Friday 20 April 2012

MRT breakdowns: why so often?

By Christopher Tan, The Straits Times, 19 Apr 2012

STRANGER things have happened, but the latest string of MRT breakdowns would have raised more than a few eyebrows anywhere.

No fewer than five disruptions took place within a week since last Friday, with all of them affecting rush-hour commuters in various parts of the network.

That they took place just as a public inquiry into December's massive breakdowns is under way adds a tinge of irony to what could qualify as a fiasco.

Not only that, the breakdowns seem to have taken their cue from Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew's pronouncement in Parliament just a week earlier - that disruptions on a network that accounts for more than two million passenger trips a day are 'unavoidable'.

Statistically, this frequency far exceeds the average one-per-week disruptions that lasted more than 10 minutes between April 2010 and March last year, and the 0.6-per-week average recorded from 2007 to mid-2009.

Of course, I am mixing up time spans a little here, but it remains to be seen if the rest of the year will be incident-free.

So why are these breakdowns taking place, and why are they happening with such regularity?

For the East-West and North-South lines - the first two lines in the network - we are often given the explanation: 'All things tend to break down more often with age.'

For the brand new Circle Line, we are told there are 'teething problems'.

For the newish North-East Line, there have been two major breakdowns since it opened in 2003. A 2006 incident was attributed to faulty insulators supplied by French company Ceralep. Last month, a section of the line's overhead power supply cable collapsed because wires of a counterweight system that kept them taut snapped inexplicably.

Are these reasons acceptable? More importantly, are they the real reasons?

For instance, SMRT said the Circle Line breakdown in September was because of 'teething problems'. But what the train operator discovered in its investigations hinted at something more deep-seated.

SMRT said an electrical cable was damaged while it was being laid. When water seeped into the tunnel, it caused an electrical trip that shut down the line.

If indeed cables are not laid properly, and tunnels leak, these are surely not 'teething problems'. They sound more like infrastructural and systemic flaws that might be linked to the rail's design and construction.

SMRT said back then that cables along the entire Circle Line would be checked and faulty sections repaired. It said that this would be done by the time stages four and five of the line open a month later.

But barely six months after stages four and five opened, a section between the one-north and Bishan stations on the same line shut down for more than two hours during the morning peak period yesterday - because of yet another electrical fault.

Besides the direct impact on commuters hoping to board a train in one of the eight stations along that stretch, the incident inconvenienced travellers on other parts of the Circle Line, as well as those transferring from other lines.

So, are commuters here going to have to come to grips with the idea that rail breakdowns are part and parcel of city living?

Dr Vukan Vuchic of the University of Pennsylvania, who has more than 40 years of experience in the field of urban transport, said 'rapid transit infrastructural failures are not common problems at all', and that metro systems are typically 'very reliable'.

The scale of the ongoing Committee of Inquiry - which will span six weeks and involve more than 100 witnesses and over 400 pieces of evidence - tell us that the Government suspects there is more to these breakdowns than meets the eye.

Commuters who face increasingly packed trains every day live in hope that by the end of the proceedings, there will be sweeping changes to fix whatever is ailing the current system once and for all.

Hopefully, there will be recommendations on how future lines are built and run too. In my view, it is clear a metro has to have three core attributes.

One, it has to be robust. A robust system caters to high usage and withstands the passage of time well. Robustness starts from the design stage of a system.

Two, it has to be accessible. An accessible network is well-connected to surrounding developments. A prime example is Hong Kong's MTR system.

Three, it has to be functional and scalable. A system that is functional is simply, and logically, laid out.

Scalability refers to how existing infrastructure can be modified to cater to future capacity. For example, stations that are designed for eight-car trains, but start off operating for six-car runs.

There is little point in spending money on grand and fancy stations with sculptures and art works.

Instead, resources would be better spent on better connections, bigger platforms and robust systems that are not tripped up by minor faults.

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