock is reset.

SMRT Resleepering Works (2)

Photo Credit: SMRT

All rail services experience disruptions occasionally. Our challenges however are especially daunting, as we are also expanding rail capacity (adding new trains and running them more frequently), upgrading the power system and replacing ageing assets, even as we seek to stabilise the existing system and make it more reliable. And many of these engineering tasks have to be carried out during the three to four engineering hours per day.

But our colleagues on the ground are undaunted. They are pressing on, and putting in their best efforts, all thanks to the continued support of commuters and residents during the early closure of the North-South and East-West Lines (NSEWL). LTA has also worked with SMRT to open a stretch of the NSEWL later on Sunday mornings, to provide our engineers with more valuable time for their works. We will monitor the effectiveness of this initiative and if needed, we may extend it further. We will try to minimise the inconvenience caused, and we hope that commuters will be understanding.

Car-Lite Together

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There is a growing consensus among developed cities that fewer cars mean less traffic congestion, less air and noise pollution, and more land for public spaces and amenities. Cities designed to encourage active mobility, such as walking and cycling, also improve mental and physical health, reduce stress, and build a strong sense of community. Overall, car-lite cities make for a better quality of life.

In Madrid, an increasing number of roads are reserved primarily for public transport. Many streets in the core downtown area have also been pedestrianized.

Meanwhile, Hamburg has developed even bolder plans – to make cars obsolete in the next 15 to 20 years.  It will do so by providing reliable public transport and creating a dense network of walkable or bike-friendly green corridors throughout the city.

Closer to home, Seoul tore down a busy, elevated highway in 2003 and restored the Cheonggyecheon stream underneath, turning the area into a delightful and green public space. Its plan is to reduce car usage by 30% by 2030.

Paris, the latest to join the movement, has just had its first car-free day in September. That day, the usual smog, traffic noise and stressed drivers that characterise the city centre gave way to clear blue skies and noticeably happier people!

There have also been reports that youngsters in these cities are less inclined to own cars or learn to drive.  Even in the US, home of the automobile, more and more people are eschewing car ownership in favour of shared services and public transport. This is in sharp contrast to many developing cities where the car remains very much cherished, including as a status symbol. These cities pay the price through congested roads and polluted air.

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Source: Urban Redevelopment Authority

We too, want to move towards a more car-lite Singapore. We plan to reduce travel distances by bringing jobs closer to homes, with the development of regional centres outside the CBD, such as in Woodlands and Punggol.

 

We are also working hard to deliver a reliable, convenient and affordable public transport system. The Government is investing heavily, and major capacity and reliability improvements are underway. We will also make places and streets much friendlier for pedestrians and cyclists.

 Our new housing precincts such as Bidadari and Kampong Bugis are being designed with convenient access to MRT stations and bus stops, as well as good pedestrian and cycling networks to support a car-lite lifestyle. Ang Mo Kio Town is a pilot project to see how we can adapt existing towns to be more pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly.

Car-free zones have also breathed life into Haji Lane, Ann Siang Hill, and Club Street. We have received positive feedback from both businesses and the public and will extend this concept to other streets. And we have an annual PARK(ing) Day which is a fun event that allows people to enjoy the space reclaimed from street-side carparks, and raises public awareness about the possibilities of a car-lite lifestyle.

Our founding PM Mr Lee Kuan Yew had thought in great detail about what would make Singapore a pleasant, beautiful city to live in.  In 1975, he said in a speech,

“… Pavements must be designed to allow trees to grow, providing shade to pedestrians, and to cut down noon-day sunshine on roads. Pavements of granolithic slabs and concrete stifle trees. They must be forbidden by law.

 Some must be unceremoniously broken up.

 The objective is a city pleasant, green and cool, and safety and convenience for the pedestrian.”

That was how Mr Lee in his fascinating way saw things no one else saw in his time, and boldly transformed Singapore from a third-world to a first-world living environment.  Similarly, how Singapore shapes up in future will depend on us making bold choices and decisions today. Can we build on Mr Lee’s legacy of a clean and green city and his people-centric vision to transform Singapore into a city that prides itself on public transport, walking and cycling, instead of driving? We are not quite there yet, but I believe that together, we can make a car-lite Singapore a reality.

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Larger than trains

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When I joined MND 4 years ago, I spent a lot of time thinking about public housing, but I was mindful that MND is more than HDB, much more.  While HDB and housing were hot, I also could not lift my eyes off other issues: how to raise the quality of life of Singaporeans, transform our city, make Singapore a City in a Garden, enhance animal welfare, raise the professionalism of property agents, keep food safe etc.

Likewise, MOT is more than MRT trains, much more.  While I will spend a lot of time on rail reliability and buses, I know that I will also have to focus on other sectors, especially the aviation and maritime sectors.  These are significant sectors of our economy, the health of which can impact hundreds of thousands of Singaporeans.  Their jobs and their families depend on these sectors.  And there are strong headwinds and turbulence ahead.

insert pix_T1For example, the aviation industry accounts directly for about 6% of our economy and more than 160,000 jobs. It also enhances Singapore’s proposition as a business and financial centre. But passenger traffic growth at Changi Airport has slowed down in the last two years, even as some of our competitors continue to grow. We have to help it get back on the path of growth. Meanwhile, it has been reported that Indonesia wants to manage the flight information region (FIR) over the airspace above the Riau Islands. (The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) had approved for this airspace to be managed by Singapore to ensure flight safety as well as efficient flight operations of airlines and airports. This does not affect Indonesia’s sovereignty. In fact, there are many examples of countries which manage their neighbours’ airspace for the same safety and efficiency reasons.)

Likewise, the maritime industry contributes some 7% to our GDP and provides more than 170,000 jobs. Our sea port faces competition from neighbouring ports all the time. Alternative trade routes such as the Arctic Route and the proposed Kra Canal could also result in ships bypassing Singapore.

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A little red dot in an unfriendly, fiercely competitive world, requires us to be highly focused on these strategic issues, or many Singaporeans will get hurt. How we negotiate these huge geopolitical challenges can be life-and-death to Singaporeans. We do not say a lot about such challenges in public, and Singaporeans may not be fully aware. But we spend a lot of our management time and bandwidth on these critical issues.

This is not an excuse for the next train disruption. We are doing our best to make our rail system even more reliable. I just hope to get Singaporeans’ better understanding and moral support.

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Let’s protect and give way to the weakest!

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We want to encourage walking and cycling: a green and healthy lifestyle. We will have more footpaths and cycling paths. Meanwhile, the market is responding with different types of “personal mobility devices” (PMDs: skateboards, kick scooters, unicycles, electric scooters, skate scooters, Segways etc). No doubt, more new types of PMD will emerge.

We need a simple, clear and consistent set of rules and norms, to minimise conflict between pedestrians, cyclists and PMD-users, and ensure safety for all. Such rules, plus common sense and fairness, require that we should watch out for and protect the weakest users.

Parl Sec Muhd Faishal has been leading a Panel of experts and stakeholders to study this and to develop such a set of rules and norms. They have been conducting consultations with the public and are in the midst of organising focus groups to dive deeper into the subject. Parl Sec Faishal is passionate about walking and cycling and his position in both MOT and MOH put him in the best position to champion this cause.

Though he has left MOT and MOH, I have asked him to continue to lead this Panel as he has developed deep knowledge on the subject and a strong network with the stakeholders.  Moreover, it is a subject of continuing interest for him.  He has readily agreed to do so.

I look forward to his Panel’s recommendations in due course.

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Remember Murphy’s Law

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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

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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.

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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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