Thursday, 14 July 2016

Cracked MRT trains: Why weren't the hairline cracks made public?

Khaw Boon Wan explains decision on train cracks
By Adrian Lim, The Straits Times, 13 Jul 2016

The hairline cracks found on the 26 China-assembled trains did not pose a safety risk, so the issue was not made public when the defects were discovered three years ago, said Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan yesterday.

While the defects required the trains to be sent back progressively to the manufacturer in Qingdao to have their car bodies replaced, this also did not impact the capacity of the North-South East-West Lines (NSEWL), he said.

"These two issues, which will have impact on Singaporeans and commuters, are not being compromised at all," he said, explaining why the Land Transport Authority (LTA) and the Ministry of Transport (MOT) treated the rectification process as a "routine matter".

Yesterday, a press briefing was held at SMRT's Bishan depot for, in Mr Khaw's own words, a "full airing of the issue" and to correct any misinformation.

The defective trains were brought to light by Hong Kong online news portal FactWire only last week, raising questions about why the issue was not made public before.

To date, five of the 26 trains - bought from Kawasaki-Sifang, a Japanese-Chinese consortium - have been rectified, and another one is currently in China undergoing rectification.

The hairline cracks were discovered during routine inspections in July 2013, after the trains had been in service for more than two years. The cracks were found on the surface of the car-body bolster - an aluminium alloy structure under the train carriage.

Mr Khaw asked: "If you were to go public on something that is not major, would you (not) unduly, unnecessarily cause a panic among the people?

"With hindsight, the lesson to be learnt is (that) a seemingly routine matter, in mischievous hands, can be mis-spun into a controversy."

Mr Khaw added that it is easy now to question the LTA's and MOT's decisions. "When you are on the spot at the time... you have to weigh the downside of coming up with much ado about nothing, when it is not a serious matter... I can understand why LTA and MOT did what they did at that point."

While the trains - each requiring around four months to be rectified - are being sent back to China one at a time, this has not affected the LTA's plans to inject more trains and boost capacity on the NSEWL, Mr Khaw said.

This is because there is a "buffer" of trains, he said - meaning that 124 of the 140 trains currently available on the network are sufficient to meet the commuter demand.

A similar buffer will be kept up until 2019, even as more trains are added and when the LTA expects all the 26 defective ones to have been rectified.

From next year, two trains will be sent back each time, instead of one.

Based on investigations, the cracks developed because of a defect in the manufacturing process resulting in impurities being introduced in the aluminium material.

New MRT trains from China firm to have key part made in Japan
LTA move comes as 26 defective trains undergo rectification work
By Adrian Lim, The Straits Times, 13 Jul 2016

All new MRT trains assembled by a Chinese rolling stock company in Qingdao, not just the 26 defective ones, will have a key component cast in Japan instead of China, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) said yesterday.

The defective trains were found to have hairline cracks - which the authority said did not pose a safety risk - on the bolsters, an aluminium alloy structure under the train cars.

Since 2014, the affected trains have been progressively shipped back to Qingdao to have their car bodies replaced, along with new bolsters cast by Japanese supplier Kobe Steel instead of China's Longkou Chonglin. As the trains ordered in 2009 for the North-South East- West Lines (NSEWL) are still under warranty, shipping and rectification costs are borne by the supplier.

The LTA said defects in the manufacturing process by Longkou Chonglin resulted in impurities being introduced in the aluminium material, leading to the hairline cracks developing over time.

These cracks were found during routine inspections in July 2013, more than two years after the trains were put into service, and after they had each clocked an average of about 300,000km.

About 85 per cent of the cracks are shorter than 20cm, with the longest between 40cm and 50cm.

Computational tests found that despite the defects, the bolsters could still withstand pressure loads of more than three times the maximum measured levels on the system.

Although this is less than the 3.7 times the bolsters are designed to withstand, it is still a high safety margin, said LTA deputy chief executive Chua Chong Kheng. "We insisted that they change the supplier for this particular bolster, notwithstanding that it was a manufacturing process error."

To date, five of the 26 defective trains have been rectified and one is in Qingdao undergoing rectification. The other 20 continue to be used on the NSEWL and the cracks are closely monitored by the LTA.

Mr Chua said Kawasaki Heavy Industries, part of the Japanese-Chinese consortium that won the contract in 2009 to supply the trains, had selected Kobe Steel to provide the bolsters.

Under the rectification work - which takes around four months for each train - all six car-body shells of each train, along with its 12 bolsters, will be replaced.

While the bolsters, which are welded to the car-body shells, will be made in Japan, the car bodies will continue to be made by China Southern Railway Sifang, which is also responsible for assembling the trains.

Kawasaki is the lead contractor responsible for the design and procurement of parts such as the brake.

After news of the train defects broke last week, questions were raised as to why the LTA chose to still procure trains from the Kawasaki-Sifang consortium, which won a $749 million tender in 2014 to supply 91 four-car trains for the upcoming Thomson-East Coast Line.

Mr Chua explained that through the tender process, which drew five other bidders, the LTA found that Kawasaki-Sifang delivered the best proposal in terms of quality, price and life-cycle costs. He said that with the ongoing rectification work for the 26 trains, and the willingness of Kawasaki-Sifang to honour its obligations, the hairline-crack issue has been "put to rest".

"We are very confident of that because the new bolsters will also be coming from Japan, Kobe Steel."

Hong Kong rail operator MTR Corporation allays concern about trains
It is buying from Chinese firm whose trains in S'pore have cracks but says there's no danger
By Li Xueying, Senior Regional Correspondent In Hong Kong, The Straits Times, 14 Jul 2016

Hong Kong's subway operator MTR Corporation has sought to defuse public unease that it had procured trains from the same Chinese manufacturer that supplied trains to Singapore that developed hairline cracks, reiterating that those defects pose no danger.

Meeting the media since news broke last week of Singapore's experience, MTRC managing director Jacob Kam also dismissed suggestions that the HK$6 billion (S$1 billion) contract it awarded to CSR Qingdao Sifang last year to replace 93 trains had been improper.

Questions were raised as to why MTRC had awarded the mainland manufacturer the contract, despite knowing since 2014 about the cracks in Singapore's trains. There was also concern that the tender process took nine months compared to 14 or 15 months previously.

Dr Kam said the nine-month period was sufficient, given MTRC's "extensive knowledge of market conditions and technology". It had also conducted market soundings four months prior to that.

MTRC, he stressed, adhered fully to World Trade Organisation guidelines and will continue to take reference from that and those of the Independent Commission Against Corruption of Hong Kong.

It adopts a two-envelope tender system, which means the technical specifications and tender prices submitted by applicants are put into two envelopes.

The procurement team will approve those which meet the technical requirements before finding out the prices.

"The corporation never sacrifices quality and safety for a lower price," Dr Kam said. This is also the system used in Singapore.

Dr Kam repeated the explanation MTRC had given previously on why CSR Qingdao Sifang was allowed to continue bidding - and winning - its contracts, despite cracks emerging in the trains for Singapore.

MTRC communicated with the Singapore authorities and the manufacturer, and "understood that the hairline cracks on the Singapore trains are not safety-critical and... were caused by impurities in the aluminium alloy in the car body".

The MTR train design is "totally different from that of the Singapore trains", he said. MTR trains will be made of stainless steel, and the composition of metals will be analysed.

Hong Kong news site FactWire Agency released a report last Tuesday detailing how Singapore has had to send back trains to China for repairs. Three-quarters - 26 out of 35 - of the trains made by CSR Qingdao Sifang were affected.

There is heightened concern in Hong Kong over China products, following a series of food safety scandals and the 2011 Wenzhou train collision. China-made trains in Australia and New Zealand were recently found to contain asbestos.

But experts tell The Straits Times that while China's bad reputation may be justified to some extent, the fact is that it has become the dominant player in train manufacturing in the past couple of years.

This is partly because China has spent a lot of money buying the latest technology from countries like Germany, says Dr James Wong of the University of Hong Kong.

And Dr Peter Wong, president of the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers, says: "The word 'China' certainly causes alarm. But its technology is up there."

China has abundant labour and space, which means it can deliver orders faster, he adds.

There are fewer constraints in pollution emissions and labour standards. "There is no way for others to compete," he said.

Nothing routine about MRT cracks
The Transport Ministry and Land Transport Authority have assured the public that there are no safety issues, and no need for a review of processes, after reports surfaced that cracks were found on MRT trains. But should more be done to bolster confidence?
By Christopher Tan, Senior Transport Correspondent, The Straits Times, 14 Jul 2016

Since news emerged last week that Singapore was sending a batch of new MRT trains back to China to rectify a defect that has caused cracks, Singapore's Transport Ministry and Land Transport Authority (LTA) have appeared eager to downplay the episode.

Both have declared that the reported imperfections were merely "hairline cracks found on the surface" of the car-body bolster - an aluminium alloy structure under the train carriage.

They did not pose a safety risk, they added.

And it would seem there is no need for a review of the train procurement process, as the LTA says its two-envelope tendering system is sufficiently robust.

Kawasaki-Sifang - the Japanese-Chinese consortium which supplied the defective trains - was awarded at least one other major contract following the discovery of the cracks in the first batch.

The train procurement process may well be sound on the whole. But surely an episode which led to 26 out of 35 new trains being shipped back to the factory to have their bodies replaced because of impurities in the aluminium is cause to pause.

The LTA has made the right move in sending the trains back. And the manufacturer has agreed to the rectification graciously. Either side could easily have swept the matter under the rug. The fact that they are addressing the flaws head on deserves credit.

But other parts of the saga raise questions.

For one, the communication in the aftermath does little to bolster confidence.

By using words like "routine" to describe what happened, and to compare the cracks on the train body to hairline cracks which often appear on a newly plastered wall, the Transport Ministry risks giving some the impression that it is taking the serious problem lightly.

Cracks do not always happen catastrophically. They may well begin as hairlines. But if impurities in the metal is the cause, the entire structure may weaken over time.

Tests commissioned by the LTA revealed as much - that the affected part, even at this stage of deterioration, could not withstand as much force as before.

As one engineer put it, "impurities in aluminium-alloy is a catastrophic problem - in any industry". The structure may be sound initially, but its durability will definitely be compromised.

The LTA is probably right to say the MRT crack situation is not "safety-critical" - at this point in time. But if the flaw is not addressed, there is no assurance that the cracks would not worsen.

MRT trains are subject to enormous stress as they are heavily laden and travel at relatively high speeds. When cornering and braking, these forces are multiplied. So, even if the cracks do not result in a train breaking apart, the undercarriage will require increasingly frequent repairs and reinforcements over time - which in turn results in downtime and the system's capacity being compromised.

So, sending the trains back to have their entire bodies replaced is the right thing to do. And to demand that the crucial body parts be cast in Japan by a Japanese company is also reassuring.

But there is nothing routine about the incident. None of our MRT trains has had cracks before - not even those approaching 30 years of age.

Sure, the first batch of Bukit Panjang LRT trains had cracks on their underframe. But the entire line has been problematic from the start. And those cracks were discovered only after the trains had been operating for 16 years.

LRT trains carry a fraction of the load of MRT trains, and they travel at far lower speeds. They are also running on rubber wheels, which means they have an extra layer of insulation against vibration.

Separately, it is somewhat glaring that Kawasaki-Sifang has not shown any public remorse.

In Japan, such an incident would likely have resulted in a public apology. Instead, Kawasaki-Sifang has echoed the LTA's claim that the flaws posed no risk to safety.

And it has also threatened legal action against parties which allege the flaws were a result of some intentional wrongdoing.

In Hong Kong - where news agency FactWire broke the Singapore MRT story - rail operator MTR Corp, which has ordered 93 new trains from CSR Sifang, reiterated yesterday that it will conduct metallurgical analysis on the metal used in its batch.

This, it said, was an extra precaution since the crack saga unfolded.

Elsewhere, the Financial Times reported that CSR Sifang made a bid for a subway train contract for Boston in 2014.

But it was eliminated when Massachusetts transport officials ruled that the technical, manufacturing and quality assurance components of its bid were "unacceptable".

The contract was won by rival Chinese firm CNR. But last year, CNR and CSR were merged to form CRRC, or China Railway Rolling Stock Corp.

Reuters reported that CRRC and Canadian rail company Bombardier were each fined 150,000 yuan (S$30,000) last year for setting up a joint venture before obtaining government approval.

Interestingly, Bombardier wrote to the Chicago Transit Authority in April to challenge the legitimacy of CSR Sifang's winning bid in a US$1.31 billion (S$1.7 billion) train contract it lost to the Chinese firm.

Given this, isn't it a little hasty for the authorities here to declare that all is well, and there is no need for any review at all?

Wouldn't it be appropriate to acknowledge that there had been slip ups in the procurement process and make clear how this will be put right?

Doing so might cause some consternation, but in the long term, public confidence will be bolstered.


Cracks on MRT trains: Khaw addresses key issues raised
The Straits Times, 17 Aug 2016

The cracks found on China-made MRT trains came under scrutiny in Parliament yesterday, with eight MPs questioning Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan on the issue. Here are the key points:


Mr Sitoh Yih Pin (Potong Pasir) asked why the Land Transport Authority (LTA) and SMRT did not inform the public about cracks on the bolster - an aluminium alloy structure under the train carriage - after they were discovered in July 2013, or the subsequent decision to ship them back to China for repairs.

Mr Khaw said the LTA did not publicise the hairline cracks for three reasons:

• There was no safety risk to commuters.

• Manufacturer Kawasaki-Sifang took immediate and full responsibility for the defects and said it would pay for all replacement works, including replacing the bolsters with a new set made in Japan and welding them to new car bodies in China.

• The manufacturer accepted LTA's replacement work schedule, which meant that train services and capacity levels are not affected by the incident.

The LTA would have publicised the defects if any of these factors had not been satisfactorily dealt with, said Mr Khaw.


Non-Constituency MP Daniel Goh asked if the defects not being "safety-critical" meant they pose zero safety risks for commuters.

Mr Khaw said the trains can take more than three times the maximum stress they may experience during operations, and the cracks have not reduced this safety margin. An independent assessor, TUV Rheinland, confirmed that the trains are entirely safe to operate.


Mr Png Eng Huat (Hougang) asked about TUV Rheinland's technical report. Mr Khaw said the consultant found that "an inherent defect" in certain batches of bolsters was the primary cause of the hairline cracks. The report will be published on LTA's website if the firm agrees.


Non-Constituency MP Dennis Tan asked about the consortium clinching subsequent orders for new trains. Mr Khaw said concerns about the defects had been resolved when tenders, which are based on quality and price assessments, were called.

"Kawasaki-Sifang won the subsequent tenders fairly," he said.


Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) and Mr Sitoh asked if the issue has affected operations as well as plans to improve rail reliability and increase capacity.

Mr Khaw said 124 out of 140 trains for the North-South and East-West lines are put on service during peak hours. Only one train is sent back to China at a time, well within the standard 10 per cent buffer of trains for repairs, upgrading and standby. It does not affect the planned capacity expansion on these lines.

The Kawasaki-Sifang train incident has not affected the reliability of the system, as no train delays were caused by the bolsters' hairline cracks, Mr Khaw added.


Mr Yee Chia Hsing (Chua Chu Kang GRC) asked about the duration of warranty.

Mr Khaw said there is a defects liability of one year, then an extended warranty of four years.

This period is reset after the bolsters and car bodies are replaced, but the reset applies only to those train components.


Mr Goh asked why the decision was made for bolsters to be supplied from Japan rather than China and if there is a confidence issue with train parts made in China.

Mr Khaw said the manufacturers had decided to use new bolsters from Japan, and his ministry had agreed. He said the first-generation Kawasaki trains are all on Japanese bolsters. "I don't think we need to read anything more than that into this," he said.

There were no cracks in those earlier trains.

Cracks on China-assembled trains not safety risk: Khaw
Supplier showed exemplary behaviour in replacing car bodies, says Transport Minister
By Adrian Lim, The Straits Times, 17 Aug 2016

Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan reiterated yesterday that the hairline cracks found on 26 China-assembled trains were not a safety risk, and withdrawing them from service for rectifications did not affect capacity levels on the North- South and East-West lines.

This was why the defects - brought to light last month by Hong Kong media outfit FactWire - were not publicised, he said in Parliament in response to questions from MPs.

He added that the Japanese-Chinese consortium that supplied the trains, Kawasaki-Sifang, won subsequent tenders fairly and had displayed exemplary behaviour in shipping the trains back to China to have their car bodies replaced - at its own expense.

The warranty period on the car bodies and bolster parts was also reset for five years - one year for defective liability and another four years of extended warranty, he said.

Hairline cracks were found in 2013 - some two years after the trains went into service - on the bolsters, an aluminium alloy structure under the train carriages that are welded to the car bodies.

The cracks developed due to defects in the manufacturing process that resulted in impurities being introduced in the aluminium.

Since July 2014, the trains have been sent to Qingdao progressively to be fixed, and five trains have gone through the rectifications. One train is currently in Qingdao, with the other 20 to be rectified by 2019.

"The concern about the defects had thus been resolved when we called the tender for more trains in 2014 and 2015," he told the House.

"Our train tenders have always been conducted in an open and transparent manner, and are based objectively on quality and price assessments," Mr Khaw said, recapitulating points he made to the media last month.

In 2009, Kawasaki-Sifang was awarded an initial $368 million contract to supply 22 new trains for the North-South and East-West lines, with more trains purchased later.

It continued to win more orders, including a $749 million contract in 2014 to supply 91 four-car trains for the upcoming Thomson-East Coast Line.

In reply to Non-Constituency MP Dennis Tan's question about whether cracks were found on other train models, Mr Khaw said they were also discovered last year on the underframe of train cars used on the Bukit Panjang LRT.

He said that manufacturer Bombardier inspected the defects and found the trains safe to operate.

The cracks on the 19 trains are being welded here, Mr Khaw said. To date, 12 trains have been rectified, with the rest to be fixed by October.

Parliament Q&A - 16 Aug 2016

Oral Reply by Minister for Transport Khaw Boon Wan to Parliamentary Question on:

- Discovery of Hairline Cracks on Trains

- Knowledge of Faults in Trains

- Replacing Car-Bodies of Defective Trains

- TUV Rheinland Report on Hairline Cracks Found on Defective MRT Trains

- New Contracts with Kawasaki Heavy Industries and CSR Sifang Consortium

- Total Number of MRT Trains Deployed for Operations

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