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Rail commuters will have 'almost new' North-South, East-West lines in 2018: Khaw

TRANSPORT Minister Khaw Boon Wan has promised that Singapore will have "almost new" North-South and East-West rail lines (NSEWL) when upgrading works are completed by 2018.

In his blog post dated Nov 17, Mr Khaw outlined seven principal elements that are key to restoring NSEWL's reliability.

The first is to replace, overhaul and upgrade, said Mr Khaw, who added that the NSEWL are nearing their 30th year.

And while such works including the replacement of old electric motors and upgrading of power supply system will be costly, he said they are necessary to improve safety and reliability.

So far, all the sleepers for the entire North-South Line have been replaced while the replacement on the East-West Line began in May.

Mr Khaw said replacement of the third rail - which provides electric power to trains - has also started, as has the upgrading of the signalling system to allow trains to run at shorter intervals and in turn increase capacity by up to 20 per cent.

The second element is to ramp up maintenance, and SMRT and SBS Transit have agreed "to significantly ramp up their maintenance resources, including manpower", said the minister.

Having said this, he noted that building a strong engineering core with deep skills is something that will take time.

To overcome the lack of skilled manpower, he said the organisations need to retain existing professionals and up-skill them at every opportunity.

Mr Khaw also sought commuters' support so the service providers can carry out maintenance works.

"Currently, the maintenance crew has a limited window of engineering hours to carry out routine maintenance and major overhauls. They have asked for more time, during off-peak periods, to be set aside for maintenance. Examples include early Sunday mornings and especially during school holidays. If revenue service can be reduced by even half an hour during such off-peak periods, it will mean a lot to the maintenance crew, especially for the inspection and repair of tunnels and tracks."

The fourth element, he said, is to have clear corporate and top management focus on engineering excellence.

"SMRT's top leadership have expressed strong commitment to me, to raise rail reliability. Frequent rail disruptions tarnish their reputation and demoralise their staff too. Shareholders too, must, first and foremost, realise that they are buying into a specialised engineering company," said Mr Khaw.

On the authorities' part, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) will formulate a stringent set of maintenance performance standards, with more prescriptive, process-based requirements for the operators.

The minister admitted that until recently, the stakeholders have "taken a more outcome-based approach", which he said is too late.

The intensified regulation will complement the current outcome-based approach, he noted, adding that a stronger maintenance culture cannot be cultivated overnight, so LTA will drive this by embedding dedicated teams in the NSEWL for a start, to provide engineering expertise.

He listed the set up of an integrated team as the sixth element.

"We need an enlightened approach of transparency and open collaboration amongst all parties, and I am insisting on such a culture."

Finally, Mr Khaw said the industry structure needs to be integrated.

"There is room to improve the integration in the current MRT industry structure, with the regulator, designer and builder, working even more closely with the operator and maintainer. We will have to consider whether to rework the structure or perhaps implement new processes to realise the ideal outcome. This is a strategic issue which we are currently thinking through."

Pointing out that the combination of the seven elements is a multi-year effort, Mr Khaw said commuters can "experience distinct improvements in rail reliability in the coming couple of years".

He added that the seven-element strategy applies to the NSEWL, as well as the other lines run by the SMRT and SBS Transit, and this approach will be applied in starting the new Thomson-East Coast Line.