SINGAPORE: Commuters can expect huge improvements in the reliability of the North-South East-West Lines (NSEWL) within the next two years – if core systems are replaced on schedule, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said on Tuesday (Sep 12).
“Replacing all these core systems takes years, with full completion by 2024,” he said in prepared remarks provided to the media. “But each time we replace a core system, we make significant progress on this long journey.
“We do not have to wait till 2024 to experience the improvements in reliability. If we keep on track, commuters will be able to experience vast improvements in reliability by 2019.”
On Tuesday, the completion ceremony of the power rail replacement project for the NSEWL was held at Bishan Depot. The power rail – together with the sleepers, signalling system, power supply, track circuits and trains – form the core systems of the NSEWL.
In a joint news release, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) and SMRT said the last section of power rail was replaced near Ang Mo Kio MRT station on Aug 15 after a two-year effort to replace about 180km of aluminium-stainless steel composite rails.
The completion of the project is expected to reduce power rail faults on the NSEWL, LTA and SMRT said. “The design of the power rail system was also improved by reducing the distance between brackets and rail assembly claws for better support.”
Mr Khaw said the power rail or third rail, which lies parallel to the running rails, is crucial to train operations as it feeds electricity to passing trains to power their motors, air-conditioning and lights.
To that end, Mr Khaw said more than 400 staff laboured every night to replace the rail, doing work he described as “dangerous and back-breaking”.
“Third rail replacement works require each and every steel conductor rail to be unbolted, removed and a new conductor rail lowered in its place, before it is reconnected to the high-voltage electricity network,” he added.
“With a newer and more robust design, power faults related to the third rail can be minimised and overall reliability of the North-South and East-West Lines will improve.”
TWO DOWN, FOUR TO GO
The completion of the third rail replacement project comes more than half a year after the conclusion of the sleeper replacement project in December 2016.
Mr Khaw reiterated on Tuesday that improving the NSEWL’s reliability is a “multi-year effort”.
“The lines have served us well but have also aged considerably, affecting their reliability,” he said of the 30-year-old NSEWL, which are Singapore’s oldest, longest and most heavily used MRT lines. “Almost all the systems and components need to be replaced.”
Mr Khaw said the new signalling system on the North-South Line is currently in full-day testing, with the minister saying in Parliament on Monday that this could be completed in the next few weeks.
“And then, we can begin to test the new signalling system for the East-West Line,” he added, warning of potential delays once testing starts.
The power supply system, track circuits and old trains on the NSEWL are also in the midst of being renewed, Mr Khaw said.
LTA chief executive Ngien Hoon Ping said more infrastructure renewal projects are in the pipeline, such as the replacement of the NSEWL power supply system and first-generation trains. He added that the tenders for these projects have closed and LTA is evaluating the bids.
Mr Khaw said the ideal scenario would be to “complete this entire overhaul tomorrow”, but pointed out that “works of such scale and complexity take years, especially because we have only three hours each night to do so many things”.
The three hours refer to the engineering hours that run from 1.30am to 4.30am every night. Rail works can only be done during this period.
"That is the reason why the timeline is a stretched one," Mr Khaw said at Bishan Depot on Tuesday.
But commuters will not have to wait until 2024 to see the rail network achieve the target of travelling 1 million train-kilometres before a delay of five minutes, he said.
"We believe that if we keep on track, each time we replace a core system, there will be a quantum improvement."
"DISCONNECT" BETWEEN FIGURES AND COMMUTERS
There has been "huge progress" in the MRT's reliability, Mr Khaw said, even as he acknowledged that commuters do not see the progress because of recent delays and breakdowns.
"When we released reliability data to show that indeed we have made a lot of progress in upping the reliability, there was a disconnect, both by journalists as well as Singaporeans," he said.
The two "missions" – rail reliability and renewal projects – are being conflated, Mr Khaw said, urging commuters to use the "correct metric" when it comes to judging rail reliability.
"If you want to be fair and objective, I think it is important to recognise there are separate missions and separate teams," he said.
"But this is not shrugging off the frustrations or unhappiness of commuters," he added. "Nobody wants to deliberately cause a delay just to upset the commuters.
"But against what was probable, I think we have done well. It turned out much better than I feared."
BUKIT PANJANG LRT UP FOR RENEWAL
The next oldest line, the 20-year-old Bukit Panjang LRT (BPLRT), is also up for renewal, Mr Khaw said, adding that authorities have already started looking into the matter.
But before renewal projects begin, Mr Khaw said he wants to improve BPLRT's reliability by increasing its target to travelling 100,000km before a delay of five minutes. He highlighted that its current 50,000km rating is a "significant" improvement over the years.
"So, that is our secondary attention right now," he added, urging residents for their understanding and patience.
Part of BPLRT's problem, Mr Khaw explained, was that it was constructed after the town had been built, resulting in a design that leads to uncomfortable rides.
“No LRT is designed that way – in such a masochistic manner where you force yourself up and down, twist and turn,” said Mr Khaw. “I’ve taken the BPLRT a few times as a commuter, and I won’t say I enjoyed the ride because it caused me dizziness also – but that is life.”
He added that the BPLRT was an “afterthought” that was built because of “political pressure”. The system is unlike the Sengkang LRT which has a “much simpler” design, as it was built as the Sengkang estate was being developed.
The BPLRT has seen its fair share of disruptions, with the most recent on Saturday when services were unavailable for five hours after two trains stalled between stations. Transport operator SMRT said the disruption was caused by broken rail support brackets.
Mr Khaw said the problem occurred at “hot junctions” where trains have to make “twists and turns”.
Nevertheless, the Transport Minister said he is "not neglecting" the BPLRT system. "We will continue to see whether we can try – very hard – to double its reliability."
Mr Khaw also thanked rail workers for their "hard work when the rest of Singaporeans are sleeping".
“Renewing and overhauling our rail network is an arduous job,” he said. “We owe our public transport workers and engineers a debt of gratitude.”