There was a massive MRT breakdown yesterday which affected thousands of commuters. The breakdown yesterday was not a first, but one of many such malfunctions which has greatly inconvenienced commuters here. But what part do expired rail parts, if there are any, play in the failures of our train system?
Workers’ Party’s Non-Constituency Member of Parliament, Dennis Tan, asked the Transport Minister this question. Despite asking Mr haw Boon Wan this question not once – but twice – the NCMP did not get a straight answer from the Minister.
The NCMP asked the Transport Minister in Parliament:
“Whether any of the MRT’s components or systems are operating past the manufacturer’s recommended end-of-life date and/or end-of-life operating cycle; if so, what is the planned approach to replacing these components or systems; and what measures does the Ministry plan to take to ensure systematically timely replacement of MRT parts and systems.”
When the Minister did not satisfactorily answer his question but instead said that “expectation of the operators is set out in the Rapid Transit Systems Act, the Licence Agreement with the operators, and the Code of Practice on Maintenance,” Mr Tan sought a clarification saying, “I am not sure I heard the Minister correctly as to whether he has answered the first part of my question on whether any of the MRT’s components or systems are operating past the manufacturers’ recommended end-of-life date and end-of-line operating cycle.”
He further asked Mr Khaw “if a certain part has already expired according to the manufacturer’s recommendation, but for some reason SMRT has still decided that they are in working condition, what will be the margin of tolerance that the Minister feels may be acceptable,” he asked. “would it be six months to a year, or more?” Mr Tan added.
Mr Tan also asked Mr Khaw if the Transport Ministry would consider requiring the transport operator to have a proper rail asset renewal schedule for the expired or soon-to-be expiring parts. This even if the parts do not seem to be breaking down yet, so that the public can stay on top of the curve as far as system performance is concerned.
Besides these, the NCMP also wanted to know if “the Ministry consider publishing input KPIs to measure parts replacement and maintenance works, setting targets and benchmarks against other MRT systems to track not just that the inspections are done regularly but also indicators like the ratio of engineers to the length of tracks and proportion of parts past their end-of-line dates.”
In addition, Mr Tan also asked who pays for and is reponsible for triggering parts replacement under the new contracting model – is it LTA or SMRT?
“If there is a change from the current situation, when will this take place, given that negotiations between LTA and SMRT have dragged on for two years or so?” Mr Tan wondered.
The Transport Minister instead of answering the NCMP’s questions directly said that his earlier reply to the NCMP had “contained the essence of what I wanted to say (that) trains are a very complicated system, much more complicated than, say, cars,” and so one “cannot just simply go “law by law”.”
He then told Mr Tan that the manufacturer’s recommendations were just a guide, before going on to talk about German trains – that an engineering firm has decided to set up a factory to take care of German trains obsolescent components. He also talked about his own cholesterol level.
The Minister revealed that the train operators have automated warehousing with computerised forklifts to move tens of thousands of components, but still did not answer the NCMP.
Mr Khaw further took a dig at the opposition party and said that his hair had turned into a “mess of duckweed, multiple colours” since he assumed responsibility for the Transport Ministry.
In his non-reply to the NCMP the Minister said “rail reliability is an engineering problem. Let us let our engineers solve it the engineers’ way. As users, commuters, commentators and some armchair critics, you can just look at it from the outcome point of view; say to yourself, “When I need a train, is it there?” Yes, we are not quite where we want it to be, but we are making improvement.”
Writing about the Minister’s response to his colleague, NCMP Leon Perera said in his facebook that “if there are expired parts, there should be public accounting on what these are, when these will be replaced and how to prevent a recurrence.”
“This is a pertinent issue, given the frequency of MRT breakdowns that we continue to experience,” Mr Perera added.
The Parliamentary exchange between the Minister and the NCMP is HERE.