Analysing train breakdowns, line by line

Analysing train breakdowns, line by line

Frequent breakdowns in Singapore's rail system raise the question: what gives? While poor maintenance has been singled out as one issue, it doesn't explain why newer lines are also breaking down. Could there be innate flaws in newer lines' infrastructure systems that require further investigation? And should the beleaguered LRT system simply be scrapped?

When the relatively new car you drive keeps breaking down, you can look to only two possible reasons. One, you have not been maintaining it well; two, it was not made well.

You do not have to be an engineer to understand that but, just for the record, a senior engineer dispensed that truism when I asked him recently why our rail system keeps breaking down.

Ever since the two massive breakdowns in 2011 on the North-South Line that led to a costly and time-consuming public inquiry, the spotlight has shone blindingly on the operator - on how it has fallen short on maintenance.

The $10 million inquiry found operator SMRT to be mostly at fault for the pre-Christmas breakdowns that affected more than 200,000 commuters, although it also said the Land Transport Authority was somewhat lacking in its regulatory role.

The 2011 breakdowns resulted in an overhaul of the older North-South and East-West lines, which will take up to 2019 to be completed.

Maintenance has been ramped up and replacements are being planned. In time, the two older lines should be much more reliable than they are today. But in the meantime, commuters may have to bear with the frequency of major breakdowns (those lasting more than 30 minutes each) that has not changed much since 2011.

Last year, the two older lines had six major breakdowns (or an average of one every two months), down from seven in 2011.

The MRT network on the whole has 12 such breakdowns - up from 11 in 2011.

As you can see from those numbers, MRT breakdowns in Singapore are not confined to the older lines. Even the freshly minted Downtown Line Stage 1, which started running in December 2013, broke down more frequently than other lines for every 100,000km clocked by its trains.

The North-East Line, which turns 12 in June, had three major breakdowns last year - up from one in 2011 - even though it showed an improvement in tackling shorter incidents.

What is happening to the train system, and what is being done?

First, it may be necessary to break down the problems by line.

NORTH-SOUTH, EAST-WEST MRT LINES - 28 years old

PROBLEMS range from trains to tracks to power supply. Since 2011, several steps have been taken to make these two oldest lines more reliable. These include replacing major components on both trains and infrastructure.

In short, almost everything that can be fixed in the North-South and East-West lines is being fixed. Older trains are being revamped, with new electronic, pneumatic and propulsion systems installed.

Flat spots on wheels have been eradicated, and the trains are moving more smoothly and more quietly now as a result. Backup batteries are checked and charged more regularly now.

The power-supplying third rail - which was the main cause of the 2011 failures - is being replaced. Meanwhile, precision monitoring machines ply the tracks each night to make sure the third rail is perfectly aligned. Another system that measures track vibration was put in place. Yet another that monitors the alignment of the trains' current collector shoes - which make contact with the third rail - has been put in place.

Rail sleepers are being replaced. The signalling system is being replaced. The air-conditioning system of some trains and stations is also being replaced.

At one point, replacing the running rail - the metal tracks that trains run on - was also being considered. Essentially, almost everything besides tunnels and viaducts has been or is being refurbished or replaced.

Granted, all the works will take a few more years to be completed, but with so much effort already expended since 2012, shouldn't the system be more reliable by now?

Actually, the number of glitches pertaining to trains has fallen. The number of train withdrawals - trains withdrawn from service midway because of flaws - has come down from 2.6 per 100,000km operated in 2011 to 0.9 last year. Other minor flaws have also eased. The number of delays lasting over five minutes has also come down, from 1.75 per 100,000km to 1.17 last year.

But the number of major breakdowns - those lasting more than 30 minutes and which cause the most inconvenience - rose last year to 12, the highest in at least four years.

Also, the faults that caused a spate of breakdowns in the first months of this year seem to be train-related. So, what gives?

According to SMRT, the train upgrading programme had just started, and will take up till 2018 to be completed.

To lend some historical perspective, the two lines won international accolades in the early years for being reliable. So, it would appear that the host of problems they have been facing are less to do with build quality than maintenance.

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