Friday 6 July 2012

MRT breakdown on 15 and 17 Dec 2011: Committee of Inquiry Report

'Maintenance lapses main cause of train breakdowns'
Inquiry report also points to design flaws, says incidents preventable
By Christopher Tan, The Straits Times, 5 Jul 2012

LAPSES in the way SMRT maintained its rail system were key contributory factors behind last December's MRT breakdowns, a high-level inquiry has concluded.

The Committee of Inquiry's report made clear the Dec 15 and Dec 17 incidents were related and could have been prevented had there been adequate maintenance.

It had harsh words for SMRT at various points in the 358-page report made public yesterday.

During proceedings in May and last month, SMRT had defended its maintenance framework stoutly and also showed proof of having proper procedures in place.

But the report concluded that 'there appeared to be a gaping disconnect between what was formally on record and what was happening on the ground'.

It said it found SMRT's 'work procedures and control mechanisms of the maintenance branches to be grossly inadequate'.

The committee noted that ageing and inherently defective rail-system parts were also to blame, and also mentioned some regulatory lapses by the Land Transport Authority (LTA).

For instance, it said that in 1995, when SMRT told LTA how a number of metal claws holding up the power-supplying third rail were falling off, the authority directed it 'to monitor the situation... but there was no subsequent follow-up'.

The report highlighted that the claw - a 1985 model - had a weak design. A more secure design was introduced in 1987, but 'only a few of these were used' on the North-South and East- West lines.

The report listed more than 30 recommendations to prevent a recurrence of December's events and steps to mitigate the impact on commuters.

These include enhancing prevention and detection of problems related to trains as well as the third rail; improving the overall maintenance regimen and regulatory framework; and improving incident management plan with a focus on passenger well-being.

In a statement reacting to the report yesterday, SMRT noted, among other things, that it has 'operated a comprehensive maintenance regime in the past, regularly validated by LTA', which had served it well and placed it among the world's top performing metro operators.

The Transport Ministry said it accepts the inquiry's view that the LTA must play a part in reducing the likelihood of similar incidents and improving the management of such incidents.

The inquiry panel was headed by Chief District Judge Tan Siong Thye and included director of prisons Soh Wai Wah and Nanyang Technological University professor Lim Mong King. The inquiry was commissioned by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong after the breakdowns, which affected more than 220,000 commuters but saw no injuries except for two people fainting.

The report found that an inherently defective metal fastener in a support assembly that held up the third rail, which supplies power to trains, triggered a chain of events that led to the Dec 15 incident.

Damage sustained by trains on the first day, which went undetected, led to the Dec 17 breakdown.

It made extensive mention of SMRT's maintenance shortfalls, citing how 'no checks have been carried out all these years' by the operator on the network's third- rail support assemblies even though it was required to do so.

It also said the condition of SMRT's only rail-inspection vehicle had been left to deteriorate, such that its readings were not completely accurate.

Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew will give a fuller Government response in Parliament next week. The LTA will take about three weeks to decide on what penalties, if any, to impose on SMRT.

Asked if the report would restore public confidence in the MRT system, MP Cedric Foo said: 'This is a great start but it is just the beginning.'

The chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Transport added: 'Ultimately, real-life commuter experiences over a sufficient period of time of a more reliable MRT system will restore confidence.'

More secure third rail needed: COI
It tells SMRT to enhance detection of flaws and adopt asset renewal regime
By Royston Sim, The Straits Times, 5 Jul 2012

RAIL operator SMRT needs to develop a more secure design for the fixtures holding up the third rail that supplies power and improve inspections of the system.

This recommendation from the Committee of Inquiry (COI) follows the discovery that the third rail had sagged during both train breakdowns last December, damaging a device on the train that draws power from the third rail, called the collector shoe.

The suggestion is among more than 20 operations and maintenance-related recommendations the COI made in its report.

Most of them revolve around improving SMRT's maintenance regimes, including enhancing the detection of flaws in the third rail system. But the operator also needs to implement an asset renewal and replacement regime, said the COI, as ridership rises rapidly and its infrastructure ages.

The committee expressed confidence that the recommendations, when carried out, would greatly reduce the likelihood of similar breakdowns in future.

The focus on the third rail follows findings that a defective fastener dislodged the claw holding the third rail in place. This caused a part of the rail to sag, damaging the collector shoes of trains going past, and causing some trains to lose power and stall on Dec 15.

The next day, one or more trains with damaged shoes were put back into service, causing more damage to the third-rail system and leading to the second breakdown on Dec 17.

The COI concluded that the third-rail claw design had an 'inherent reliability issue', and urged SMRT and the Land Transport Authority (LTA) to develop a more robust support assembly design as soon as possible. It recommended making claws more visible, installing steel caps to further secure them and carrying out annual inspections and extra tests.

It said SMRT should also study ways to detect and repair defects more effectively, such as equipping trains with devices to detect sagging in the third rail or problems in the collector shoes.

The COI said SMRT should review its entire maintenance approach, use technology more efficiently and ensure its various departments work together.

It did not mince its words about the operator's maintenance shortfalls. It said its response to the faults 'leaves much to be desired', and called the work procedures of its maintenance branches 'grossly inadequate'.

It noted there was no competent engineer to check if the maintenance technician manually testing and fixing the alignment between the third rail and rail tracks had done his job properly.

SMRT acknowledged there was room for improvement in its maintenance and monitoring regime and work processes, and said it has been implementing various initiatives to improve service reliability and its response to incidents.

'In some other areas, we have even gone beyond COI recommendations,' it said. 'We will review the COI recommendations to take in further enhancement measures as appropriate, in conjunction with LTA.'

Observers agreed with the recommendations. Chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Transport Cedric Foo called them 'very practical', while National University of Singapore transport researcher Lee Der Horng hoped the LTA and SMRT would go further.

Key suggestions for improvement
THE committee listed more than 20 engineering-related recommendations. These are some of the key ones:
- Enhance the prevention and detection of problems related to the third rail, including developing a new third-rail support assembly design, conducting annual inspections of the support assemblies and upgrading the capabilities of the multi-function vehicle used to check the third rail. 
- Enhance the prevention and detection of problems related to trains, including studying the feasibility of a device to monitor the state of current collector shoes and improving the way wheel defects are monitored and rectified. 
- Improve SMRT's overall maintenance regimen and regulatory framework, including implementing a management system audit.

SMRT defends maintenance regime

SMRT yesterday defended its maintenance regime, even as it admitted that it could improve in some areas such as maintenance, monitoring and work processes.

In response to the COI report, it said: 'SMRT has operated a comprehensive maintenance regime in the past, regularly validated by the Land Transport Authority, which has served us well and placed SMRT amongst the top performing metro operators.'

It said this standing was evidenced by international benchmarking studies and testimonies from experts at the hearings.

But it noted challenges ahead from the ageing system and higher strain from increased train runs to cater to rapidly increasing ridership.

It also attributed 'isolated and latent material defects' as a key factor in the disruptions.

The second disruption, it said, was due mainly to one or more trains that suffered 'not easily detectable' damage to devices on the trains that draw power.

Since December, SMRT has rolled out measures to improve reliability and response, including many of the recommendations in the COI report. In some other areas, it went beyond the recommendations. It also thanked commuters for their patience and understanding as it worked to improve.

LTA 'must play its part' in reducing breakdowns

THE Ministry of Transport (MOT) accepts the COI's view that the Land Transport Authority (LTA) must also play a part in reducing the likelihood of train breakdowns like those in December last year and in improving the management of such incidents.

One of the COI's recommendation is that the LTA, as regulator of the rail operators, review periodically its regulatory regime to maintain effective oversight of the operators' maintenance regimes.

The LTA should also take the lead in working out, with other public transport players, an overall land transport emergency plan that gives in detail how each party should respond to an incident.

'MOT accepts these views that the COI has expressed in its report, and will give a fuller response next week,' its spokesman said, when asked whether the LTA did not play a major role in the breakdowns, given that the COI appeared to put most of the blame on rail operator SMRT.

On why no penalties were suggested in the report, she said the COI's purpose was not to determine culpability and penalties.

But as the regulator, the LTA will separately complete its investigation into the breakdowns, taking into consideration the COI report, she added, indicating the LTA would be addressing the issue of penalties.

Outdated, unreliable equipment
By Goh Chin Lian, The Straits Times, 5 Jul 2012

A CRITICAL machine that checks the condition and alignment of MRT rails was found to be outdated and unreliable, a sorry state that seems symptomatic of all that was wrong with SMRT's maintenance regime.

The yellow locomotive, called the Multi-Function Vehicle, is the only such machine used by SMRT to check its North-South and East-West lines.

In use since the 1990s or earlier, it runs on software in the old Pascal programming language instead of the newer Windows-based version.

The Committee of Inquiry said SMRT knew the machine's diagnostic instruments gave readings that were only about 80 per cent accurate, but it did not order a mid-life upgrade of the software.

These failings hampered SMRT's ability to detect faults from the first train disruption on Dec 15, which had a bearing on the second disruption two days later.

For instance, the software had deteriorated to a level that the options available to SMRT in the early hours after the first disruption were limited.

The COI said: 'SMRT faced a Hobson's choice of having to rely either on manual inspection or the MFV with a reliability of 80 per cent'. The vehicle also failed occasionally, as it did in the early morning of Dec 17, hours before the second disruption.

Although the SMRT had thought of upgrading the vehicle since 2009, it did not do it. Instead, it decided to buy a new one but the purchase did not take place before last year's incident.

These moves, the COI indicated, came too late.

'The COI had questioned SMRT personnel on why the MFV, being a critical piece of equipment, was not subjected to a mid-life upgrade of its software, which may have prevented the incident on Dec 17, 2011, but did not receive any satisfactory answer.'

It added: 'If SMRT had provided the MFV a mid-life upgrade as it did for its revenue trains, then the MFV would have served SMRT better on Dec 17, 2011.'

The COI felt that on top of buying one new vehicle, the existing machine should be overhauled or another new vehicle bought.

Having two vehicles will allow for more frequent track inspections and maintenance, it said.

It also noted inconsistencies in the way different staff members operated the vehicle. It recommended SMRT review the processes and protocols, and disseminate them properly at all levels.

'Refocus on engineering and trains'
By Goh Chin Lian, The Straits Times, 5 Jul 2012

RAIL operator SMRT needs to return to its original mission and be, first and foremost, an 'engineering-focused organisation whose core business is in train operations', said the Committee of Inquiry (COI) in its report.

If senior management emphasises this thinking, and all staff shares it, SMRT will go a long way in ensuring that major disruptions like those in December last year do not happen again, it said.

Its call on SMRT to re-focus on engineering comes amid talk of how, since 2002 with Ms Saw Phaik Hwa in charge, the rail operator grew its bottom line by converting empty spaces in MRT stations into rentable retail space.

Ms Saw, whose work experience was in retail and not engineering, resigned as chief executive officer on Jan 6, shortly after the two major breakdowns.

The COI indicated that engineering aspects also took a back seat, starting with the engineers.

'There appears to be a lack of competent mid-level engineers in SMRT who can think strategically, lead and organise maintenance work effectively, as well as learn from experience,' it said. This view was held by SMRT chairman Koh Yong Guan as well, when he testified before the COI, it noted.

At the senior level, the board appeared to have been lacking in engineering expertise for some time. Only from June 2010 was a senior staff member with a strong technical background asked to sit in at all board meetings. He is SMRT Trains executive vice-president Khoo Hean Siang.

The COI's concern that SMRT has lost its way stems from various system and equipment failures in the two disruptions.

These included the train battery supplying emergency power, maintenance software and communication systems.

The failures suggest more has to be done to step up maintenance in SMRT's train operations, the COI said.

SMRT's Mr Koh told the COI in May that SMRT Corp will be repositioned as an engineering company, with more attention paid to its engineers.

Poor staff response led to chaos and confusion
By Karamjit Kaur, The Straits Times, 5 Jul 2012

MRT staff who were on the ground during last December's two major train breakdowns were just as confused as the 220,000 affected commuters.

Train drivers and station managers did not know what was happening and why.

With little information and few instructions from the control centre, staff could not give commuters timely and regular updates.

The result was chaos, confusion and frustration for those affected by the disruptions on Dec 15 and Dec 17.

This was one of several incident-management flaws uncovered by a government-appointed Committee of Inquiry into the breakdowns.

In a report to Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew on Tuesday, following a six-week hearing, the committee said the lack of accurate updates inconvenienced commuters like Mr Lai Chin Liang.

Mr Lai, who was affected by the Dec 15 incident in the evening peak hour, was one of many passengers on board a train that stalled at Braddell station.

MRT staff kept telling commuters that buses would arrive to take them to other stations but these never came. Mr Lai eventually took a cab after a 11/2-hour wait.

At stations where buses were provided, these were too few and far between. The result was overcrowding, with people spilling out onto the bus bays and roads.

At Novena, for example, when a bus arrived about three hours after the breakdown, it was almost full, having picked up passengers from Newton station earlier.

Passengers also complained of poor signage to bridging bus services and patchy announcements - often only in English.

The committee highlighted other shortcomings, for instance, the time taken to detrain or get commuters off a stalled train and walk to the nearest station.

On Dec 15, when a train had stopped between City Hall and Dhoby Ghaut stations, a decision was made to evacuate passengers, but this came well over an hour later - more than the 45-minute backup battery lifespan.

Trains stuck in tunnels had limited lighting and ventilation, causing commuters great discomfort. At least one fainted, while another, stuck in a cabin with no lights, smashed a window with a fire extinguisher to let in fresh air.

The committee said: 'It is uncomfortable for passengers to remain aboard trains with only emergency lighting and ventilation while awaiting detrainment.'

While the inquiry team acknowledged that commuter safety was never compromised, SMRT's overall incident response was 'skewed towards train safety and operations considerations'. This resulted in 'insufficient attention to the well-being of passengers stranded in stalled trains and at stations'.

The committee also scrutinised how different stakeholders, including the Land Transport Authority (LTA) which regulates train operators, communicated with one another. It found there was no clarity on the role of each entity.

It noted that there was no integrated land-transport emergency plan outlining response and coordination strategies.

Had the plan existed, the Dec 17 breakdown could have been avoided. The committee attributed the cause of this mainly to inadequate checks after the Dec 15 breakdown and miscommunication between SMRT and LTA over when to resume services.

Where LTA fell short
Design, maintenance audits, incident management posed problems; GPC head calls for separation of roles
By Goh Chin Lian and Christopher Tan, The Straits Times, 5 Jul 2012

WHILE the Committee of Inquiry's report focused on shortcomings in rail operator SMRT, the Land Transport Authority's (LTA) role in the breakdowns received far fewer mentions.

The report faulted the LTA on one point for rail design: Not being proactive in following up on an improved design of claws that hold in place the power-supplying third rail.

The committee noted that after SMRT added a steel cap to the claws in 1995 - the original version had reliability issues - and put them at some trouble spots, both the operator and LTA were expected to keep tabs and consider a full-scale roll-out.

This did not happen.

SMRT management seemed to have 'trivialised' the issue, while the LTA 'did not proactively check with SMRT when SMRT did not revert', the committee said.

It called on both parties to develop a more robust system with a new claw design, and make it a practice to look out for or develop improved equipment designs.

The LTA, it added, should also consider requiring SMRT to audit its own maintenance regime every three or four years, and improve the regulatory framework.

During the proceedings, LTA chief executive Chew Hock Yong had told the inquiry that LTA may recalibrate fines for operators and increase the maximum penalty of $1 million.

On managing incidents, the committee felt there was 'inadequate clarity' of the roles of the public transport operators and the LTA.

It asked the LTA to develop an integrated, national-level land transport emergency plan detailing the responses of all parties.

The LTA should also work with operators to review procedures to evacuate passengers from a train, and with SMRT, to properly preserve evidence after an incident.

It also asked the LTA to set a timeframe shorter than two hours to activate senior management in a public transport emergency.

The committee said this is because the first hour of a disruption is the most critical.

When asked about LTA's liability in the breakdowns, Mr Cedric Foo, chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Transport, noted that there was no Act or framework to fine the board.

'It does not mean LTA is free from blame, especially at the design stage, and how they had been regulating the operator, in incident management,' he said.

On who should ensure Singapore's rail infrastructure is properly built, he suggested a separation of roles within the LTA.

'Not unlike the Monetary Authority of Singapore, or Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore, or Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore, there is merit to consider a separation of the regulatory arm and the operational or promotion arm of LTA,' he said.

He noted that LTA is involved in the design and development of the public transport system that is handed to the operators.

It specifies the types of rail cars and track network designs, and regulates and metes out penalties for service failures.

'If a service failure is partly attributable to a design or development fault, its regulatory role could be seen as less than impartial. If its developer and regulatory role were separated, this situation will not arise,' Mr Foo said.

He added that the report identified the need for a revised maintenance regime in keeping with the rail system's age and load.

'LTA should play an active role in designing this maintenance regime with the public transport operator. It should also audit compliance to the regime periodically.

'Again, the design and audit functions of LTA should be separated.

'Otherwise, it may find itself auditing a regime which it has a hand in designing,' said Mr Foo.

SMRT 'must put commuters at the heart of its decisions'
By Karamjit Kaur, The Straits Times, 5 Jul 2012

FROM giving regular, timely updates to ensuring alternative transport is available, SMRT must put the commuter at the heart of its decisions when managing service disruptions, said the Committee of Inquiry (COI).

It called for a national plan detailing how the relevant stakeholders should deal with major service disruptions.

The Land Transport Authority (LTA), as the industry regulator, should drive this and make clear the role of each agency, it said.

It also recommended that SMRT review the staffing of its command centres to see that they are equipped to handle serious breakdowns. On the ground, train staff must know what their respective roles are in an emergency, so they can marshal commuters.

Another recommendation is that if it is necessary to have commuters disembark from a train and walk to the station, this must be done within a set time so they are not kept waiting anxiously.

On Dec 15, when the first disruption occurred, it took more than an hour for SMRT to decide what to do when a train stalled between City Hall and Dhoby Ghaut stations and finally had the passengers disembark.

The COI noted that after the December breakdowns, the LTA stipulated that a public transport operator must decide whether to detrain passengers within 20 minutes of a train stalling in a tunnel.

'Detrainment to track should always be done in the shortest time possible - ideally within the period for which emergency lighting and ventilation can be sustained,' the committee said.

The trains' backup battery lasts 45 minutes.

Regarding alternative transport, it said it was not enough to deploy buses to pick up passengers in a large-scale disruption. Such bus-bridging services are better suited for smaller localised disruptions, such as when commuters need to bypass a single station where service is disrupted.

It noted that the LTA has started working with public transport operators on an expanded bus-reinforcement plan that will give free bus rides on regular bus services to affected commuters.

Free rides on unaffected sections of the MRT network should be considered as a way to disperse crowds quickly, it said.

It all began with one faulty fastener
Between MRT maintenance and design, accountability must lie with all players
By Christopher Tan, The Straits Times, 5 Jul 2012

BLAME it on a piece of metal no bigger than a mobile phone.

An inherently defective metal fastener was found to be the trigger point of an unprecedented breakdown of the MRT system on Dec 15 last year, causing grief to thousands of commuters.

The fastener is part of a support assembly that holds up the third rail, which supplies power to trains.

Coincidentally, two adjacent third rail supports were also found to be defective. There were cracks in their insulators.

These flaws contributed to a collapse of a section of the third rail, disrupting power supply to trains.

Undetected damages sustained by trains that ran into the collapsed third rail are believed to have triggered the second breakdown on Dec 17, infuriating thousands more commuters.

But it all started with that one faulty fastener.

The Committee of Inquiry (COI), which questioned 116 witnesses over six weeks and which sent damaged components for forensic tests, could not ascertain when the defect occurred or when that first support assembly failed.

It concluded, however, that both breakdowns were preventable.

And they probably were, although the cost involved would have been high.

First, there are roughly 30,000 of these assemblies in the North-South and East-West lines, the oldest of Singapore's metro network.

Inspecting an assembly entails removing an unwieldy plastic cover and scrutinisng no fewer than four individual parts.

SMRT, with its current resources, takes about a week to complete inspecting the entire network - without removing the plastic covers.

Cracks on the insulator may not be visible unless their bolts are removed. Inherent material flaws in the fastener will not be detectable unless high-tech equipment such as ultra-sound and X-ray scanners are employed.

Carrying out such 'non-destructive tests' - especially along vulnerable stretches of the network - is one of several recommendations the COI made in its comprehensive 358-page report made public yesterday.

These tests are now being done at third rail joints, which are relatively flat structures. It may or may not be technically feasible to do so for a complex component such as the third rail support assembly, which is also made up of different types of materials.

Assuming it is feasible, these tests would have to be done during hours when the trains are not running.

If third rail support failures had occurred during the hours when trains were running, what then?

Another suggestion by the committee addresses this: installing a high-speed camera system on trains to detect third rail sags, which occur when a support fails.

Currently, such a system is used for detecting flaws on the rail which the trains run on - that is, the running rail.

It is understood that no similar system exists for detecting flaws in the third rail, although it is technically feasible to devise one.

This is because third rails rarely collapse, if ever. The inquiry heard no evidence of similar failures in other metros. Also, the rail industry naturally pays more attention to the running rail, as flaws here can cause derailment, with dire consequences.

It is for the same reason that SMRT's maintenance crew continued to check the temperature of the axle box - a part of the train connected to the wheels - after the Dec 15 breakdown.

The Committee of Inquiry questioned this move in its report. But this is a crucial process, as an overheated axle box can lead to bearings seizing and the train stalling. In extreme cases, it could also lead to derailment.

Be that as it may, SMRT should have put in more resources to check for damages sustained by trains that plied the collapsed section of third rail on Dec 15.

If these defects had been detected and corrected, the Dec 17 incident could have been averted.

SMRT could also have done more to tighten its entire maintenance framework - something the inquiry report minced no words in pointing out, and which the operator accepts.

Still, questions remain about the defective metal fastener, and the adjacent support assemblies which also had defective insulators. The inquiry also noted that the third rail claws had a weak design that made them prone to dropping.

That does not mean SMRT had a raw deal and could have done nothing about it. It could have been more proactive in getting the Land Transport Authority (LTA) - which oversees rail projects and regulates the rail industry - to replace the ageing and poorly designed third rail supports.

In fact, SMRT had brought up the issue of dropping claws in 1995, but did not pursue the matter further.

The LTA, on its part, did not follow up on the dropping claw issue after 1995, as the COI noted.

The whole issue of defective or poorly designed third rail support components is water under the bridge though, now that it has been decided that all claws should be replaced by the latest fifth-generation model, which can be bolted to the third rail.

These new claws, which come with new insulators, are far more secure, but can also be dislodged. But being made of stainless steel, they are more detectable when dropped than the old black cast-iron claws.

Other methods of detecting anomalies on the third rail - such as the high-speed camera system mounted on trains - will also help prevent a repeat of December's incidents.

But breakdowns of other nature can and will still occur. That is an undeniable fact of all mechanical systems.

The inquiry's report has also put in a comprehensive list of recommendations to mitigate the impact breakdowns have on commuters.

Like its engineering recommendations, many are overlapping. And so they should be.

A system that transports millions of people a day should likewise have built-in redundancies so that the failure of one component or process does not jeopardise the integrity of the entire network.

Built-in redundancies aside, the design and build quality of each component must be robust.

As far as the third rail support assemblies on the North-South and East-West lines go, that has clearly proven to be not the case.

Between maintenance and design, especially in an ageing system, there is no running away from the fact that accountability must lie with all players - operator and regulator.

Commuters, for sure, will be demanding that.

A 'wake-up call' for rail operator
By Jermyn Chow, Cheryl Ong & Karamjit Kaur, The Straits Times, 6 Jul 2012

SEVERAL Members of Parliament and transport experts said the Committee of Inquiry (COI) report into last December's rail breakdowns should be a wake-up call for SMRT.

Nee Soon GRC MP Lee Bee Wah said she was shocked to learn of the rail operator's maintenance lapses.

She added: 'I believe transparency in the handling of the matter will satisfy the public's need for answers.

'But they will be unhappy to think that this is an organisation that pays top dollar for its senior management, who were not paying attention to important details and not able to put public interest at the core of its business.'

Mountbatten MP Lim Biow Chuan, who is on the Government Parliamentary Committee for Transport, said the report was just the start in helping SMRT restore public confidence in its system.

The operator must be given time to prove itself and make sure such breakdowns are not repeated, he added.

In its report, made public on Wednesday, the COI said a series of maintenance lapses had contributed to the breakdowns, which affected more than 220,000 commuters on Dec 15 and Dec 17.

It listed more than 30 recommendations to prevent such breakdowns and to mitigate the impact on commuters.

In response, SMRT said it had operated a 'comprehensive maintenance regime' which placed it among the top performing metro operators in the world.

It has also put in place improvements since December and will do more.

Mr Chen Munn Tham, an independent transport consultant, said that while no system is fail-proof, 'there must be a maintenance regime to ensure that all components and parts are checked regularly according to a schedule or timetable'.

He noted that some of the COI's recommendations were 'common sense', and was surprised they had not been in place.

Dr Lee Der Horng, a transport researcher at the National University of Singapore, said the COI report should also nudge SBS Transit - the other operator - to re-look its rail operations.

Two commuters who were stranded in the breakdowns said they wished SMRT had shown more contrition over the lapses.

Technology specialist Lai Chin Liang, 41, said he found SMRT's remarks 'defensive'.

'They did not seem willing to take the blame or responsibility for everything that happened,' he said yesterday.

Mr Lai was left stranded at Braddell station on Dec 15 and was one of two commuters who testified at the COI hearing in April.

He had read media reports of the COI's findings, as well as the full report which was posted online on Wednesday evening.

He said he was also surprised when he read in the COI report that SMRT's repair and maintenance costs per train-km had remained fairly constant since 2003 till last year.

There was, however, a spike in capital expenditure when it spent money to upgrade its ageing train cabins.

IT support officer Loy Kok Nien, who was among those stranded at Newton station on Dec 15, was also struck by the amount SMRT spent on maintenance.

'How can maintenance costs remain the same when the number of train commuters has increased in the last few years? They should pay more attention to this,' he said.

Lab's theory about crack rejected
By Karamjit Kaur, The Straits Times, 6 Jul 2012

A THEORY by a Singapore-based laboratory that a pre-existing crack in the power-supplying third rail had caused train services to stall on Dec 17 last year was rejected by the Committee of Inquiry (COI) looking into the incident.

The conclusion reached by TUV SUD PSB was based on 'contaminated' evidence, the Government-appointed panel said in its report, which was made public on Wednesday.

TUV had relied primarily on forensic analysis of the third rail which had sagged and eventually caused the service disruption.

It said the presence of heavy carbon deposits supported its theory that the crack had appeared and got worse at least several months before the incident.

If the conclusion is founded on forensic checks, the accuracy must be based largely on whether and to what extent the physical evidence that is examined had been preserved, the report said.

In this case, the affected part of the third rail that had sagged on the morning of Dec 17 was not removed immediately for examination, but after the MRT operating hours for the day. By then, an estimated 120 trains had already passed through it, noted the committee.

'The validity of any inference that could be obtained from the existence of such deposits is therefore likely to be limited,' the committee said.

How a crack in the rail could cause a claw supporting the power-supplying third rail to drop had also not been proven, it added. In rejecting TUV's theory, the committee noted that other experts who had testified during the six-week court proceedings in May and June did not support TUV's conclusion.

Rolls-Royce Singapore, which also analysed the crack in the third rail, found no evidence to suggest that the crack had caused the multiple claw dislodgement that occurred on Dec 17.

This dislodging of the claws took place two days after the first service disruption on Dec 15.

Excess vibration 'may have dislodged rail structures'
By Karamjit Kaur, The Straits Times, 6 Jul 2012

ONE in 10 SMRT trains on the North-South and East-West lines has wheels with uneven wear, or what is known in the industry as 'wheel flats'.

This created as much as 10 times more vibration than usual when they hit the tracks, said a Committee of Inquiry (COI) tasked to investigate two major rail breakdowns last December.

The vibrations, together with defective rail components, could have resulted in structures holding up the power-supplying third rail being more prone to getting dislodged, the committee said.

In its report, made public on Wednesday following a six-week hearing, the COI said vibration 'can be harmful, and should be avoided'.

Wheel flats occur when trains brake suddenly, a phenomenon referred to as 'train trippings'.

The COI noted that train trippings on SMRT's network rose from 1,300 such occurrences in 2009 to 1,500 last year.

One reason was shorter train intervals, it said. To cope with higher ridership and to ease congestion, operators have had to add more train trips.

It also noted that wheel flats have become more severe as trains carry greater loads because more people are on board.

It said wheel flats can be rectified with proper maintenance, but SMRT fell short in this area.

Although the number of train trippings rose over the years, SMRT did not step up its wheel re-profiling, a repair process done at the depot with the use of what is called a wheel lathe.

Checks for wheel flats were conducted once every three weeks instead of two weeks as prescribed in the train manufacturer's manuals, it said.

It also took issue with the way the checks were done.

Responding to queries on what the COI said about wheel flats, an SMRT spokesman said yesterday that while more train trips has benefited commuters, it has resulted in drivers having to apply the brakes more often to maintain a safe distance between two trains.

She said SMRT is committed to buying an additional wheel lathe to increase its wheel re-profiling capacity. It has two such machines, one at its Bishan depot and the other at Changi. She added that SMRT will install a wheel impact load detection system for better monitoring of vibrations.

SMRT sets timeline for a robust system
Most improvements to be in place by next year
By Christopher Tan, The Straits Times, 7 Jul 2012

RAIL operator SMRT issued a timeline yesterday of its comprehensive to-do list to make the system more robust.

By next month, it will replace parts of the North-South and East-West MRT lines that led to the two major breakdowns last December which affected more than 220,000 commuters.

In particular, the metal claws that hold in place the power-supplying 'third rail' along floating slab tracks (FSTs) will be changed to a more secure 'fifth-generation' model by the end of next month.

The FSTs are sections of the system which insulate surrounding buildings from the vibration of passing trains, but are themselves more prone to reverberation.

SMRT's move yesterday comes two days after a high-level Committee of Inquiry released a report that traced the trigger point of the Dec 15 breakdown to a dislodged 'first-generation' claw along an FST between City Hall and Dhoby Ghaut stations.

Its dislodging led to a sag in the third rail, making the section more vulnerable. Two adjacent supports then gave way.

In all, six claws dropped along that stretch, leading to a collapse of the third rail and disrupting power to trains, bringing the system to its knees.

The inquiry said undetected damages suffered by trains plying that section are believed to have led to the second breakdown on Dec 17.

The SMRT said there are about 1,300 claws along FSTs in the North-South and East-West lines. But the two lines have in total around 30,000 claws and all are likely to be changed to the fifth-generation type, although the company said it is still deciding on the exact version to install.

Besides new claws, more will be done to help the operator detect faults in a timely manner. It is currently testing the installation of sensors on trains to detect sags and misalignment of the third rail.

Also, it is buying more wheel lathes, which are used to remove flat spots on train wheels. These spots increase vibration levels by as much as 10 times.

Delivery takes time, so in December this year, SMRT will rent a mobile wheel lathe. By December next year, an extra lathe will be installed at its Ulu Pandan depot.

Yet another new lathe will be added but it will be at the new Tuas depot, which will be completed in 2016.

At present, SMRT has two lathes, at its Bishan and Changi depots.

Most of the engineering improvements will be in place by next year, if not earlier.

For instance, a system fitted on board trains that can detect wheel flats accurately and speedily will be up and running by the end of this year.

Meanwhile, work is also under way to improve the way SMRT responds to and manages incidents.

Its rail incident management plan has been revised to focus more on passengers, and it will increase its customer service team members from 190 to 700 by September this year. By next March, all station staff and train officers will receive more vigorous training in making public announcements.

The rail operator has also formed a crisis management team helmed by its chief executive, and an emergency response team led by a senior vice-president who acts as incident manager.

And by October this year, an overall Incident Command Centre that houses both teams will be set up.

Yet more improvements to service levels and reliability of the system will be put in place, the operator said.

'We will work closely with the Land Transport Authority on this, as the infrastructure for the system is owned by them, while the operating assets, like the trains, are owned by SMRT,' it added.

Getting rail transport back on track
SMRT and LTA share responsibility for last year's two major breakdowns, the Committee of Inquiry has said. What needs to change to ensure a smooth ride for commuters?
By Christopher Tan, The Straits Times, 7 Jul 2012

AMONG the recommendations listed in the 358-page report released by the Committee of Inquiry (COI) this week is one that calls for SMRT Corp to be 'an engineering-focused organisation which recognises that its core business is in train operations'.

The reasoning: If senior management underscores this thinking, and all staff share it, SMRT will go a long way in ensuring that major disruptions like the two in December last year does not happen again.

During the six-week inquiry into the two rail breakdowns, SMRT chairman Koh Yong Guan told the court that the operator had recently taken steps to put more focus on its engineers.

It has reviewed the salary scales of executives with engineering roles, and the board has invited a senior engineering vice-president - Mr Khoo Hean Siang - to sit in at board meetings.

Mr Koh also set up a 'trains board', comprising largely of engineers who will focus their attention on train operations and maintenance.

All these developments have raised questions among observers.

In its pursuit of non-core activities - namely rental of retail space and advertising - has SMRT lost focus of its rail business? Will the rail operator now pare down its retail and advertising businesses?

Does this pave the way for even more fundamental changes ahead for SMRT, like reverting to being a state-owned company?

What does this mean for the organisation, its shareholders and commuters?

Interim chief executive Tan Ek Kia told The Straits Times on Thursday - after the report was made public - that the company has no plans to diminish its non-transit divisions.

'All aspects of our business are important,' he said. 'But of course, on the engineering side, we need to step up on our maintenance and processes, in the light of ageing assets and rising ridership.'

Mr Tan said there may have been 'a perception' that because SMRT had grown its non-transport businesses dramatically in recent years, it was at some expense of its core business.

'It does not mean our rail priority has slipped,' he said, but acknowledged that there are areas 'where we could have done better'.

For instance, it has now decided to do more of 'replace and renew, rather than repair', when it comes to older operating assets. In April, it announced a $900 million programme to do just that.

Mr Tan said the company is now looking to hire more engineers.

The Straits Times understands that SMRT is also close to picking a new chief executive.

Mr Tan, a retired Shell executive with an engineering and construction background and an SMRT board member, had stepped in to be its interim head when Ms Saw Phaik Hwa quit suddenly in January.

Since then, there has been speculation on who the next CEO will be. Since SMRT was incorporated in 1987, it has had four chief executives and two interim CEOs. Most studied engineering or had engineering backgrounds. Ms Saw, on the other hand, had studied biochemistry and made a career in retail during 19 years with duty-free chain DFS.

Associate Professor Anthony Chin, who specialises in transport economics at the National University of Singapore, said SMRT's choice of a CEO depends on what it wants to achieve most.

'If your objective is to make things work, then get an engineer... but if you want to maximise profits, then get the previous CEO back,' he said, referring to Ms Saw, who had helped double SMRT's profits in her nine years at the helm by growing its non-core businesses.

Prof Chin believes however, that 'there can be a balance' between the two objectives. But finding a CEO who can strike that balance would be a tall order. 'My bet is on an engineer who has experience in urban rail transport management and who has some business background,' he said.

The prospect of an altered SMRT - a company facing higher operating costs and possibly slower growth in non-transport revenue - has meanwhile spooked investors.

Its stock price has fallen to around $1.60, from about $2.30 two years ago.

CIMB analyst Lee Wen Ching said: 'The impact of the COI, in a nutshell, is a spike in costs.'

She said there would be one-off items such as legal and professional fees for the inquiry, and recurring costs in the form of higher operating expenses.

'The second one is of a bigger concern,' Ms Lee said.

For instance, she is projecting SMRT's annual repair and maintenance costs - based on investments spelt out in the $900 million asset renewal programme - to go as high as $100 million over the next three years. It was around $84 million last year.

Staff cost will also go up, as the group hires more people.

Factors in its favour would be lower oil prices and more revenue from the Circle Line, as well as a general uptrend in public transport ridership.

She said SMRT's current diversified business portfolio is likely to remain intact.

'I don't think they will completely shift away from retail and advertising. If they take away these income streams, and with rising costs, what are the implications? Who's going to bear the brunt? Will there be higher government subsidies or higher fares?' she said.

One thing is certain though. Shareholders will face lower dividend yields ahead and SMRT has traditionally been a dividend darling.

Ms Lee said this is because dividends will be based on earnings. And with rising costs, earnings will be under pressure.

Already, dividend for the current financial year is 7.45 cents a share, versus 8.5 for 2011.

Proper review needed

WHAT about commuters - will their lot improve now that SMRT is renewing its assets and hiring more engineers?

Prof Chin of the NUS said: 'This remains to be seen. Infrastructure is one thing, but processes is another. You can bring all the best footballers together, but can they play as a team?'

The transport economist said SMRT and the Government will have to 'sit down and do a proper review of everything'.

'Right now, there is a lot of knee-jerk reactions to the breakdowns,' he said.

He noted how the aim is to improve public transport significantly for the majority of commuters. And the one measure of this is 'By how much will travel time improve?'.

'Don't give me median or average travelling time,' he said. 'Because many of us are outside the average.'

On that front, the consensus is that SMRT's network, even if it is run efficiently without any major incident from here on, is unlikely to improve overall public transport travelling time.

For that, new lines have to proliferate. And that takes time.

What it's all about

What happened
- Two massive breakdowns occurred on the North-South Line on Dec 15 and Dec 17
- More than 220,000 commuters were affected
- Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong commissioned a Committee of Inquiry (COI)
- The COI was headed by Chief District Judge Tan Siong Thye and assisted by Director of Prisons Service Soh Wai Wah and Professor Lim Mong King from the School of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering at Nanyang Technological University
- Six weeks of court hearings opened to the public in April
- The COI released a 358-page report on Wednesday

What the COI found
- A defective metal fastener in an assembly that held up the power-supplying third rail triggered a chain of events in the Dec 15 incident 
- Damage sustained by trains on Dec 15, which went undetected, led to the Dec 17 breakdown 
- Operator SMRT's maintenance lapses were found to be the main contributory factors 
More than 30 recommendations were made, ranging from better prevention and detection of train problems, to improving the maintenance regime, regulatory framework and incident management plans 
Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew will give a fuller Government response in Parliament next week 
The Land Transport Authority will take about three weeks to decide on penalties, if any, to impose on SMRT

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