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.