Eye on the future: Options for replacing or renewing the BPLRT system

The 8-hour disruption on the Bukit Panjang Light Rail Transit (BPLRT) on Wednesday 28 Sep 2016 shows that the ageing system continues to test the mettle of our engineering staff and the patience of users of Singapore’s first light rail system.

In March this year, we indicated that it is time to relook the BPLRT as the system is nearing the end of its design life. A joint team with the Land Transport Authority (LTA) is currently reviewing the future of the BPLRT system with a view to completely transform the light rail system. It will be more than just a makeover.

Options for renewal

Aware of the design limitations of a light rail system which uses trains designed to function as airport shuttles on flat, short distance commutes between airport terminals, SMRT would like to share the options available for renewing the system. There are three options for the future of the BPLRT. The system has been operational since 1999 and is fast approaching its 20-year lifespan in 2019.

Option 1: A people-mover like autonomous guided vehicles that travel on the existing viaducts but do not draw on external power.

Option 2: A new conventional LRT system but with significant design enhancements in key infrastructure like power supply, signalling system, rolling stock as well as track and station assets.

Option 3: Renewing the existing Bombardier system, keeping the AC power design but with a more advanced communications-based train control (CBTC) signalling system. The CBTC system will allow trains to be more accurately controlled by the operations control centre, allowing more trains to be operated on the network, while moving at faster speeds and closer headways if necessary. This means more people can take the trains and enjoy faster journeys.

The rejuvenated BPLRT will be based on proven technology which is cost-effective to operate over its design life.

The LTA-SMRT study team is also keeping track of the development and public transport services of Bukit Panjang town. This includes monitoring how the BPLRT system can be better integrated with heavy rail systems at the North-South Line and the Downtown Line.

Another idea involves doing away with the 10.5km long, 14-station LRT network. The idea is for people in the Bukit Panjang area to be served by enhanced bus services. This is not far-fetched as a fully loaded high capacity bus like a double-decker bus can take 130 passengers, which is more than the 105-person capacity of a single Bombardier CX100 train car used on the BPLRT. These train cars are paired during peak hours, doubling capacity to 210 passengers. However, replacing the light rail with an all-bus option may lead to more congestion on the roads.

The disruption last week has driven home the urgency of planning for the future. It is the latest incident that has put the BPLRT system in the media’s glare. The Straits Times said the Bukit Panjang Line “isn’t a paragon of reliability and its design makes it prone to glitches”.

Stop-gap measures to improve reliability

As we look to the future, SMRT engineers have also proposed short-term measures to boost the reliability of the legacy system.

Key areas identified for renewal include the signalling system, the trains and track infrastructure. The last item includes the rail brackets that have given rise to problems on the line. These renewals will address recurring reliability issues involving track faults, traction power faults and signalling issues.

Owing to reliability issues, the driverless LRT system is not living up to its name as Rovers have to be deployed at the stations, which were designed for unmanned operations.

Meanwhile, near-term repair and maintenance measures of the system are being stepped up. This includes increased day-to-day system manning, and speedier recovery plans in event of disruption.

Near-term measures

Among the measures the BPLRT team has done:
– Replacement of rail brackets with fortified design at critical portions of the track
– Load testing of trains to be conducted to confirm tractive capability to reduce power faults
– Adjusted motor controller settings for better power reliability
– Installed camera systems on the underframe of four train cars to monitor the interface between trains and rails

Deploying staff across the network expedited assistance to passengers on Wednesday 28 Sep 2016 when passengers had to detrain to track at BP1 Choa Chu Kang station in the morning and at BP6 Bukit Panjang station around 5pm that day. A total of 26 additional staff have been added to the BPLRT team to enhance response time and assistance to commuters.

The range of near-term measures should be complemented by an in-depth review of the BPLRT to future-proof the transport system. This will enable the future system to serve Bukit Panjang residents years from now by providing transport options for safe, reliable, comfortable journeys that are cost-effective to operate and maintain.

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