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Signalling system provider Thales “could have done better” – Khaw Boon Wan asserts

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Referring to the MRT collision at Joo Koon last week, Minister of Transport Khaw Boon Wan has asserted that signalling system provider Thales “could have done better” at a press conference held by SMRT and Land Transport Authority (LTA) today.

Khaw further acknowledged that the French supplier was faced with a “challenging situation” since most of the East-West Line runs on the 30-year-old signalling system while only a segment of the Tuas West Extension (TWE) – a four-station, 7.5km-stretch that extends from Joo Koon station – is using Thales’ new signalling system, which allows trains to arrive at up to 100-second intervals, instead of the current 120 seconds. He added:

“Still, Thales could have done better. They have acknowledged their mistake and have apologised.”

SMRT and LTA added that the TWE will be isolated from the rest of the EWL for the time being to “reduce the complications” of operating two different systems on the same train line. This means that there will no service between Joo Koon and Gul Circle stations for now.

Khaw said:

“I think that is a good decision. To end their (Thales’) misery, we just keep this complete separation.
“Inevitably, the confidence (of commuters) will be shattered by events like this … we have to get over it and regain public confidence.”
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On whether the Government will seek compensation from the signalling system supplier, Khaw said, “That will be contractual obligations, I will leave that to LTA.”

Meanwhile, Thales vice-president Millar Crawford has said that the group os cooperating with investigations being conducted by SMRT and LTA: “We have been organising extensively our resources from around the world to put deep emphasis, deep and meaningful understanding of that event.”

WHO IS THALES?

Thales is the signalling expert working with SMRT, and a French multinational company that designs and builds electrical systems and provides services for the aerospace, defence, transportation and security markets.

With 62,000 employees in 56 countries, Thales reported sales of €14 billion in 2015. Thales Group is ranked the 475th largest company in the world by Fortune 500 Global. It is also the 10th largest defence contractor in the world and 55% of its total sales are military sales. The CEO of Thales Group is Patrice Caine who has been in the top post since December 2014.

THALES IN SINGAPORE

Thales has been present in Singapore for over 40 years, providing state-of-the-art solutions for customers in the aerospace, defence, security and transportation (S&T) domains. Thales employs over 600 people in the country today.

Thales has been providing the Singapore Armed Forces with equipment in air defence, communications and naval sensors, and continues to be a partner in safeguarding the security and sovereignty of Singapore. It is also involved in building up local industrial capabilities in avionics production & Maintenance, Repair & Overhaul (MRO).

Thales professes that it works closely with the government of Singapore, lending its expertise to develop cutting-edge defence technologies with its research arms DSO National Laboratories and the Future Systems & Technology Directorate.

In June 2016, Thales appointed Kevin Chow as CEO of Thales Singapore. Mr Chow is the first Singaporean designated with this key role at Thales. He holds a Masters of Science degree in Aerospace Vehicle Design from Cranfield University, UK and Diplome d’Ingénieur (Masters degree in Engineering) from Ecole Nationale d’Aviation Civile in Toulouse, France. Mr Chow was also a former Vice President and General Manager from ST Aerospace.

A software update, developed and tested by Thales, was installed on the new signalling system on the North-South Line (NSL) this year, according to SMRT. The upgrade was carried out in the nation’s two oldest lines, the North-South Line and the East-West Line.

MISSTEPS LEAD TO HEIGHTENED FRUSTRATIONS

Heightened frustrations over the public train system erupted on 28 June, when the North-South Line broke down for more than two hours during the morning peak period. SMRT and LTA explained that the delays were caused by “human error,” not a signalling fault.

They added that while installing some software, a team from Thales missed a step, causing two different kinds of software coexisting that are incompatible, therefore sending out noise signals that disrupted communications between trains and the system.

While trains on both lines lost communications, a safety feature was triggered, and all trains came to a halt. This was the single biggest train disruption in 14 months.

“There were certain steps that the Thales engineers had to follow; they did not follow the exact protocol,” SMRT Trains’ chief executive Lee Ling Wee said.

Mr Kevin Chow then said, “We have learnt from the incident, and taken operational and technical steps to prevent this from happening again.” This included process improvements, such as tight coordination with SMRT and the LTA to ensure that the Thales team will only carry out certain tasks when fully authorised.

When two trains collided at Joo Koon last week, Khaw had said then:

“This is the first major incident involving the new signalling system. Thales is confident of the system. My advice to the team (was), let’s play doubly safe where safety is involved. That’s why I advised them to suspend the Tuas West extension tomorrow. Then we have a whole day to do a thorough check before we resume (operations).”

Thales’ project manager for the new signalling system, Mr Peter Tawn, said it was the first time the anomaly in the signalling system had been observed anywhere in the world.

Called the communications-based train control (CBTC) signalling system, it allows trains to run closer together, at intervals of up to 100 seconds instead of the 120 seconds during peak hours under the previous system. The train that was hit from behind had its software protection feature “inadvertently removed” when it passed a faulty signalling circuit somewhere earlier in the day.

This led to the train behind “misjudging the distance” to the one in front, causing the collision, in which 27 commuters and two SMRT staff were injured. Thales described the glitch as unprecedented.

WHY DOES THE SIGNALLING SYSTEM MATTER?

One of the key components of an MRT network is its signalling system. In essence, it allows trains to communicate with one another, about the stations they stop at, the directions and distance between consecutive trains, to prevent trains from bumping into one another or clustering back to back.

“It is expected to improve alignment between train and platform screen doors, trackside-to-train communications, and strengthen the signalling system’s main server,” according to SMRT.

 

Thales has installed signalling systems for metros in cities such as Hong Kong and Vancouver, as well.

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