Sunday 26 August 2012

SMRT focuses on maintenance

Rail operator is investing in new technology and better procedures
By Royston Sim, The Straits Times, 24 Aug 2012

A MASSIVE programme to ensure the reliability of SMRT's ageing system is under way, with the rail operator placing renewed emphasis on maintenance.

After two severe disruptions to services last December, it is investing in new technology and better procedures.

SMRT executive vice-president for trains Khoo Hean Siang said the operator had taken steps to make its system more robust even before last December, given how two of its lines are now more than 20 years old.

Moving forward, the focus will be on replacing ageing parts instead of repairing them, he said.

The firm will employ 200 people to strengthen its maintenance department. Its current strength is about 1,800, said Mr Khoo.

A major project to replace about 180,000 timber sleepers on the North-South and East-West lines is also in progress. Some 2,000 sleepers - which hold the MRT tracks securely in place - have already been replaced in the past six months. SMRT will step up the pace in coming months.

Replacing the sleepers is part of a $900 million plan to renew ageing systems on the North- South and East-West lines, which opened in stages from 1987.

The plan, announced in April, comprises mainly track system replacement and re-signalling works.

An SMRT spokesman said it would cost the company $195 million to replace the signalling system, enabling trains to run at 100-second intervals instead of every 120 seconds.

She said that track system replacement - which includes the replacement of sleepers - constitutes about two-thirds of the overall cost.

She added that SMRT is still in discussions with the Land Transport Authority (LTA) on "a cost-sharing arrangement" for rail infrastructure works.

The December disruptions placed the spotlight on the two lines' third rail system, which supplies power to the trains. A portion of it had sagged on both occasions, and a Committee of Inquiry flagged this as a key area of concern. Accordingly, SMRT staff now inspect the third rail every four days, down from seven days previously.

SMRT train engineering branch manager Kelvin Tan said inspection teams now cover shorter stretches of track, so that checks are more detailed. They patrol distances of 3km to 4km, down from 5km to 7km previously.

The third rail support assembly covers are now left open to make it easier for staff conducting monthly checks. Previously, these checks were done annually.

New "flip covers" that are easy to open could be on the way, while SMRT is also exploring the feasibility of train-mounted cameras that can detect dislodged "claws" that secure the third rail.

These cameras would use lasers to ensure the third rail has not sagged.

SMRT has also bought two new track trolleys that significantly accelerate track inspections. Staff will no longer need to stop and manually measure whether the running rail or third rail is properly aligned. Instead, the new trolleys have a computer system that takes measurements in real time.

Given the scale of replacement works on the two lines, extended track closures is a possibility - albeit one SMRT would prefer to avoid. Mr Khoo said the operator is still working out details with the LTA.

One option for lengthening maintenance hours is to extend track closures after service ends on Saturday night through to Sunday morning.

But he added: "We'll try our best not to close down the tracks. We have 1.7 million passengers, and we don't want to inconvenience them. Closures will be done as a last resort."

Steps to ensure reliable rail lines
SMRT is implementing a range of measures to spruce up its ageing network and make sure it remains reliable. Some of the improvements to the North-South and East-West lines began even before the two major disruptions in December last year.

They include:
- Replacing 180,000 timber sleepers on both lines. 
- Upgrading the signalling system from a fixed-block system to a moving-block one so trains can run at shorter intervals. 
- Having inspection teams conduct checks in cycles of four days, down from seven days. 
- Getting teams to cover a shorter distance a night, meaning checks are more detailed. Any flaws related to the third rail will now be fixed on the spot or within 24 hours. 
- Leaving third rail support assembly covers open to allow monthly checks, and looking into a new flip cover design. 
- Buying two new track trolleys that are easy to set up and can take measurements quickly and accurately. 
- Replacing the propulsion systems and air compressors on older rains. 
- Monitoring the failure rate of equipment on a weekly basis and conducting deeper analyses.


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