Thursday 26 April 2012

$900 million plan to upgrade MRT system

Infrastructural, systems parts to be replaced over 8 years
By Christopher Tan, The Straits Times, 25 Apr 2012

TRAIN operator SMRT is biting the bullet and changing a slew of components and systems on its ageing North-South and East-West lines in the wake of a spate of breakdowns.

The programme - the most ambitious and comprehensive in the company's 25-year history - will be rolled out over the next eight years.

It will cost an estimated $900 million, and will be co-funded by the Land Transport Authority. The amount includes previously announced plans to change the two lines' signalling system.

This is more than what SMRT had spent on repairs and maintenance in the last decade.

SMRT interim chief executive Tan Ek Kia announced this at a press conference yesterday. It was called to explain the string of five breakdowns that took place in the last two weeks, even as the Committee of Inquiry looking into SMRT's two major train disruptions last December entered its seventh day.

Mr Tan said the company has been ramping up its maintenance regime in recent months, but decided that this was not enough.

'As the system ages, our maintenance regime needs to adapt from one that focuses on repair and overhaul, to one which also includes replacement and renewal,' he said.

The programme calls for the replacement of several infrastructural and systems parts. These include metal claws which keep the power-supplying 'third rail' in place, wooden rail sleepers that hold up the tracks, train propulsion systems and train pneumatic systems.

The move comes just days after Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew summoned Mr Tan and SMRT chairman Koh Yong Guan over last week's breakdowns and told them that 'taking a business-as-usual approach was not sufficient' to lick the problem.

Yesterday, Mr Tan admitted as much. 'With the benefit of hindsight, we have to adapt so that if a particular area, due to age or obsolescence, we need to replace rather than maintain, that's what we should do,' he said at the Bishan depot.

The number of train faults has been creeping up in recent years. In 2009, there were about 1.5 to two incidents for every 100,000km plied. This rose to around 2.5 to three in 2010 and early last year.

Then, from the second half of last year to the first quarter of this year, there were 3.5 to four faults for every 100,000km clocked.

Mr Tan said the higher rate of faults should be seen in the context of a number of factors. He pointed out that 66 trains, or half its fleet, were 25 years old.

Some 136km of tracks, or 70 per cent of its network, were between 21 and 24 years old. Ridership has also grown by more than 16 per cent to 606 million between 2009 and last year.

Even so, Mr Tan appeared contrite at yesterday's press conference. 'I want to apologise to our customers who have suffered a lot of inconvenience,' he said.

He also said SMRT was grateful to its rival SBS Transit for helping in the recent breakdowns by increasing bus and train runs.

Meanwhile, commuters should brace themselves for the two lines shutting down in stages for the upgrading works over the next few years.

Likely periods will be Sunday nights from 10pm, allowing a window period of about eight hours for work before service resumes on Monday morning.

The most daunting parts of the upgrading programme will be replacing the 200,000 wooden rail sleepers and changing the signalling system to one that is more reliable and which will allow more frequent train runs.

A system will also be put in place that measures track vibration levels, to help the operator identify and address potential problems.
Mr Tan said: 'We have been working very hard, but the results have not been evident... but that has not diminished our resolve. There is a lot of work in front of us.'

How will SMRT, LTA split the $900 million bill?
Sum exceeds what SMRT spent on repairs, maintenance in 10 years
By Christopher Tan, The Straits Times, 25 Apr 2012

SMRT'S $900 million programme to upgrade a slew of infrastructural and systems components on the North-South and East-West lines exceeds what it had spent on repairs and maintenance in the past 10 years.

SMRT interim chief executive Tan Ek Kia yesterday said the cost will be co-shared with the Land Transport Authority (LTA), but would not say how the bill will be split.

Neither would SMRT give many details on various parts of the upgrading programme.

What is known is that $195 million has been slated for a new signalling system. This was announced in February, and will be undertaken by Thales Solutions Asia, an engineering firm headquartered in France.

At a press conference to give details on the train breakdowns over the last two weeks, Mr Tan also said that $3 million has been budgeted for changing the propulsion system of each of its older trains.

Of its fleet of 128 trains plying the North-South and East-West lines, 66 are 25 years old, 19 are 16 years old and 10 are 10 years old. The remaining 22 are just one year old.

The air compressors on the older trains will also be replaced.

Industry observers said changing the two train components, as well as replacing the 200,000 wooden sleepers holding the tracks, will be the biggest ticket items.

In contrast, replacing the 30,000 metal claws holding the power-supplying 'third rail' in place will be relatively inexpensive.

Even so, Mr Tan said the $900 million bill is merely 'indicative', and that 'we are discussing with the LTA on cost-sharing arrangements'.

The interim CEO, who has been in charge since former chief Saw Phaik Hwa quit in January after December's breakdowns, said the expenditure could well be bigger 'if more measures are recommended at the end of the COI'.

He was referring to the ongoing Committee of Inquiry convened to investigate December's incidents, which affected more than 200,000 commuters.

The Straits Times understands the LTA could end up footing more than half the bill.

Under an old financial arrangement, the Government pays for the rail infrastructure and SMRT owns, runs and maintains the operating assets.

In 2010, a new financial regime was put in place.

In it, the Government assumes ownership of operating assets, leasing them to the operator for a fee that will eventually fund asset replacement.

SBS Transit's operating contract for the upcoming Downtown Line falls under this new arrangement.

Associate Professor Anthony Chin, who specialises in transport economics at the National University of Singapore (NUS), reckons the bulk of the $900 million bill should be footed by the LTA.

'LTA is the regulator. As regulator, it is supposed to make sure that the operator maintains the system well,' he said.

But he added that SMRT was not blameless, and described the entire episode as a 'two-party fault'.

Nanyang Technological University (NTU) adjunct associate professor Gopinath Menon, a retired LTA planner, said the $900 million bill for the two SMRT lines should be split according to who owned what part of the system.

'The LTA is the owner of the infrastructure, and the operator the operating assets,' he said.

In such a case, SMRT would be responsible for all the items of the upgrading programme except for the rail sleepers and third rail claws.

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