Sunday 15 July 2012

Fixing the rail system

Making public transport accountable
By Park Byung Joon, Published The Straits Times, 14 Jul 2012

LAST week's Committee of Inquiry (COI) report on December's train breakdowns made recommendations on improving maintenance and incident management for train operators. But left unresolved is the question of whether Singapore's public transportation model - where the Government builds the infrastructure and public transport operators (PTOs) such as SBS Transit and SMRT provide the services - is the right one.

It is not difficult to find social media and Internet opinion claiming that it would be better for Singapore to nationalise its train services.

But the simple-minded belief that nationalisation will benefit everyone is as wrong as blindly advocating privatisation in the hope that everything becomes more efficient. Each model has its own pros and cons. I still believe the Government and the private sector must work together to deliver good public transport. Through government investment, public transport can be publicly accountable and enjoy the efficiency gained from private-sector involvement.

The real questions are whether the current model strikes the right balance between public accountability and private-sector efficiency, and whether there should be more public accountability. Simple 'nationalisation' is not the right solution. Nor is simple 'privatisation'.

When Britain privatised its rail services in 1993, they were separated into two categories, railways and train operations. Railtrack took over the ownership of tracks, signal systems and stations. Various companies ran train services by hiring railways from Railtrack. Listed on the London Stock Exchange, Railtrack was a private company that was undone by the Paddington Crash of 1999 and the Hatfield Crash of 2000.

Lord Cullen's public inquiry discovered that both crashes would have been prevented if an operational ATP (Automatic Train Protection) system had been implemented. Railtrack had rejected fitting the system on cost grounds.

After the inquiry, the British public demanded that the maintenance regime for the railway tracks should not be determined by cost-benefit analysis. As a result, Network Rail, a private company limited by guarantee, took over Railtrack in 2006. Although it is a private company on paper, Network Rail does not pay dividends and reinvests all its profits back into the rail network.

Network Rail provides an interesting case for Singapore's study if it wants to develop an alternative model for Singapore's MRT services. With an ageing network, rapidly growing ridership and more newly opened lines, SBS Transit and SMRT face huge increases in maintenance demand. They have to invest more in maintenance equipment and hire more maintenance engineers. It will be a managerial challenge to cope with such work. At the same time, this maintenance work will adversely affect profits. As a private company, they are not just responsible for delivering public transport but also for ensuring their shareholders' interests.

The LTA may have to take a more active role in developing a maintenance manual and supervising the implementation of this manual. One particular problem with ageing track is that, sooner or later, the line between 'replace and repair in maintenance' and 'major system upgrade' will get blurred. The LTA may have to come up with a clearer definition of its responsibility for infrastructure upgrades and public transport operators' responsibilities for maintenance.

It may be easier to remove the responsibility for maintaining infrastructure from public transport operators altogether. A newly created track company that is a Singapore version of Network Rail will own land, tracks, signalling systems and stations (including retail areas). The company will be responsible for all maintenance works, any system upgrades, and new investment for tracks. It will generate revenue by charging fees to public transport operators such as SBS Transit and SMRT for track usage. As a semi-private company, it will not pay out dividends and instead reinvests all profits back into railway tracks. The company will be an engineering oriented company with public service in mind. If Singapore tracks need a major investment for system upgrades, the Government can channel this money though the company.

With the new track company in place, current public transport operators will become purely train service providers without the responsibility for maintaining infrastructure.

The LTA should remain as a regulator rather than becoming an agency involved in the daily operations of train services. Separating the responsibility for managing the rail tracks from provision of train services may be one way of increasing public accountability in MRT services, while maintaining the principle that the Government and the private sector work together in delivering public transport.

The writer is head of the Masters programme in Urban Transport Management at SIM University.

Robust safety culture needed
By Najmedin Meshkati, Published The Straits Times, 14 Jul 2012

I WAS in Singapore at the invitation of the Land Transport Authority (LTA) in 1997 when its Safety Assurance Department launched its Safety Policy Statement, where I delivered the keynote address at its Public Transport Safety Management Workshop.

In town recently to conduct a training course on aviation safety for another organisation, I read the news reports about the Committee of Inquiry over the December breakdowns of the trains of SMRT with concern.

What has happened in the last 15 years to this world-class agency, which was in my view one of the most proactive and pioneers of rail safety?

I am not privy to more than the public statements that have been made in the inquiry. But based on my last 25 years of research and teaching at the University of Southern California (USC) on complex technological systems and transport safety issues, and from my past experience in reviews of major transport accidents such as the head-on collision between a freight and commuter train in Los Angeles Metrolink in 2008, I would like to reiterate the importance of building a robust safety culture in organisations and to warn against organisational drift from such a commitment.

Major catastrophes are seldom caused by front-line operator error alone. They are more often caused by a multitude of factors that compromised barriers to the loss of control, or that breached defences for safe functioning of intended systems.

Based on our research on the reliability of complex technological systems, catastrophic systems failures and technological accidents typically start with equipment malfunction, process breakdowns, or operator error.

But they are further aggravated by a series of factors that are related to poor initial design, inadequate training, and lack of proper management oversight. For this reason, attributing accidents and incidents solely to the action of front-line operators or agency heads is almost always a gross oversimplification.

Often, human error arises because operators don't respond well to unfamiliar events.Their responses in turn depend very much on the conditioning that takes place during normal work activities. Operators' behaviour is also conditioned by the conscious decisions made by work planners or managers.

Therefore, the error and the resulting accidents are, to a large extent, both the attribute and the effect of a multitude of factors, rather than the cause. Such factors can include poor workplace design, unbalanced workload, complicated operational processes, unsafe conditions, faulty maintenance and ineffective training. Also of concern might be poor planning, haphazard response systems, and sudden environmental disturbances.

Inculcating a safety culture is, of course, easier said than done. The safety culture goes beyond specific rules and a 'rote' adherence to those rules in any organisation.

Creating a safety culture means instilling attitudes and procedures in individuals and organisations that ensure safety issues are proactively sought after and treated as high-priority.

An organisation fostering a strong safety culture would encourage employees to cultivate a questioning attitude and a rigorous and prudent approach to all aspects of their jobs, and set up necessary open communication between line workers and mid and upper management.

Singapore has been fortunate that the maintenance lapses led to breakdowns with no serious injuries or casualties. Before something seriously goes wrong again, the Singapore authorities should come up with a series of bold decision and learn from other countries.

It is reported that the SMRT is now looking to hire a new chief executive; the new hire, in addition to deep technical engineering knowledge as recommended by the Committee of Inquiry, should have a proven record, genuine interest and passion for safety improvement.

LTA and SMRT should also embark on a systematic study of their safety cultures and rigorous, systems-oriented, fully integrated, top-down and bottom-up safety culture improvement programmes, such as the one Metrolink initiated after its September 2008 crash, with the help of the USC.

Finally, LTA and SMRT should foster an effective safety culture with consistent assessment, training, adherence to principles of human factors, systems safety, and continued measurement through leading indicators.

The writer is a professor of engineering at the University of Southern California. He was a Jefferson Science Fellow and Senior Science and Engineering Adviser, Office of Science and Technology Adviser to the US Secretary of State (2009-2010).

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