Sunday 6 December 2015

LTA must be ready to take over MRT operations: Khaw Boon Wan

Transport Minister asks authority to beef up engineering team in case of restructuring
By Christopher Tan, Senior Transport Correspondent, The Straits Times, 5 Dec 2015

Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan has asked the Land Transport Authority (LTA) to beef up its engineering team so that it could take over the operation and maintenance of the MRT, should the need arise.

He indicated that that day might come if the Government decides to restructure the rail industry.

Speaking at a forum on infrastructure maintenance yesterday, he said that "creating an excellent rail system requires an integrated approach, from design to construction, actual operations and maintenance".

He said the current model separates the designer and builder - the LTA - from the ones which maintain and operate the system - SMRT and SBS Transit (SBST).

"From an economist's viewpoint, this allows for more competition in choosing the operator," he said. "From an engineer's viewpoint, it is not so ideal from the life-cycle perspective."

Mr Khaw said that if the model was an integrated one, "the operational experience should feed back into the design stage, so designs can improve over time".

He said the learnt experience must be "systematically documented, institutionalised and taught to successors". "Only then can we sustain world-class rail services."

But he added that "it is not so easy to change the model that we have today overnight", although for future MRT lines - such as the Thomson-East Coast Line - "we may have the opportunity to shape the way we do things".

As such, he has instructed LTA to beef up its engineering capability. "They must establish a team that is able to take on operations and maintenance, should we decide to move in that direction," he said.

LTA engineers will soon be deployed to "augment the SMRT and SBST maintenance crews now", in the process picking up "valuable on-the-job experience".

Meanwhile, both operators and regulator must work in a unified fashion "to improve integration through process, by forging a culture of One Team".

Mr Khaw said commuters do not care whose fault it is when there is a problem - they just want it fixed.

Yesterday, he witnessed the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the LTA, PUB, SBST and SMRT to foster relations in infrastructure maintenance.

PUB deputy chief executive Tan Yok Gin said: "Be it the water systems or rail system, similar fundamental engineering knowledge, best practices and asset management approach apply."

Dr Walter Theseira, an economist at SIM University, said: "The Government is moving towards a type of contracting scheme similar to bus contracting... so that it has more control over service quality.

"It has become apparent that for such a model to work successfully, you need to have sufficient depth of expertise within government."

In an effort to improve maintenance practices for Singapore, engineers from our transport and water sectors can come...
Posted by Land Transport Authority – We Keep Your World Moving on Thursday, December 3, 2015

Rail nationalisation? Govt may simply be reclaiming its engineers
Move to form LTA team that can take on MRT operations may be an effort to boost regulator's technical expertise
By Christopher Tan, Senior Transport Correspondent, The Straits Times, 5 Dec 2015

Is Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan's latest proposal another step towards nationalising Singapore's public transport system?

Yesterday, he said that he had asked the Land Transport Authority (LTA) to form an engineering team that "is able to take on operations and maintenance" of an MRT line. If and when the Government decides to have one entity designing, building, operating and maintaining a line, the LTA would be ready.

Experts say the answer is "no" - they do not think nationalisation is on the cards.

Dr Walter Theseira, an economist at SIM University, said: "I don't think we are heading towards full nationalisation in the sense of all rail employees becoming public servants. I believe the Government would still very much prefer to have the bulk of operations, logistics and maintenance done on a long-term contract basis.

"But the ability to step in and lead such operations in case the contractor fails is what the Government is pushing towards."

After all, "if an operator fails, it becomes the public's problem", he said.

For example, should an operator become insolvent, there might be no recourse but to pump additional funds into the operator or to pay - at high cost - for a competitor to take over on an emergency basis.

But if the Government had its own engineering expertise, "it might be possible to take over operations" until a replacement is found through a proper tender, which takes time.

Dr Theseira reckons something similar to the government bus contracting model might be applied to the rail industry.

Already, the Ministry of Transport and SMRT Corp are in advanced talks about the Government assuming ownership of all operating assets. In this new rail financing framework, rail operators will - like bus operators - focus entirely on meeting service standards without being saddled with heavy capital expenditures.

The two sides have been in talks for more than two years now. Analysts believe that they will make an announcement in the first quarter of next year.

Meanwhile, the LTA will soon start embedding its own engineers into the two rail operators.

Mr Khaw said they would "augment the SMRT and SBST maintenance crews now", and pick up valuable on-the-job experience.

Some see the move as the Government's way of keeping a closer eye on the operators as well as keeping them on their toes.

But Dr Theseira believes Mr Khaw merely wants the LTA to bolster its engineering capabilities.

"There has been concern for some time among policymakers that the Government lacks sufficient in-house engineering and technical expertise to fully oversee aspects of public transport," he said. "I have heard that concern mentioned previously, particularly over the lack of middle-level engineering talent."

Asked about Mr Khaw's move, transport systems consultant Bruno Wildermuth, who was involved in the building of the first MRT line here, said that "we are coming full circle".

SMRT was previously part of the government-run MRTC, which built the first North-South, East-West lines in the 1980s.

"But then, someone decided to take out the operations division to form SMRT," Mr Wildermuth said.

By the time SMRT was privatised and listed in 2000, MRTC - which became part of the LTA - had lost a sizeable chunk of its engineers.

Over the years, more engineers left to join the operators, suppliers and even other regional rail developers. It did not help that engineering had, meanwhile, lost its appeal for tertiary students. Even among those who graduated with engineering degrees, not all joined the profession.

* LTA appoints independent advisory panel to review rail power system
By Adrian Lim, The Straits Times, 31 Dec 2015

The power supply system of the entire MRT and LRT network will receive a thorough health check by next month.

In a first for the rail network, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) has appointed an Independent Advisory Panel to study the power system's resilience.

Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said the panel will look into all recent power-related disruptions, identify potential system gaps, and determine the timing for the next upgrade.

The 13-member panel comprises industry experts from Hong Kong's MTR Corporation, Japan's Meidensha Corporation and Germany's Siemens, as well as academics from three local universities. There are also representatives from SBS Transit, SMRT, LTA, the Energy Market Authority and Empower Engineering Services.

As we continue to improve and upgrade the rail system to meet the needs of commuters, the Land Transport Authority has...
Posted by Land Transport Authority – We Keep Your World Moving on Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The worst MRT breakdown to date on July 7 was power-related - an intermittent tripping of the power system at multiple locations crippled the North-South and East-West lines.

Dr Lock Kai Sang, a panel member and adjunct professor at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, said the panel brings together "diverse backgrounds and complementary competencies" to spot weaknesses and find solutions.

The review will cost $300,000 and is scheduled to be completed by the end of next month.

Separately, the LTA will also set up a standing Expert Audit Panel, with members drawn from German, Hong Kong and Japanese rail operators.

"They will visit us regularly, examine the reliability of our rail system, and help us achieve excellence in rail operations and maintenance," said Mr Khaw.

** Panel lists safeguards to avert MRT glitches
Experts make extensive recommendations to boost rail network's power system
By Christopher Tan, Senior Transport Correspondent, The Straits Times, 20 Apr 2016

A panel of electrical experts has put forward no fewer than 40 recommendations to make Singapore's rail network more resilient.

Roped in four months ago, the panel of 13 experts - four of them from overseas - said these recommendations should be carried out as soon as possible to minimise power-related glitches - a major cause of rail breakdowns here.

The urgent recommendations include more frequent inspections of assets and replacement of components, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) said yesterday. The panel also called for new monitoring technologies, and tighter control of manufacturers and contractors at the design and building stages.

For instance, the panel said that the third rail of the North-South and East-West lines should be inspected every six months until it is replaced. It said components which are critical to operations should be considered for replacement within five years of reaching the end of their lifespan.

The panel also recommended certain components such as switches and circuit breakers be replaced with more reliable models.

It suggested that exercises be conducted to test operational response measures, in case there is a repeat of previous power-related incidents - like the one on July 7 last year that paralysed the entire North-South and East-West lines.

For future MRT lines, the panel said, measures must be in place "to ensure tighter specification and quality control on the contractors and manufacturers". It cited the Circle Line's power cables, which failed within the first several months of operation.

The panel recommended the use of new technologies, such as an intelligent fault identification system to pinpoint exact fault location.

It also called for "extensive usage of energy storage to ride through voltage dips".

It added that online real-time thermal imaging equipment should be installed in substations to detect heat build-up in key components.

In recent months, circuit breakers had caught fire at an MRT station and the Bukit Panjang LRT.

The LTA said it would adopt all the urgent recommendations, adding that some were already in place in newer lines.

For instance, the Downtown and Thomson-East Coast lines were designed with intelligent fault identification systems as well as devices which isolate power trips so that they do not affect an entire line.

Other recommendations, such as more frequent inspections of key components and timely asset replacements, were among those listed by the 2012 Committee of Inquiry.

For the longer term, the panel called for a power system design that will have a downtime of not more than five minutes, and where full recovery can be obtained within 20 minutes.

Ideas for rail power system 'on right track'
Improving electrical system will cost more money and take time but is the way to go, say observers
By Christopher Tan, Senior Transport Correspondent, The Straits Times, 20 Apr 2016

Recommendations to bolster the electrical system of Singapore's rail system are a step in the right direction, industry watchers say.

But they will also result in higher investments.

Associate Professor Gooi Hoay Beng from the Nanyang Technological University's School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering said more money will have to be spent on hardware component maintenance and replacement.

Investment will also have to be made in boosting the IT infrastructure "with lots of real-time sensing for monitoring and control".

The professor was responding to recommendations made by a 13-man panel assembled last December by the Land Transport Authority (LTA) to look into ways to improve the electrical resilience of the rail system here.

Government Parliamentary Committee for Transport chairman Sitoh Yih Pin said: "I note that the panel has recommended that in the long term, the design of the rail system should provide for a maximum downtime of five minutes during a fault.

Prof Gooi noted that an intelligent fault identification software system (iFIS) - which can help pinpoint faults - is a sophisticated system that also requires heftier investment. He added: "It would take some time to acquire the necessary skills and targets but we will get there one day."

"If this can be achieved, it will mean that all commuters can look forward to improved reliability and fewer delays.

"This is good news for all."

According to the LTA, rail disruptions caused by power and trackside faults more than doubled between 2011 and 2014.

In 2011, they accounted for eight incidents, or 2 per cent, of all disruptions. In 2014, they were responsible for 16 incidents, or 5 per cent, of incidents.

The unprecedented network- wide breakdown on July 7 last year was also caused by an electrical fault, which crippled the entire North-South and East-West lines during the evening peak period that day.

And electrical faults have caused a number of fires on the MRT and LRT network, with at least two occurring in tunnels.

National University of Singapore transport researcher Lee Der Horng said that many of the recommendations made by the panel "are what should have been in place".

"Nevertheless, it is good to let the people know that power-related issues are being taken care of."

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