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Speech by Minister for Transport, Mr Ong Ye Kung, at Groundbreaking of the Integrated Train Testing Centre

17 Mar 2021 Speeches

Ladies and gentlemen
1     I am happy to join everyone here today, at the groundbreaking ceremony of the Integrated Train Testing Centre(ITTC).
2     Today, there are 406 trains serving our MRT network, each tested rigorously before being commissioned. This dynamic testing of trains is done at depots and on the mainline during engineering hours, which means we only have very few hours in the wee hours of the night when the trains are not in service. For new trains, testing typically takes a few years, as the trains have to be tested together with the interfacing Signalling and Communication Systems. 
3     Such rigorous testing is critical to ensure that trains have been built to specifications, and will work as intended. Train testing is therefore an important and integral part of our maintenance regime, which in turn upholds a high level and high standards of safety and reliability of our MRT train system.  
4     In 2019, LTA decided to develop an ITTC, to further strengthen our rail system, in the following important ways. 
5     First, as a dedicated test centre, it will expand our capacity for testing by multiple times, because the testing centre replicates the actual conditions on the mainline and testing can be performed round the clock instead of only during the few engineering hours every day. This also means we can free up limited engineering hours on our mainline and at our depots for other maintenance and renewal works. 
6     Second, we can conduct testing earlier, when an MRT line is still being developed and when depots are not ready. Today, such tests can only be conducted overseas, before the trains are delivered to Singapore. By doing the tests here, we are better able to troubleshoot, identify and resolve any teething issues to ensure better reliability.
7     Third, and I think this is the main strategic reason, the ITTC will enable us to better build up our local rail engineering capabilities. It will enable engineers from LTA, our public transport operators and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to work closely together, on a common testing and maintenance platform, at the ITTC in Singapore. Alstom and Thales have already set up engineering offices in Singapore, and we hope that the ITTC would encourage even more OEMs to do likewise. This will further anchor capabilities in Singapore, which would translate into timelier and more cost-effective support for our rail system. 
8     The first phase of the ITTC will be ready to receive two new trains for the Circle Line 6 in early 2023. We estimate that by end 2024, it will be fully operational, serving the needs of both existing and upcoming lines and allowing more than one project to be tested concurrently. 
9     During the recent Budget Debate, in my speech, I talked about the need to ensure financial sustainability of our train system. 
10    But let’s be very clear, cutting corners on maintenance to save cost is not being productive. It is not contributing to financial sustainability. It is in fact very unproductive, as the remedial action is always disruptive, expensive and will cost us many times over in social, economic and financial costs.  
11    But no matter how hard we work and try, the occasional disruption in any engineering system will unfortunately be quite inevitable. When that happens, we will then need to work together, get to the bottom of the matter, identify the causes, rectify and learn from the experience. 
12    For example, after I became the Minister for Transport, I experienced one major disruption in October last year. We investigated the cause of the disruption thoroughly, and traced it back to a concurrent failure of the power cables and trip coils along the Tuas West Extension. All our engineers here will know that this is call the Swiss Cheese syndrome. For the non-engineers, if you put different slices of swiss cheese, you cannot look through it, although there are holes because the holes are not aligned. But sometimes, by some strange coincidences, the holes are aligned, and you can see through multiple slices of swiss cheese. That is when a major disruption happens.   
13    LTA and its vendor, Alstom, have completed the forensic investigations of the equipment. It was discovered that for the cables, there is likely to be an inherent manufacturing defect, or mishandling during installation, leading to a cut in the insulation layer, which resulted in short circuit. 
14    Since December last year, Alstom has started replacing all the 22kV power cables along Tuas West Extension with cables of higher specifications, starting with the section along Tuas Depot Intake and Tuas Link station. To expedite the replacement, we have decided on Full Sunday Closures, the first one was last weekend, till 23 May 2021, and this is done on selected stations along Tuas West Extension. During the closures, we will provide bridging bus services.  We seek commuters’ understanding and patience on this.  
15    As for the trip coils, investigations revealed that they had failed because one of the components, called a plunger, had rusted. The plunger moves to enable the circuit breaker to kick in when there is a fault. However, the rust on the plunger obstructed the plunger’s movement, and this caused the circuit breaker to malfunction. The forensic investigations assessed that the rust formed was likely caused by an inadequate protective coating, which in turn is likely specific to a particular manufacturing batch. 
16    We have already changed out all the trip coils after the October 2020 disruption, and we will replace them again, with an enhanced design made of stainless steel, by the third quarter of next year. To further ensure that humidity does not add to the probability of rusting, LTA has also adjusted the settings on the space heaters to reduce the humidity level within the circuit breakers. Pending the change out of the enhanced designed trip coils, SMRT has stepped up the frequency of the maintenance regime to every three months. 
17    I thank all our contractors, especially Alstom, for their commitment to safety and reliability, in helping us resolve the issues that led to the disruption last October. What I described is a very typical story of any major train disruption. When you dig deep enough, we will trace the cause to a few, in this case two tiny glitches happening at the same time, allowing the swiss cheese to be seen through, but this is enough to paralyse a large segment of our train lines. 
18    In this case, it was a cut in the power cable insulation, which caused it to short circuit, and then rust on a plunger, which rendered the circuit breaker ineffective. A lot of work, and costs have gone into rectifying these defects. 
19    Safety and reliability are the heart of our train system. Prior to COVID-19, every day, it clocks almost four million trips. Our train workers bear the noble and sacred responsibility, to ensure our commuters have a safe and smooth ride. Today, the Mean Kilometres Between Failure, or MKBF, of our MRT network is over 1 million train-km. This is a great encouragement and source of pride for the team, and we will do what we can to maintain it.  
20    Part of this is hard work, but another big part is that more spending went into maintenance. Maintenance expenditure per place km has doubled over the last ten years and has reached a healthy and reasonable level. There is no need to gold plate maintenance. Gold plate means you do a lot of things, spend a lot of money but don’t deliver the outcomes; it is just for show. And that is not wise. Instead, we need to understand how small, simultaneous glitches tend to be causes of big disruptions. This means every part of the system, every worker, every team, no matter how small, is important. That also means everyone plays a part to keep up the standards. 
21    So let’s spend where we need to spend, and where it matters, to ensure safety and reliability. Train our workers well, equip them with the skills to spot and rectify problems, to feel safe to whistle blow when necessary, to proactively improve how maintenance work is done such as through kaizen spirit.  
22    It is also important to maintain the profile of today’s maintenance regime, where about 70% of maintenance work by work hours is preventive, that means testing, surveillance, and replacing parts and components before they wear out. Because by the time we have to perform corrective maintenance, it is too late and often more expensive as things have already gone wrong.
23    Most importantly, maintain the culture of professionalism, pride, teamwork and collective responsibility.  Engineering excellence must always be regarded as the core capabilities of our organisations, and building it up is an endless endeavour.  
24    When something goes wrong, it is very natural to explain ourselves, and tell others that we have done what we can. And the truth is that you probably have done what you can. But engineering systems are like that. Sometime swiss cheese happens and something goes wrong.  Even so, we must know we bear collective responsibility, and it is only by working together, addressing each other’s blind spots and shortcomings that we deliver a better system. 
25    With the development of the ITTC, we have embarked on a further step towards greater heights. This in time to come will be a physical infrastructure and institution that upholds our maintenance regime. Congratulations and all the best.