Friday, 29 November 2019

MRT reliability is at a high - now to keep it there

It's a milestone: Train-km between delays has breached the one million mark. But there's no room for complacency.
By Christopher Tan, Senior Transport Correspondent, The Straits Times, 28 Nov 2019

Singapore's MRT has come a long way since 2011, when two massive breakdowns highlighted shortfalls in maintenance and infrastructural upgrades.

Figures earlier this month showed the rail network well on track now in terms of reliability. A benchmark measurement of rail reliability - called mean kilometre between failure, or MKBF - crossed the one million train-km mark for the first nine months of this year.

In contrast, in 2011, delays and disruptions happened every 58,000 train-km - dismal for a system that was on the whole barely 20 years old.

The 18-fold improvement shown in the latest figures is remarkable, putting Singapore's system on a par with Taipei's, which is regarded as one of the world's best. It came on the back of a multibillion-dollar exercise to replace key assets on the two oldest systems here - the North-South and East-West lines (NSEWL).

Both lines have had their rail sleepers, power-supplying third rail and signalling systems replaced. Older trains have been replaced, and trains have been added.

The fleet renewal continues, as does work to rejuvenate other parts of the NSEWL - upgrading the power supply system to cope with additional trains, replacing the track circuit system (a system related to signalling), and replacing the running rail or tracks.

These projects will take up to 2024 to complete, and are necessary for a more robust system that can withstand technical glitches better in the long term.

They are also crucial in lifting service standards - even as the system is largely out of the woods, splinters remain. Actual journey times are still longer than published times. And service frequency has not increased to what the new signalling system allows.


Trains and platforms are still packed, especially during peak periods. To address these issues - which have more of an impact on service than reliability - the remaining upgrading works need to be completed.

For instance, higher service frequency requires additional trains, which in turn require higher power capacity. Also, higher train speeds require a robust running rail.

There are a number of other improvements that will make MRT journeys more pleasant, such as a full suite of working escalators, trains aligning more precisely with platform doors, and doors opening more speedily once a train halts.

These may seem minor, but they have a huge influence on how long a train dwells at a station (which determines speed and efficiency of the entire system), and how fast crowds are cleared from platforms (which has an impact on comfort, not to mention security).

In the same vein, early closure and late opening of stations cannot carry on indefinitely. They are detrimental to overall service.

It is understandable that renewing the three core assets of the NSEWL has soaked up a lot of bandwidth on the part of the regulator and operator. But now that MKBF is suitably high - and hopefully stays high - work on the other parts of the system should accelerate.

Meanwhile, rejuvenation work has already started on newer lines, such as the North East Line. As experience shows, it is far better to embark on such a programme before things start falling apart.


For the NSEWL, which accounts for the bulk of train rides here, the eight-year journey from dismal to dependable has been difficult for all stakeholders, including the millions who rely on the MRT every day.

Credit goes to Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan, who set high and clear targets for senior management at SMRT and SBS Transit, and fostered a more unified approach between regulator and operators in undertaking tasks.

Mr Khaw has also helped raise morale on the ground by his regular depot and station visits. He is known to foot the bill for small celebratory meals for rail workers when a reliability milestone is achieved.

But the road to reliability was also paved by many others. The foundation for the new rail financing framework was laid during the tenure of former transport minister Raymond Lim, and put into motion during the term of Mr Khaw's predecessor, Mr Lui Tuck Yew.

Without this profound change, which puts all rail assets under government ownership, money needed to fund rail rejuvenation would have been hard to come by.

By virtue of that, Singapore has taxpayers to thank for the MRT's revival.

Elsewhere, former SMRT chief Desmond Kuek was one of the main drivers in delisting SMRT from the stock market, freeing up the operator from concerns that weigh on a publicly listed entity. He did what he could with a system that was in disrepair when he inherited it in 2012.

When his successor Neo Kian Hong took over last year, the network's MKBF was already on a sharp upturn after the completion of resignalling on the NSEWL. In fact, it hit 690,000 train-km that year - 10 times what it was in 2012.


Rebuilding an MRT system that has deteriorated over the years has been a costly and disruptive process. Hopefully, Singapore does not have to undergo another similar exercise.

Speaking at the eighth Joint Forum on Infrastructure Maintenance last month, Mr Khaw issued a warning: "Don't be arrogant. What happened could happen again."

Clearly, many things have to be in place to avoid a repeat of the MRT debacle. It starts when a line is planned, how it is designed, the tendering process, the construction and, of course, how it is operated and maintained.

After 30 years of building and operating lines, Singapore should have strong home-grown rail expertise by now. Not just on the engineering front, but also in areas of policy, operations and management.

And if the industry is lacking in this core competence, it should waste no time in building it. A plan to build an integrated train testing centre on a 50ha site at the former Raffles Country Club in Tuas should go some way towards achieving this end.

To be ready around 2022, the centre will, according to Mr Khaw, "deepen our railway operations and maintenance expertise".

Beyond testing trains, there should be a pool of people who are able to literally take a train apart and put it back together. This was something that SMRT tried to do with its Singapore Rail Engineering subsidiary under its previous CEO.

Like all successful sectors, the rail industry must attract and retain talent to avoid repeating past mistakes.

And if the pool of resources is limited, does it make more sense to have one rail operator instead of two? SMRT's rival, SBS Transit, remains listed. Might it, in future, face the same dilemma as SMRT did, serving more masters than it should?

This is not to say publicly listed rail operators cannot excel. Hong Kong's MTR is proof that it can be done, but it has property development to help keep it in robust financial health.

Challenges ahead extend to financial viability as well. While the Government now owns all public transport assets and is responsible for their timely replacement, the state coffers are not inexhaustible.

Currently, fares alone do not seem enough to cover even operating costs. But this is likely to be due to the unusual expenditures related to the urgent rail revival programme. Passenger catchment for the Downtown Line has also been lower than expected, but should improve once developments along the line ramp up.

It would thus be prudent to hold off on bigger fare hikes in the future, until things stabilise. Also, this option has to be weighed carefully against the country's larger objective of persuading people to ditch their cars for buses and trains.

Rail operators would, of course, like to move to a model that frees them from revenue risk - as is the case for bus operations. But doing so is likely to result in taxpayers shouldering more of the costs.

The bus contracting model has already resulted in state deficits - to the tune of $1.01 billion for the 2018 to 2019 financial year. At the same time, it has resulted in record profits for SBS Transit, the dominant bus operator here.

Is the state ready to risk the same outcome should rail migrate to a bus-like contacting model?

If it does and ends up with mounting deficits, the pressure to recoup those deficits would rise. In the case of the bus contracting model, recouping the billion-dollar deficit would require raising fares by around 70 cents a trip.

It may be better to explore ways to optimise efficiency and synergy within the sector. For instance, SMRT's headquarters could have been built above the underground Kim Chuan Depot - a sizeable plot that has been vacant for more than a decade because it is perhaps unattractive to private developers. This would save the operator rental for its premises in Paya Lebar Quarter.

In the same vein, can a portion of returns from land sales around train stations be used to offset costs borne by the current generation, instead of being locked up in reserves for future generations?

Singapore need not adopt Hong Kong's model completely, which allows MTR alone to realise values from land development. But a system that allows the Land Transport Authority to access the premium land around MRT stations would be good.

In the past, hesitance in replacing ageing rail assets had to do largely with access to, and allocation of, funds. Singapore should avoid going down that road again at all costs.

*  Renewing Singapore's oldest MRT lines to cost more than $2.5 billion: Khaw Boon Wan
Replacing power supply system will allow more trains on North-South, East-West lines
By Christopher Tan, Senior Transport Correspondent, The Straits Times, 3 Jan 2020

A multi-year programme to renew the North-South and East-West MRT lines - Singapore's oldest and most heavily used - will cost more than $2.5 billion.

Revealing the figure during a visit to Bukit Batok station on the North-South Line yesterday, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said the second phase of the renewal programme was under way.

This involves replacing the power supply system, track circuits and first-generation trains. In the first phase, the rail sleepers, third rail and signalling system of the two lines, which opened more than 30 years ago, were replaced.

The renewal programme began in 2013, and is expected to be completed by 2024.

Mr Khaw said the power supply system renewal was "the most complex of the three remaining projects", and was about 40 per cent done. The renewed system will allow the two lines to accommodate more trains and, consequently, reduce train waiting time.

Currently, 145 trains are deployed during the morning peak period at intervals of 120 seconds. When the renewal is completed, the intervals can be reduced to 100 seconds.

The power supply system renewal, to be done by 2023, entails replacing 1,300km of electrical cables, 206 transformers, 172 switchboards and equipment in 171 substations. It also entails laying 250km of fibre-optic cables for real-time monitoring of the two rail lines. The renewal of track circuits, which are part of the signalling system, is about 25 per cent done.

To speed up the renewal works, parts of the two lines have been subject to shorter operating hours on Fridays and weekends in recent years. This is expected to continue until the entire project is completed.

Meanwhile, 66 new trains are being built overseas by Bombardier, and should start arriving next year. The Canadian group won the supply contract worth $1.2 billion, which includes service support for the 30-year lifespan of the trains.

Mr Khaw told transport workers present yesterday that 2019 was "a good year", with the network clocking more than a million train-kilometres between delays in the first nine months - an 18-fold improvement over 2011's figure, and one matched by few other metros in the world. But he cautioned against complacency. "Today's success does not guarantee tomorrow's," said Mr Khaw.

The upgrading of the North-South and East-West lines aside, Mr Khaw said work to expand the rail network continues. He said government spending on new MRT lines "will peak during the next two decades". Announced projects include the Thomson-East Coast Line (the first phase of which will open later this month), the Jurong Region Line, the Circle Line extension and the Cross Island Line.

When the Cross Island Line is completed by 2031, Singapore would have doubled its rail network to 360km.

Observers reckon there will be at least two other new lines beyond 2031. The 2040 Land Transport Master Plan stated that a new line running parallel to the North-South Line is being studied.

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