From the Red Line
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From the Red Line

As the dominoes fall

MTR’s project woes may be a cautionary tale for us.

I remember, in the early days of this blog, having sharp words to say about the decision to equip the C151B trains with only Thales Seltrac equipment. I’m not taking any of that back, especially after looking at what’s happening to the MTR.

In short, while this issue may be what the NRFF was intended to solve, it could very well still happen as a result of sheer bad luck. Though I guess what we may have in our corner is that each line is an independent facility, and thus the need to cascade things around is obviously nonexistent here. For the most part.

Too urgent

What the MTR might have on its side is a sense of urgency. It does move a lot quicker than our LTA which applies a strict separation of builder and operator (even the KCRC-MTR operating agreement can be signed the week before opening), but that means things like cancelling a big signal migration literally on the day before can and have happened. After all, the sooner a new railway opens, the earlier it can be put to work making money for the for-profit MTRC.

The Shatin to Central Link was supposed to open in two parts; the first in 2018 and the second in 2020. Construction delays and stop work orders for a laundry list of reasons means it was broken into three parts near the end — “Phase 1” to Kai Tak in 2020, the through service between Hung Hom and Kai Tak in 2021, and the last bit across Victoria Harbor looks more like the later half of 2022 — maybe even later considering the state of some of the construction sites on HK Island.

Even with whatever is open now, there are still barely enough trains, which has created day-one overcrowding. Yes, this is a situation familiar to us in 2012, but we deliberately did not buy enough trains for the CCL. Very much unlike MTR, who do have enough trains, but are just unable to free them up for necessary upgrading works to operate on the new line because of the aforementioned cancelled signal migration. Consequently, it was necessary for them to introduce a limited timetable that can be run with the limited fleet. Results are mixed, to say the least.

Worse still, it’s not over. There’s now a race against time on the East Rail Line to complete the changeout of trains from 12-car to 9-car, since the SCL platforms to be served by the East Rail Line can only take the 9-car trains. Fortunately, it appears that enough of these train cars have been completed and are sitting at Hyundai Rotem’s Busan factory. What remains is just to bring them over and prove them fit for service. But it’s still a mad rush, especially with the current state of the shipping industry.

And that’s not all of it. On the urban lines, some of the oldest Metro-Cammell trains are over 40 years old and are in need of replacement. Well, maybe they can last longer, since unlike Singapore they mainly operate underground and don’t have so much exposure to the elements. But over 40 years is geriatric for a train in any place, so there’s a sense of urgency to replace them to keep reliability up. When are those trains coming? 2023 at the earliest, since that’s when the signal upgrade on the MTR Kwun Tong Line is complete. That might be too late, so MTR has had to backtrack and equip some of the new Q-trains with the old hardware needed to run on the network as it is now.

Dodged a bullet?

At least we didn’t have to do that. The proposed life extension of the first-and second-generation MRT trains made it more than worthwhile to put the new stuff in the old trains when the project was starting up — even so, they’d have some more useful life before any potential replacement that would likely have been in the mid-2020s. With no pressing need to retire old trains at the time, that meant they could be kept around to operate the highly intensive service needed. Any more new C151B trains, apart from those needed to operate the Tuas Extension, is icing on the cake.

With most other core systems sorted in the panic of 2012–15 and thus out of the way, we can then now take our time to slowly replace the trains, with R151 deliveries projected all the way to 2026 as well as a clear excess of trains — so much, in fact, that the scrapyard has been kept busy for now. Without the Pasir Ris turnback and perhaps power upgrading works, there’s little hope of seeing any increased service levels on the EWL so any faster deliveries would not be so useful.

What about the North East Line? Despite the official statements, I have a hard time believing that all the C851E trains won’t enter service until 2024, especially since one of them is already here and would otherwise be taking up precious depot space. Allowing the C851E to enter service earlier, long before the opening of the extension to Punggol Coast, would have the positive benefit of speeding up the refurbishment of the old C751A trains.

That’s the good part. The bad part might be the Circle Line, but with 5 years to go until the loop is closed, there may yet be time. Currently, the Circle Line may get by due to lower demand on the Stage 5 sector for now. This leaves the door open to bring back the one-north short trip, or perhaps to extend it to Pasir Panjang, in order to increase frequency on the core section between Paya Lebar and Kent Ridge. But by 2026, with the missing link completed and through service possible from Stage 5 to the CBD, I’d expect demand to significantly go up. Getting all 23 additional trains operational before the CCL6 opens, would allow an increased timetable to be operated from day one — avoiding the mistakes MTR is making with the Shatin to Central Link.

But how are we going to do that? This might be the more immediate use for the ITTC. It was stated that CCL6 trains will be delivered to the ITTC in 2023 to zip up and down the track there, while space is made for them at Kim Chuan Depot through the upcoming expansion. (depot fits 70 according to LTG, so where do the last 17 go?) The idea appears sound; with only new trains to be proven, the necessary test and commissioning work for the new trains can be done at the ITTC. When the space is available, what might happen is that only selected checks have to be done after final delivery to Kim Chuan, before the paperwork can be signed off to officially clear the train for service. After all, some work will inevitably have to be done on the line, because the ITTC is no full substitute.

The shift ahead

This might be the mindset change we all need to take. As the need for big-bang new MRT projects decreases, the focus shifts to keeping assets in good condition, and that may involve large scale replacement projects like in the past few years. A lesson we could still use is how to move faster, since bogging down the process with paperwork represents impact to the operation. I will admit this can be trickier than it looks, with the amount of safety assurance needed for a railway project. No compromises can be made there. But that might be why we have the ITTC and the respective CBTC Simulation Facilities, to do as much of the work as possible offsite.

Unlike new lines where there is no loss from pushing back the opening date apart from disappointed residents, pushing back migration activities may cause problems with other things down the line. MTR has had plenty of opportunities to learn this, and perhaps we might have done so too. But fortunately, the extra NSEWL capacity at that point might only have been something “nice to have” at the time. Our trains weren’t exactly falling apart — and even if they did, life extension projects were in the pipeline. Though it makes one wonder whether it would have also been necessary for the signal upgrading project to be completed before the refurbished Siemens C651 would have a chance to enter service.

But where this might matter, though, might be the BPLRT upgrading. Usually, returning trains from overseas servicing is not a big deal — though to be fair, it only happened once before, and that was a major embarrassment for all parties involved. This time, though, they saw fit to throw a relatively large party including the local MPs. Why? These trains are actually pretty important — they’re required for the system proving of the upgraded signal system.

And like on MTR East Rail, only after the upgraded signal system enters service, can the 19 new vehicles be delivered and begin their proving period before entering service. And again, like MTR East Rail, due to space shortages in the depot, it means a carefully choreographed dance to lift off old vehicles from the guideway and lift up the new ones. But since we’re talking 19 single cars and not 43 9-car trains, things may be much easier in that it’s possible to get a local storage yard to temporarily store the LRVs while waiting for their turn to get lifted up by crane.

There are ways to speed up this process, but it may mean inflicting more of the pain at one go, such as full Sunday closures and perhaps much longer waits between trains due to lesser available vehicles — by introducing several of the new vehicles at one go, many of the old ones may need to be removed, impacting service. But that needs to be weighted against the reliability levels of the existing fleet. If they’re on their last legs, then a series of closures to deliver shock therapy may be useful.

Most importantly, you can get all the insurance policies in the world and things can still go wrong. Recovering the schedule from such issues, both now and for future projects, may require the flexibility at management level to quickly change tack and pursue new ways of doing things as the opportunities arise. As the nature of the projects undertaken at the LTA changes, such mindset shifts may also need to happen. In fact, this might even be useful now, to work around the very real risk of poor construction progress at just one or two stations delaying entire line openings.

The way out of the Alpine bankruptcy was simply to work harder, but perhaps, we might need to work smarter now.



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