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“NSEWL is not a true city subway or metro system for getting around town” – Academic explains complex issues plaguing MRT system

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Why hasn’t the Singapore government found a way to solve the MRT issue by now? Can’t they tell that people are frustrated?

Singapore Institute of Technology’s Vice-President of Planning, Mun-Heng Tsoi, stepped up to answer this pertinent question posted on an online forum yesterday, explaining the complex issues plaguing Singapore’s rail transport system.

Writing on online question-and-answer forum Quora, Tsoi – who has formerly served with organisations like the Ministry of Defence and the Republic of Singapore Air Force – shed light on the issues that caused the Singapore rail system to be in the poor state it is in today:

“We allowed the MRT system to be run on economic (or profit making) considerations, assuming that somehow the market will result in “efficient allocation of resources”. We know what happened. Engineering and maintenance was sacrificed to maintain profitability. Knowledge and skills were allowed to leak out. Over time, attitudes deteriorated. That fatal accident involving irregular release of people to work on a live track is a symptom of an attitude problem.”

Tsoi’s comprehensive response is the type of response one might expect a government representative to express. Read it here in full:

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The MRT issue is a complex one – and complex issues are inherently difficult to solve. The second question is easier to answer. Of course they can tell – it was one of the causes of the election results in 2011 and the post of Transport Minister has proven to be a truly hot seat. So one could surmise that the “Singapore government” is desperately trying to resolve the MRT issue before they get another setback at the next election.

But why is it so complex?

To begin with , there are multiple systems involved: trains, power supply, tracks, weather/climate, control and signalling systems, even platform doors. A look at the problems that have cropped up in recent years have shown up problems in all these diverse systems. A simple thing like a faulty switch on a platform door can hold up the trains (I was caught in that – gave up waiting). Some are difficult to even troubleshoot – like the malfunctioning train that was sending out spurious signals and took a team of expert engineers to tease out the fact that problems happened when this particular train was passing by.

The more systems there are, the more ways in which they interact, the more ways in which seemingly small failures can affect the larger system.

The current signalling upgrade is causing a lot of problems – partly because of the complexity of the system. There is no way to detect some of the design flaws until you run it on full operating load. Then you have a failure. And upset a lot of people.

One factor which few really understand is the environment. Singapore is a hot and wet country – this causes problems like corrosion, and the ingress of water in the tunnels. Most of the systems in use were designed and used in cooler and drier climates – our climate is an additional stress on the system. Hence we had that power trip caused by water seeping into electrical systems, and the recent flooding incident.

Another factor is the fact that this is a live system where maintenance and upgrading work is restricted to a few hours a night. Upgrading old systems take months and years because of this.

Yet there are examples of complex systems that work reliably. The difference is people. Or more specifically, their knowledge, skills and attitudes. At the centre of this are the engineers and technicians who keep the hardware running. And here is where the answer lies. We allowed the MRT system to be run on economic (or profit making) considerations, assuming that somehow the market will result in “efficient allocation of resources”. We know what happened. Engineering and maintenance was sacrificed to maintain profitability. Knowledge and skills were allowed to leak out. Over time, attitudes deteriorated. That fatal accident involving irregular release of people to work on a live track is a symptom of an attitude problem.

Put the right people in place, and then they can work on those engineering problems and put them right. But it takes time. The people who left the system won’t come back. The new ones have little knowledge and experience. It will take time to rebuild the engineering and maintenance expertise they had 30 years ago. It takes time to change a culture which has been lost. I think it will take at least 10 years.

There’s also a system level problem. The original NS/EW MRT system is not a true city subway or metro system for getting around town. It is actually a commuter or regional train system to bring in the masses from the suburbs into the city (The NE line is also a regional line serving a separate region). The bus system was modified to reduce duplication with the MRT system. That means putting all the eggs in one basket. It worked well when it was still reliable, and became a victim its own success. The more people relied on the MRT, the bigger the problem a breakdown causes.

Masses of people depend on the MRT to get to work or school, and a breakdown means alternatives have to be found for thousands and tens of thousands of people at short notice. This is not a trivial problem. The first challenge is to figure out what happened, and then provide an estimate of how long it takes to fix the problem, and then inform everyone, and the activate a fleet of buses. Inevitably, the initial diagnosis is wrong, the estimate is over-optimistic, the message going out is garbled or missed etc. One can only hope they get better at this, but it will always be a major challenge because so many people are dependent on the system not failing.

The additional of the Circle line and Downtown line is finally helping to provide interconnections that make it possible to divert around a breakdown. But the basic design problem is still there – until the need for masses of people to head into the city for work at the same time is alleviated by the creation of new CBDs, telecommuting etc.

Disclaimer: I am not a railway engineer. I don’t work for SMRT, SBST or LTA. I do know some people in these organisations, and I know they are trying very hard. My background is in aircraft engineering, maintenance and operations and so I can appreciate the complexity of the issues.

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