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Speech by Minister Khaw Boon Wan on Sustaining Rail Reliability

30 Aug 2019 Speeches

1.     Friends and colleagues, we are here to celebrate, as you hear, your achievements in raising rail reliability. But more importantly, to thank you and all your colleagues for your hard work.

2.     Together with MOT, LTA, SMRT and also our OEM suppliers, we have put our heart and soul into this project for the last 4 years. Our hard work is showing results.

3.     Our entire MRT network has recorded MKBF of over 1 million train-km! Congratulations!

4.     Since we are at Sengkang Depot, I will talk about SBST only even though I know SMRT Chairman and the SMRT team is here. We will find another occasion to go to Mandai Depot. For SBST, North East Line has exceeded 1 million consistently since last October. That is almost a year. DTL2 has hovered around the 1 million mark since July 2018. That is more than a year. I am very proud of your achievements!

5.     I track another metric, which is the number of days without major delay of more than 30 minutes. Four years ago, even crossing 100 days was such a big challenge. That’s why, I remember, I forgot which line was it that crossed 100 days, and I put up a post in my Facebook and I was booed by social media. What is the big deal about 100 days? For us, in this industry, at that time, it was a big deal. We were struggling. 80 days, some delays were more than 30 minutes. 50 days, another delay. It took a lot of hard work for us to cross 100 days. That’s why I needed to go down to the depot to thank our colleagues, and to boost their morale, keep up the hard work, and slowly we were able to cross 150 days, and then 200 days. That was not too long ago. As our efforts deliver results on the ground, we are now able to show improvements in this metric.

6.     For SBST, North East Line and Downtown Line crossed the 300-day milestone recently. Your Sengkang-Punggol LRT crossed the 200-day milestone, and all your three lines are now, I think, confidently heading towards the next milestone of 400 days. Achievable! 400 days means more than a year. It means that we all can sleep better. Because when you are having delays of more than 30 minutes, we know that some of us have to wake up, I don’t know what time in the day, or disrupted by office work to attend to some of these problems. So now we are heading towards 400 days – and SMRT too. Of course, once you cross 400 days, we will shoot for 500 days. It is totally achievable.

7.     When we began this journey, I asked Mr Tan Gee Paw, whom I appointed as my adviser, to chair a small international panel of good metro operators to help us and they were generous with their advice and they were very frank with their observations. I remember Taipei Metro sent a small team of engineers. I think it was to look at SMRT’s North-South Line, and they spent a few days, almost a week, spent all their time talking to the engineers, look at our data and put up a report, which I read personally. And I was struck by the report, the insights from these experienced hands and eyes, sharp eyes, and very practical recommendations. That time, Mr Seah who was already chairing SMRT, took the report seriously, went through, I know the board studied it and put them into implementation. We benefitted from their insights, and as I said, they were good practical engineers and experienced operators and we implemented all their suggestions.

8.     As our MKBF improved, we extended our focus from the immediate fixes to longer term sustainability. How to institutionalise systems and procedures to deliver a reliable, safe and affordable train service consistently? We dived into maintenance details, such as: can we achieve the same level of reliability at lower cost? Can we reduce the cost of replacement parts through smarter procurement and greater standardisation? Can we repair the parts ourselves, for example, the electronic cards instead of relying on the OEM suppliers, through upping our local maintenance skills? How do we deepen our engineering capabilities for faster recovery so that when something happens, you can recover a service as quickly as you can through more effective corrective maintenance? How can we move into predictive maintenance much more decisively, through more aggressive adoption of technology, such as data analytics?

9.     Later this year, LTA is hosting the 26th Intelligent Transport Systems World Congress, or ITS, in Singapore. This is the first time we are doing so. It is a prestigious international conference. The last time it was held in Asia was in Tokyo in 2013. That’s 6 years ago. The serious thought leaders in ITS will be in Singapore to brainstorm and share common practices. We are honoured to play host and we will be exhibiting some of our research efforts in predictive maintenance. These are practical applied research efforts, which we intend to implement on Downtown Line next year. The plan is to extend them in stages to the other MRT lines in due course.

10.    We also dived into operational aspects of running the lines: how to raise cost efficiency, delivering more with less? Where are the wastages which can be eliminated? Where are the productivity improvement opportunities which we can adopt? The discussions were productive and inspiring. SMRT has since adopted the Kaizen initiative to bring about continuous process improvements. And SBST too has its own strategy. Together, both operators have already saved more than $25 million through such cost efficiency efforts.

11.    We also had good discussions on how to further improve customer service. How do we engage our commuters and enhance our services to provide more comfortable journeys to all, including those with special needs – handicapped, on wheelchair and so on. How to better manage train headways to more closely match supply with demand? As you know, demand for train services is not uniform throughout the day. There are peak hours and there are non-peak hours. From the foreign experts, we are learning best practices on how to adapt train frequencies to better match commuter demand. For example, during off-peak periods, Hong Kong MTR run most of their trains at intervals of up to 8 minutes, and some even up to 14 minutes during off-peak hours. Taipei metro does the same, with a headway during off-peak periods of up to 10 minutes. By adjusting train frequencies based on commuter demand, they optimise the use of resources, and also reduces unnecessary wear and tear on the system that drive up downstream maintenance costs.

12.    We are not new to such practices. For example, the Changi Airport Line runs at off-peak headways of up to 12 minutes. Tuas West Extension has a longer off-peak headway than the rest of the East-West Line. For off-peak periods, we think there is scope to manage headways more actively, lengthening headway when the loading is very low and shortening headway when the loading begins to build up.

13.    SBST has extensive experience managing bus headways during off-peak periods. I will encourage SBST to experiment, try it out with adaptive headway management in its train lines, and then refine these practices in the light of experience. I believe better matching of supply with demand should lead to better customer service. I am sure SMRT will want to do the same, and we can both share experience and best practices as we go along. The objective is to improve customer service. 

14.    In fact, it’s not just MRT lines. I’ve been looking at BPLRT and we know we are going to completely upgrade and renew BPLRT. The trouble is, it will take us a few years. And in the meantime, what it means is the trains are running at almost the end of its productive life. Therefore, the risk of failure is higher. At the same time, we are, of course, intensifying maintenance but there’s a limit. When you are pushing assets to the end of its productive life, the risk of failure is high. So I’ve been encouraging SMRT to think about, in a way, a similar concept: that off-peak period when the loading is very low for BPLRT, you can serve the same demand quite adequately with bus. And knowing that you have an asset which is nearing its end of the productive life, for those off-peak hours, it may be better for the commuters living in the BPLRT route to use the bus instead of the LRT. In other words, we suspend LRT service during certain off-peak hours and replace them with bus, with no loss of service to the commuters and at the same time, helping us during this transitional period while waiting for the renewal of the BPLRT, lowers the risk of failure. This is something that I know SMRT is studying and it’s something that I really would encourage.

15.    We also learned from the foreign metro operators how to optimise or maximise non-fare revenue without being distracted from our core mission. We have concluded that there is scope for greater exploitation, for example, of the advertisement spaces. We will try it out for the upcoming Thomson-East Coast Line, through the recent non-fare tenders. This is the first time LTA is outsourcing the rail non-fare business. We are encouraged by the strong market interest and also the quality of the bids. We expect this move to benefit commuters by improving the vibrancy of the Thomson-East Coast Line stations. The award of the advertising operator tender will also inject new ideas and competition into the market. In fact, the two appointed non-fare operators are expected to bring in significantly more non-fare revenue per rider as compared to what we can get today. Given this promising outcome, LTA is exploring how we can expand the outsourcing framework to other MRT lines and also bus lines, bus stations and whatever transport assets that we have.

16.    My friends, overall, it has been a productive and eventful 4 years. We have had our fair share of ups and downs, but we never lost heart. And I want to thank you for your dedication and commitment to the welfare and interest of our commuters. But please remember, operation and maintenance is a marathon. So today’s achievement does not guarantee future success. Especially for the older lines like North-South-East-West Lines where you know we are replacing the assets and we are only halfway through the renewal process. Meaning, other older assets may cause us problems. So our eyes have to be on the ball, and we have to press on. But I think the achievement the last 12 months showed us that, I think we have what it takes to recover and achieve what we have achieved and place our lines now among the best in the world. But the important thing is, keep at it and keep up the good work. Thank you very much!