The Future of Rail

Harnessing the best available technologies and working with forward-thinking research institutions is helping SMRT Trains put more early-warning systems in place and build a rail network that is future-ready.

It is not unlike the perfectly-timed choreography of a Formula One pit stop team.

Four men from the Emergency Response Unit (ERU) stand trackside on SMRT’s East-West Line (EWL), tool kits in hand. The train passes and they kick into gear, once the Operations Control Centre switches off power. As part of the safety protocols, they confirm that the power rail is no longer “live” and protection measures are in place, before accessing the track to verify that power is off by using voltage testers. They then perform quick rectification work on a loose bolt that secures the claw, which supports the power rail.

ERU has a window of five minutes to get the system back on track, before the next train rounds the corner, explained Mr Lee Keen Sing, Director, Permanent Way Engineering and Planning, SMRT Trains. A radio check is conducted, and constant communication is maintained with all involved. Power to the track is restored in time for the next train to arrive on schedule – only after all personnel and equipment are cleared from the track.

Minutes earlier, a train-mounted sensor had alerted an on-board computer that the power rail – which supplies electricity to trains – had shifted out of position. It had simultaneously triggered SMS alerts to SMRT Trains’ 24/7 Maintenance Operations Centre (MOC) at Bishan Depot, and the ERU. A visual check showed that the problem could not wait till the trains stop running at 1am, prompting immediate action.

The sensors, in use since 2014, have become vital to the smooth running of critical systems. Trains draw power from the power rail through train-mounted current collector device (CCD) shoes. If the power rail sags below an acceptable limit, it could trigger a power disruption.

The sensors, which sit in tandem with the CCD shoes, measure the dynamic readings and ensure that the data, with variations as small as 1mm, are within the safety thresholds. The MOC is alerted to potential power rail defects.

Condition monitoring systems are a critical part of the whole machinery designed to pick up on potential defects and kick into gear before they even happen. This is critical to the smooth running of SMRT’s trains, explained Mr Lee, who used to oversee the division in charge of technology, project and system management, including the acquisition of new technology. SMRT Trains constantly reviews areas for improvement where technology can be inserted to provide leading indicators for early mitigation of potential issues, thus increasing the availability and reliability of our systems.

Data-driven Support

These mechanical sensors in use – the linear variable differential transducers (LVDT) – were developed in-house by SMRT Corporation to monitor the condition of the power rail during service hours. The LVDTs are currently mounted on five trains on the North-South and East-West Lines (NSEWL). In 2016, about half of all SMS alerts that were triggered prompted immediate rectification work.

All data collected weekly is plotted against data from previous weeks, allowing SMRT Trains to identify power rail segments for earlier preventive maintenance. This reduces the likelihood of corrective maintenance.

“We always do preventive maintenance, but during our weekly “sense-making” session, we also check that the power rail is within its maintenance limit, identify stretches that is degrading faster than normal and bring forward preventive maintenance along those stretches,” Mr Lee explained.

These sensors supplement a yellow locomotive called the multifunctional vehicle (MFV) that circulates the entire track during engineering hours between 1am and 4am, collecting information on 16 parameters relating to the track and the power rail. It takes about four to six months to cover the entire NSEWL with a single MFV.

The Aim for ‘Gold’

Using the latest available technology, including sensors and analytics, is a major part of the strategy to build a future-proof rail system, even as SMRT Trains works to replace and upgrade large stretches of the 30-year-old network.

“We need to move away from just correcting problems and towards being able to predict when such problems might happen. We have to fix or replace things even before they break, because if they do, the cost (to us and to our commuters) is much higher,” Mr Lee explained.

“What adds to the challenge is that in the last 30 years, ridership on the network has increased tremendously. Train frequencies have gone up as well. It means the old maintenance rulebooks for existing hardware can be thrown out the window. New ways of assessing risk are needed,” he said.

This is especially important as the gauntlet has been thrown down for Singapore to achieve the ‘gold standard’ in rail reliability.

In the rail industry, we talk about ‘Mean Kilometres before Failure’ (MKBF), which measures delays of more than five minutes. The MKBF for the NSL improved from 156,000 train-km in 2016 to 291,000 train-km in the first quarter of 2017, while the EWL improved from 145,000 train-km in 2016 to 215,000 train-km in 1Q2017. The Circle Line (CCL) also improved 228,000 train-km in 2016 to 452,000 train-km in 1Q2017. The target is to achieve 300,000 train-km by the end of 2017. The challenge was laid down by Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan for Singapore to achieve 400,000 train-km by 2018.

It will involve putting in place systems and processes that will allow SMRT Trains to predict potential failures in a more accurate and timely way, Mr Lee said. This could include condition monitoring of critical assets and equipment, predictive maintenance and a tighter integration of data collection devices with analytical tools.

“We think that it is important for the company to make these strategic investments even though it will probably take a few years to acquire the new capabilities,” explains Mr Lee Ling Wee, Chief Executive Officer, SMRT Trains.

Thinking Ahead

SMRT Corporation has been working with research institutes and academics to develop analytical engineering tools to predict future failures. It is working with the Hong Kong Polytechnic University to develop a sensor system similar to the one currently in use by the Hong Kong MTR. These sensors watch for anomalous vibrations as proxies to track and train conditions, so that emerging issues can be rectified early, before they cause problems.

When the system for Singapore is completed next year, these new sensors, placed along two to four sectors of the track and on two trains, will provide a running health check of the system. They will be able to pick up on up to six parameters, including if and how much the rail has been worn down, and if there are cracks or chips on the track. On trains, details like the level of suspension or the condition of the wheels can be monitored, which can affect how comfortable a ride is.

The SMRT-NTU Corporate Lab, a collaboration with the Nanyang Technological University, is co-funded by the National Research Foundation. The five-year, $60-million programme will look at how rail systems can be maintained more cost effectively. SMRT Corporation has also signed a five-year master research collaboration agreement with national research institute A*STAR to develop sensors that will allow for better early warning systems, as well as a memorandum of understanding with the University of Birmingham to enhance rail reliability. It is also looking into technologies to better monitor other subsystems on the train, including doors, air-conditioners and brakes.

“Knowing what’s in best shape and where weaknesses lie, could allow SMRT Trains to, for example, send out its best-conditioned trains during peak hours, further reducing chances of a delay or breakdown,” said Mr Lee Keen Sing. Ultimately, it means having a rail network that is more resilient, and one that gets commuters to where they need to go, he added.

“Currently, we only measure critical systems, but we are working to move to a stage where we can measure everything, and better optimise our resources while ensuring fewer delays and disruptions for commuters in the long run.

“With empirical data and data points, the more you know, the more you can minimise ‘unknown unknowns’.”

7 Questions about SMRT Trains’ New Signalling System

Weekday system-level performance checks on the new signalling system for North-South Line (NSL) commenced on 29 May 2017. As the new signalling system is fine-tuned by engineers, commuters may expect teething issues from the new system while aboard NSL trains between Marina South Pier and Jurong East. This guide explains some of the situations you may encounter on the NSL during the signalling checks.

1. Why is SMRT Trains changing to a new signalling system? What are the benefits to commuters?
The new signalling system will be more efficient than the current system, which has been in use since 1987. We will be able to safely reduce the distance between trains travelling on the network, and further increase the number of trains. This means shorter waiting times for commuters.

2. Why does the train stop between stations?
For safety reasons, all trains are programmed to maintain a distance between one another. Trains will not proceed if there is another train up ahead.

3. Why did the train overshoot the platform and have to reverse?
The new signalling system comes with various pre-set programmes to run and stop trains at various speeds. These pre-set programmes are being fine-tuned to suit different weather conditions. For example, the braking distance for a train arriving at Ang Mo Kio MRT Station (aboveground) on a clear day, would differ from that required during a thunderstorm. Wet tracks would require a longer distance for trains to come to a stop.

Trains may therefore not align correctly at station platforms. It is important to note that passengers will remain safe, as all trains are programmed to maintain a safety distance between one another. Trains will not proceed if there is another train up ahead. If the alignment is incorrect, trains will reverse for passengers to board and alight. In the rare event that the misalignment is more than 15 metres, trains proceed to the next station as programmed.

4. Why do the doors close so fast?
As we work towards the target of having more trains, and shorter waiting times for commuters, trains will have to stop for fixed intervals at stations. The new signalling system will also open and close doors automatically. The dwell time (i.e. the duration of trains stopping at station platforms) remains the same. Doors continue to remain open for about 30 seconds at most stations.

Please do not rush to board the trains. Please look out for light indicators and audio chimes, which indicate that train doors are closing. Train doors will close automatically soon after the lights flash and door chimes go off.

5. Why did my train brake suddenly?
Signalling systems are used to direct railway traffic. Trains move when the system indicates so, and stop when they receive a signal from the system. Signalling systems are built with safety as the top priority. Emergency brakes are applied when trains receive incorrect or conflicting signals, do not receive any signals momentarily, or when there are trains ahead. The signalling system is then reset, to ensure trains only move according to assigned signals.

6. Why are the performance checks carried out during peak hours? Can’t the checks be done during off-peak hours?
Trains fitted with the new signalling system have been put through rigorous checks before they were cleared for passenger service. Earlier trials took place during the last hour of passenger service, and progressed to whole of Sundays. Unlike new MRT lines where intensive testing can be conducted with a single type of train before passenger service commences, we are testing the new signalling system on an existing line with various train fleets. As there are limited engineering hours each day (from 1.30am to 4.30am), it is not possible for us to accumulate adequate testing hours if we do not run the new signalling system during weekdays. The June school holidays present the best opportunity for us to do so. We have to conduct all-day performance checks to work out teething issues that may arise when a new signalling system is introduced to a train network. The system-level performance checks on weekdays will allow us to further intensify tests of the new signalling system’s reliability. Our engineers will continue to monitor the system’s response to different situations, and trains services’ adherence to their schedules.

7. There were delays on 1 & 2 June 2017. What happened?
The first incident at 6.20pm on 1 June 2017 was due to a glitch in the computer server used to manage train schedules. This unfortunately caused all trains on NSL to halt. Although the back-up server kicked in quickly, operations controllers needed 30 minutes to manually reassign train schedules.

On 2 June 2017, a signalling equipment known as the Movement Authority Unit (MAU) registered a fault at around 4.48pm. The MAU fault resulted in slower train movement between Kranji and Admiralty stations. Signalling trials are part and parcel of new signalling systems and carried out to help train operators identify and resolve teething problems that may occur. As we continue to intensify the testing of the new signalling system and until the system stabilises, there may potentially be more disruptions. We seek the understanding of commuters.

Minister Khaw Boon Wan at Kim Chuan Depot

SMRT Trains welcomed Coordinating Minister for Infrastructure and Minister for Transport Khaw Boon Wan to Kim Chuan Depot last Friday (26 May 2017) as we marked 200 disruption-free days on the Circle Line. Minister Khaw said that our colleagues “are working hard to raise rail reliability” and are “pressing on to improve it further”. We thank the Minister for his encouragement.

New signalling system for North-South Line to commence on 29 May

From next week (week commencing 29 May 2017), system-level performance checks on the new signalling system for the North-South Line (NSL) will be carried out on weekdays. The intensive weekday runs follow the Sunday checks done since 16 April 2017, and will allow SMRT and the Land Transport Authority (LTA) to carry out continuous checks on the new signalling system.

 

Engineers from SMRT, LTA and Thales, the supplier of the signalling system, have been monitoring the performance of the signalling system closely since NSL trains began serving passengers using the new signalling system in late March. Engineers continue to rectify teething issues. These include achieving higher accuracy of train and station door alignment, better coordination between closure of train and station doors, familiarising train captains with operating the new system in inclement weather and allowing maintenance teams to troubleshoot and rectify faults with the new system.

The weekday system-level performance checks will allow the system engineers to further fine-tune and improve the operational performance of the system. These checks on the NSL – Singapore’s oldest MRT line – will furnish engineers and maintenance staff with data on the performance of the new signalling system, with the number of trains deployed on the NSL and the interval between each train varying from peak and non-peak hours. Such data will be assessed closely as part of rigorous checks before the system is declared fully capable of eventually supporting train operations at intervals of as short as 100 seconds between each train.

During the weekday system checks, the new signalling system may continue to encounter some glitches as it settles in to full-load operations. Commuters on the NSL could experience instances of train and platform doors not opening or closing promptly, trains held at stations slightly longer than usual, or trains stopping momentarily between stations. In earlier trials which took place during the last hour of passenger service, and during Sunday trials, the safety system stopped trains momentarily so that engineering staff could address signal glitches. The new Communications-Based Train Control signalling system is designed with this safety feature which ensures trains will be kept at a proper distance from one another at all times. Such situations are not safety critical and SMRT, LTA and Thales will have more engineers on standby to respond quickly to situations that may arise. More station staff will also be on hand to assist commuters.

These weekday system checks have been planned to commence during the June holidays to minimise commuter inconvenience. However, those travelling on the NSL are still advised to cater for additional travelling time.

Mr Alvin Kek, SMRT Senior Vice President for Rail Operations (NSEWL), said: “While we look forward to operating trains on the new signalling system, the all-day performance checks are part and parcel of working out teething issues that may arise when a new signalling system is introduced to a train network. Our engineers, operations controllers, and trains and stations operations staff have been working with LTA and Thales for the past two months to ensure that the checks on the new signalling system are carried out under close monitoring, and to ensure that all incidents are quickly resolved. We continue to ask for commuters’ patience and cooperation as we work round the clock to settle the system in as quickly as possible.”

Commuters can refer to SMRT’s Facebook and Twitter feed, as well as the SMRT Connect and MyTransport travel apps for service updates.

SMRT and University of Birmingham Work to Enhance Rail Reliability

SMRT Corporation and the University of Birmingham, one of the top universities for railway science and education in the United Kingdom, have embarked on four research projects that will enhance the reliability of railway networks.

About 20 SMRT engineers will be involved in research carried out at the University’s state-of-the-art railway laboratories. When necessary, SMRT equipment and engineering staff will be sent to the UK or vice versa depending on the nature of the projects.

The projects are guided by a Master Research & Collaboration Agreement signed between the University of Birmingham and SMRT Corporation promoting joint research into railway engineering by both signatories. Under the agreement, researchers from the University and SMRT Trains will look into projects to improve the reliability of rail infrastructure and power systems.

Commenting on the joint research effort, Mr Ng Bor Kiat, Chief Technology Officer, SMRT Corporation, said: “We are delighted to partner the University of Birmingham once again to deepen and broaden expertise in railway engineering. These research projects complement the effort by SMRT Trains to work towards a reliability-centric maintenance approach. This will benefit commuters as engineering staff can intervene proactively to fix faults before they occur.

“At the heart of this effort is the increased use of condition monitoring devices, simulation tools and data analytics, which are among the research areas spearheaded by the UoB-SMRT research agreement. The pairing of academic know-how with the experience gained by heavy rail engineers is a valuable combination that will lead to better reliability, availability and safety. In short, a better journey for rail commuters.”

Professor Clive Roberts, Director of the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education, said: “We are delighted to be commencing four interesting research projects with SMRT, which will enable us to demonstrate the benefits of our research on a live network. Three of the projects will focus of condition monitoring of different railway assets, and will take forward research that has been previously developed in the laboratory. The fourth project will provide a detailed understanding of the dynamic loads on the railway power system.”

In October 2016, SMRT Corporation and the University of Birmingham jointly announced the launch a post graduate course in railway engineering. The three-year course is the first of its kind for engineers here. It is jointly administered by the SMRT Institute, which serves as the academic centre for SMRT Corporation, and the University’s Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education (BCRRE), whose railway education programmes attract staff from leading metro operators such as the London Underground and the Taipei Metro.

The course is unique because it provides course participants with perspectives from an institute of higher learning for railway education as well as real-world operator experience. The intellectual framework provided by the University of Birmingham, when strengthened with lessons learned by SMRT Trains in the course of running heavy and light rail systems, will contribute to accelerating the development of our rapidly growing railway engineering workforce. This is achieved by providing a strong academic foundation for course participants, tempered by knowledge of how classroom concepts are applied in real-world situations.

International Customer Service Survey on SMRT Train and Bus Services

SMRT’s train and bus services are part of an international customer service survey, now on from 24 April 2017 till 21 May 2017.

The online polls for the 2017 Customer Satisfaction Survey (CSS) are led by the CoMET and Nova, and the International Bus Benchmarking Group (IBBG) for train and bus services respectively. These surveys, which allow commuters to rate transport operators on their levels of service, provide data that show areas in which train and bus services serve commuters well and flag out areas for improvement.

These two surveys will help us better understand your satisfaction levels towards our train and bus services.


Click here to participate in IBBG CSS.


Click here to participate in to participate in CoMET Nova CSS.

Both surveys are managed by Railway and Transport Strategy Imperial College of London (RTSC).

Once the surveys are completed, RTSC will compile the data, provide them to participating metros, and present them at the CoMET and Nova meetings in the second half of 2017.

The CoMET Benchmarking Group has 17 members made up of some of the largest metros while the Nova Benchmarking Group currently has 16 members consisting of mostly medium sized or newer metros. CoMET and Nova provides a confidential forum for metros to share experiences, compare performances, and identify best practices and learn from each other.

The IBBG is a comprehensive programme benchmarking urban bus operations. The consortium is currently made up of 15 medium and large sized bus organisations in the world.

The surveys go live from Monday 24 April through Sunday 21 May 2017. Your information and responses will remain confidential and will not be used for any other purpose.

We thank you for sharing feedback via these surveys.

All-of-SMRT Approach to keeping MRT Train Services Moving

In SMRT, all staff have a part to play in keeping train services moving.

During a train disruption, more than 700 staff from SMRT corporate departments such as finance, human resources, information technology and corporate communications are recalled to serve in customer service teams. Given one hour to report to their designated MRT stations – before or after office hours on weekdays, or on weekends – these corporate staff augment front-line staff at MRT stations to provide service information and directions to commuters, and perform crowd control duties. In addition, staff from SMRT Buses are recalled to support the Trains team by providing shuttle buses and additional engineering staff are mobilized to return train services to normal operations as quickly as possible.

SMRT managers and staff, not just those on the front line, also perform customer service duties during periods when large numbers of commuters are expected to use the network to attend events. All new staff joining SMRT are also familiarised with different aspects of commuter operations before taking up other assignments in the company.

This all-of-SMRT approach ensures SMRT staff at all levels are not ‘insulated’ from feedback or sentiments expressed by the public.

In addition, SMRT managers do walk the ground to inform and update commuters on upcoming activities on the rail renewal front. This outreach has involved the distribution of information material explaining situations involving early closure or late opening of MRT stations to provide more time for engineering staff to work on rail renewal or maintenance projects. In doing so, the face-to-face contact with commuters provides management with a first hand feel of who they serve, and of public expectations of MRT operations.

Executives and managers who served with the North-South and East-West Lines (NSEWL) are deployed for customer service roles for major events that may see a surge in commuters taking NSEWL trains. As an added safeguard to crowd control, the NSEWL team also activates its Emergency Response Command Post in anticipation of any need to respond to contingencies during major events.

Over at the Circle Line (CCL), executives are deployed for crowd control duties in CCL stations during major events along the network. These include the National Day Parade (and rehearsals), New Year’s Eve events and the Formula One night race around Marina Bay and sporting and entertainment events at the Sports Hub. Front-line service is personally led by the Vice President and the CCL senior management.

I personally led a team of executives to distribute pamphlets that explained the need for early closure of MRT stations to provide additional hours for our renewal projects. More recently, I had led about a hundred executives to explain to commuters how the re-signalling project would eventually improve their travel experience.



We would like to take this opportunity to clarify that the driving of trains is a specialised skill set. Train Captains on the NSEWL undergo training for a period of six months before they are allowed to drive trains with passengers for the first time and under close supervision. The safety of our commuters is paramount and the driving of trains is therefore entrusted only to full-time Train Captains. Even for the driverless lines, station staff and rovers who can drive the trains when needed require special training. Moreover, all CCL engineers are trained to drive CCL trains.

SMRT Rail Renewal Milestone: 188,000 Sleepers Replaced

To enhance rail reliability and to provide better journeys for millions of commuters who travel with SMRT every day, we embarked on the biggest rail transformation programme since rail operations began in Singapore in 1987. The sleeper replacement project on the North-South and East-West Lines (NSEWL) began in 2013, where 188,000 ageing timber sleepers were to be replaced with concrete sleepers.

A joint team comprising SMRT and the Land Transport Authority (LTA) was formed in June 2012 to look into reducing disruptions and increasing the reliability of the NSEWL. Other rail transformation projects, including re-signalling and third rail replacement programmes were carried out concurrently.

The Works

All rail renewal and maintenance works are carried out between 1.30 AM and 4.30 AM, after the last trains arrived at the depots, and before the first trains depart the depots for the start of service. Actual work hours are much more limited because of the time needed to transport machinery to the work site.

Starting with four road-rail vehicles (RRV) in 2013, before increasing the fleet to 14 in early 2016, these vehicles were used to mechanise the replacement of sleepers, a process which was initially done manually. The use of RRVs helped to accelerate the sleeper replacement schedule. In addition, fixed gantry cranes were brought in in early 2016. They were located at two ends of the EWL – at Pasir Ris overrun, and between Chinese Garden and Lakeside stations.

The gantry cranes, which were 20 metres in height and weighed 74 tonnes, were used to hoist the RRVs and concrete sleepers from the ground on to the tracks. They allowed the RRVs to deploy more quickly to the work front and thus allowing more sleepers to be replaced each night. Six Temporary Staging Areas (TSAs) were located at Kallang, Redhill, Chinese Garden, Pasir Ris, Changi, and Ulu Pandan to act as holding bays for RRVs and other heavy machinery.

Roger Lim, Project Director, Track and Infrastructure; and concurrently Vice President, Circle Line and Bukit Panjang LRT Projects, said “As we take apart parts of the track each night, we need to be very judicious on safety and quality checks when we put back everything within the three-hour engineering window. We have to make sure all systems are in order and ready for service each morning.

We had to look into the inter-operability within and across other work teams. Managing close to 1,000 personnel with 14 RRVs, two tamping machines and numerous mechanical handling equipment, the project team members must be cognisant of the various activities in the five work fronts. We had centralised planning to optimise the resources, while allowing decentralised execution for localised care and safety measures at the respective workfronts. Steely perseverance and steady pace helped us to work productively yet safely on the viaducts every night.”

Thank You for Your Understanding

In the last three years, measures such as speed restrictions and shorter operating hours were imposed. With the use of heavy machinery, moving of extremely heavy equipment and materials, and works such as welding and tamping, it was inevitable that noise would be generated. Our teams took all necessary steps to minimise noise and light pollution in the early hours of the morning- including using monitoring devices and barriers to keep noise levels to a minimum, and keeping night lights pointed away from residential homes.

20 December 2016

There was an unmistakeable sense of excitement and pride at Clementi MRT Station at 1AM. Representatives from SMRT, LTA and our contractors were in high spirits as the RRV appeared in sight for the final time. They watched the last wooden sleeper on the westbound track was removed. The final concrete sleeper was laid on 20 December 2016 – a full three years ahead of its original target of 2019.

Coordinating Minister for Infrastructure and Minister for Transport Khaw Boon Wan officiated the completion of the sleeper replacement programme on 20 January 2017. Accompanied by President and Group CEO Desmond Kuek, the minister signed a commemorative plaque to be installed at Clementi MRT Station, where the last batch of wooden sleepers were replaced.

Better Journeys

The sleeper replacement programme is the first of many milestones to come. As speed restrictions are lifted, our commuters can enjoy safer, smoother and faster rides on our network. We also look forward to the completion of our re-signalling and third rail replacement projects which will improve the journey experience for all commuters.

Re-signalling Project will significantly improve reliability

There were two disruptions on the East-West Line due to faulty track circuits in recent weeks. Commuters have asked if this is in any way related to the sleeper replacement project and what was the cause of it and what are we doing to rectify it?

The track circuit faults are unrelated to the sleeper replacement project completed recently for the North-South and East-West Lines (NSEWL). The track circuit system is part of the signalling system, and is not part of the sleeper infrastructure that supports the running rails which trains travel on.

Such track circuits are used to send signals to the operations control centre to monitor the speed, location and identity of trains passing the respective track signals. Track circuits are integral to the signalling system that is also ageing.

Rectifying track circuit faults

When a track circuit fails, trains have to travel at a lower speed over the affected stretch for safety reasons. During peak hours, the need to slow down trains causes congestion along the train line because trains must slow down as they cross the faulty track circuit and cannot bypass the stretch of track. MRT trains must also maintain a safety distance between one another. This can result in trains stopping momentarily for several hundred metres behind the fault track circuit.

There’s a knock-on effect on MRT stations too. As a result, platforms at MRT stations ahead of the faulty track circuit will get more congested during peak hours.

While train services are still available, this is deemed a degraded mode of service.

Ageing track circuits fail for two reasons. Firstly, a hardware failure of equipment at a Signal Equipment Room (SER) within a MRT station (that is, not on the actual track). Secondly, failures could occur at track side.

For faults within a SER, there is a good chance that we can rectify the failure within a reasonable period of time. This is because the equipment is more easily accessible than trackside infrastructure, where access would involve clearance for track access and possibly the shutting of power or the use of trains as standing protection for the work teams.

For trackside faults, engineering staff will have to access the track to investigate the root cause. This can be very challenging when the track is on a NSEWL viaduct, especially in the event of inclement weather and lightning risks.

As a process, when rectifying track circuit faults, our engineering staff rule out a SER equipment malfunction first before proceeding to investigate trackside faults. That is why the failure of trackside equipment tends to take a longer time to recover.

In the new signalling system that is currently being installed, the ageing track circuits will be replaced with a more advanced system that is more reliable as it is built with multiple redundancy for greater reliability. After we renew the signalling system, faulty track circuits will no longer cause prolonged delays for commuters. This is something we are looking forward to.

We will start operating the new signalling system progressively on North-South Line. In time to come, after we have addressed the initial teething problems of the new signaling system, we will be able to improve the journey for commuters. Please bear with us in the meantime.

SMRT Improvements to Rail Engineering Capabilities

A few days ago, a group of young engineers who were attending a one-week course as part of STEP-IN* programme came back to the main maintenance depot at Bishan to help their more senior colleagues investigate the root cause of a technical problem on the train fleet operating on the North-South and East-West Lines (NSEWL) and discuss the recovery plan. That day, we had a spate of train-related defects that caused three trains to be taken out of service, when these trains completed their regular service runs at terminal stations. This is what we call “stock change” or “planned withdrawal at terminal stations”.

Journey to raise, train and sustain a robust rail engineering capability

There is nothing unusual about a group of engineers coming back to the office to work until 3am. What is unusual is that, they came back on their own accord, without being told to so. In fact, I have given specific instructions to their bosses, not to disturb the participants of the STEP-IN programme unless it is an emergency, so that the participants can focus on the one-week course. In this case, there was no service disruption. Although there was a need to get to the bottom of the issue because it had the potential of becoming a fleet issue, we did have other engineers to deal with the immediate concern.

I know exactly what these engineers, who have been with us for not more than two years, went through, as they went about their discussions and investigations that night. It is no different from what I went through as an engineer in the air force for 23 years: root cause analysis, digging out historical records to understand previous maintenance work done on the affected trains and components, etc. The thought process and mantra have been drilled into them. These young engineers demonstrated a thirsty curiosity to find out why things happened. They listed down every possibility, without jumping to conclusions. They repeatedly asked why the fault occurred (in the same way one might peel an onion), not accepting a case of “No-Fault-Found” (NFF) even if the fault “Can Not be Duplicated” (CND) after the affected trains returned to the depot. There was, in the air that night, an all-consuming desire to get to the root cause, leaving no stone unturned. For them to act together in unity, I am sure there was also esprit de corps and a sense that we are in this together.

Building a Robust Rail Engineering Capability

When I first joined SMRT, I set a goal of building a robust rail engineering capability within SMRT Trains. To do so, we aim to strengthen three key areas: people, process and technology. Three and a half years on, this goal is still an on-going journey. The two areas of process and technology are straightforward enough, as part of SMRT’s rail improvement efforts.

To strengthen our processes, we adopt a life cycle approach to all our critical assets in trains, track, traction power, signalling and communication systems. Such an approach requires us to work closely with the Land Transport Authority (LTA) to better manage the timeliness of asset renewal for such hardware. Each renewal presents us with opportunities to improve the inherent design reliability, availability and maintainability (RAM) of the assets leveraging on the operational experience that our staff have accumulated over the past three decades. As part of process enhancement, we also decided to review our maintenance regime regularly over the asset life cycle. Instead of blindly following manufacturers’ maintenance manuals, the revised preventive maintenance tasks must take into account field experience and local operating context, such as asset age, utilisation patterns, environmental conditions and operational requirements.

To enhance the use of technology, we adopt a predictive maintenance approach. This means that we collect data and information on asset conditions and use analytical tools to project how long more the assets can last before they need to be replaced, what additional maintenance efforts are needed to ensure that the assets will continue to perform reliably until they are replaced. Traditional railway maintenance relies heavily on engineering hours to run specialised engineering vehicles on the rail network to collect these data and information. However, given the limited engineering window, the same track location is only surveyed once every few months. Today’s technology allows us to equip passenger trains with on-board sensors and survey the same track location at a much higher frequency. All these translate into opportunities for better maintenance performance.

Hardware and heartware

Hardware issues are being addressed through better work processes. At the same time, more extensive fielding of technology, such as railway condition monitoring devices, complement work processes so that maintenance and renewal efforts are done more efficiently and effectively.

But no less important is our drive to strengthen our heartware – our people. Indeed, the toughest and most complex part of building a robust rail engineering capability within SMRT Trains lies in the area of people development.

When we first started this journey three-and-a-half years ago, SMRT had about 180 rail engineers, and morale was low. Today, we have boosted the number to more than 400. Other than a small number of mid-careerists who have joined us, the majority of the new recruits are either fresh graduates from local universities or in their late twenties.

Numbers alone are not enough. We need to organise our technical workforce into a value chain spanning from maintenance and engineering, to plans and projects. Take for example, the Rolling Stock (this means trains in railway lingo) Engineering Centre. It has been organised into four departments: Rolling Stock Depot (RSD) and Rolling Stock Workshop (RSW), where staff perform maintenance and inspection tasks on trains and components respectively. With the data and information captured by RSD and RSW, Rolling Stock Engineering (RSE) staff analyse reliability trends and initiate engineering studies to review and improve reliability. Finally, Rolling Stock Project (RSP) staff follow up with the proposed reliability enhancement recommended by RSE and translate these recommendations into concrete plans by justifying for resource funding. They also follow through the plans by working closely with LTA to translate these plans into modification or renewal projects. When modified or renewed, the assets go back into the hands of RSD and RSW with a higher inherent reliability, availability and maintainability.

Participation in this cycle of value chain and staff rotation throughout the various parts of this value chain will not only allow our engineers to grow their competencies, knowledge, skills and experience, it will prevent silo thinking. Rotating in and out of all four departments means that all engineers will develop an empathy for the challenges facing their colleagues in other engineering centres. This not only allows us to deepen and broaden our rail engineering capability, it fosters the development of an esprit de corps.

I think this is value creation, and it is replicated in the other engineering centres in SMRT Trains: Signalling and Communication, Permanent Way, Power, Systems and Technology Integration, Integrated Facilities.

The right stuff

We have developed roadmaps for all three areas of people, process and technology. These are not just words and paper concepts. They are actions in different phases of execution. Following these roadmaps, we may well achieve a more robust rail engineering capability in SMRT Trains within the next few years. But, will it last? The life cycles of rail assets are measured in decades, not years. For it to last, I think we need to engender the right ethos and culture among our staff. Our newly recruited engineers must be groomed into good leaders, imbued with the right values and attitude so that they can set a good example for the rest of the technical workforce as they progress in their careers.

From this perspective, what happened a few days ago when the group of young engineers came back voluntarily to support a recovery effort is encouraging. I am heartened to see that these engineers have thoughts that lead them to curious and determined action to find root causes. In time to come, I hope that these actions will become habits across SMRT Trains. Working together with esprit de corps and over time, we can and will rewrite the destiny of SMRT Trains and the nation’s experience of the rail network.

“Watch your thoughts, for they will become actions. Watch your actions, for they’ll become… habits. Watch your habits for they will forge your character. Watch your character, for it will make your destiny.” – Margaret Thatcher

*SMRT Trains Engineering Professionalisation INduction or STEP-IN is an in-house five-year, on-the-job training programme in collaboration with local and overseas academic institutions. STEP-IN is conducted with short, regular doses of structured training to equip newly recruited engineers as they take their first steps into the rail industry with the necessary rail-related knowledge and experience. The programme is designed so that they can be accredited as chartered rail engineers at the end of their first 5 years with SMRT Trains. A related programme, STEP-UP, is intended for mid-career railway engineering staff to uplift their professional competencies after several years in the industry. Together, STEP-IN and STEP-UP develop railway engineering staff to their fullest potential.