From the Red Line
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From the Red Line

Bad news on a Friday

An interesting observation to make is that Janil Puthucheary makes all the good announcements, Minister Khaw the bad ones.

On Friday, the minister has seen fit to drop a few bombshells on us:

On the surface, it does seem Bad with a capital B. Looking into it deeper, I still can’t find much reason to be optimistic. But maybe I’ll see if I can dredge something up.

I’ll let the usual suspects devour Minister Khaw here, but it’s clear that someone has remembered the first principle of public relations — break bad news on Friday afternoons. Of course, these are just ideas, but if they do become concrete enough then we have something to worry about.

After all, everyone thought that having the Changi Branch become part of the TEL was near impossible (and probably still is…)

If you don’t use it, it won’t break

Or so that’s the logic behind all these service reductions. The less trains you run, the less maintenance you need to do (recall that train maintenance schedules depend on the odometer of the train itself), the less staff you need to pay, the less operating costs you have.

That sort of calculus seems simple, just excuse making. The Americans might even get PTSD since this is what goes on all the time there. But it’s not like you save any long term capital costs, since you still need to buy a massive amount of trains to deal with peak hour demand.

This applies more on the Bukit Panjang LRT which literally falling apart. They want to close it so that there’s lesser workload on the LRT system itself, in order to hold the thing together while Bombardier do their upgrading. Perhaps spit and prayers may be a better solution?

They then very quickly backpedaled on that, but is “reducing the amount of trains” really a less bad option? On the Bukit Panjang loop one train shows up every 6 minutes right now, and given that the DTL is now a thing, you’d expect a fair bit of trips to be within the loop, to get to/from the DTL station.

Heck, if they’re going to do that… Personally, I’ve long held the opinion that the BPLRT can already be replaced with buses. Its role as a feeder to get people to the MRT network isn’t so important anymore, with the opening of the DTL and the highway bus routes. Some extensions of the JRL, forming a separate branch from Choa Chu Kang or Tengah, could also cover the BPLRT’s former role.

Rather than holding the thing together with duct tape, perhaps a better idea might just be to get rid of it.

Written in blood

As they say, standard operating protocols are “written in blood”. For SMRT that’s more pertinent seeing as they had two trainees being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and getting themselves run over by a train.

Consequently, I’m inclined to believe that current work rules for engineering staff on track require that staff not be able to find themselves on an active train track (deliberately or not), which easily happens on the surface lines since there isn’t much of a barrier between both train tracks. This may be why we haven’t seen single track shuttle operations (aka “Longer Travel Time) on sections of overground line that are closed, but we have during the NSL service changes from Newton to Raffles Place where a single track shuttle was operated between Orchard and City Hall stations.

On the other hand, if such thinking behind increased off-peak headways leads to a revision of work processes to allow for quick maintenance work to be slotted in between trains during the day, be it either men on track or operating specialized engineering vehicles (as is common practice elsewhere), perhaps we may be able to reduce the amount of extra full maintenance closures at night (aka Early Closure Late Opening).

We can go even further and say that by changing these work processes for increased productivity, it may even be possible to offer service throughout the night, especially on weekends, or extend operating hours such that the MRT can close later at night. After all, relevant stakeholders are forever complaining that there’s not much of nightlife in Singapore, and perhaps this might help their case too. A side effect is that it may become possible to provide more service with the same amount of money (leading to increased fare revenue).

Auto means auto

The minister also mentioned a lot of doublespeak of matching supply to demand. One thing that I would think is low hanging fruit, is the unnecessary need to provide a staff presence on a fully automated train system, which means every MRT line except the NSEWL. Some people think that providing a staff presence deep underground is quite necessary in the event of emergency and for security reasons — in fact, this is a big reason why London has so much opposition to automating the Tube. I have to admit, I disagree.

After all, I daresay Singapore leads the world in investing in the unmanned railway (see here, page 8), even back in the 1990s when planners decided to fully automate the North East Line. Perhaps it’s time we brought the organization to the same standard too. In fact, you don’t see staff onboard most trains on the Circle Line during off peak hours already.

Removing the requirement to staff a train in most scenarios removes the need to match a member of staff to an operating train. A comparison would be the full automation of Paris Metro Lines 1, 14 (and 4), where an aim was explicitly to remove the need to rely on manpower when that manpower in unavailable. After all, the French are pretty strike-happy.

But why do this? The first reason, is that doing this would allow the control centre to literally dispatch trains to enhance service at the click of a button, which probably doesn’t make the headline service interval any much worse in practice, since they can literally pull more trains out of a hat.

The second is simply that those staff cost money and we’re talking about keeping personnel costs down here (and not making the manpower situation in Singapore worse). A rough back of the envelope calculation tells me that SBS Transit probably has about seven hundred of these onboard staff (each train manned in three shifts, with some overlap for sick leave and such). Paying each a monthly salary of $1500 (for example) would result in a cost of a million dollars a month. Not a lot, but everything counts.

Mistakes of the past

I get that Taipei Metro is good enough at its job to be a member of CoMET and have the Singaporean political leadership singing its phrases, but I think the realities of us versus Taipei are very different. Small town thinking may not work.

Remember how I mentioned that the Circle Line could be the worst MRT line in Singapore? Well, that’s come back to bite us again, in terms of the Circle and Downtown lines. Taipei Metro does run trains on some lines at 6 minutes (or more) off peak. But their trains are mostly made of 6 cars, unlike our Circle and Downtown lines which have 3-car trains. Half the capacity at 150% the frequency is still lesser carrying capacity — 25% lesser, in fact.

And that’s before you count that Greater Taipei, while having a higher population (7 million compared to 5.6 million here), is three times the size of Singapore — and thus just above one-third the density, which means that our rail network is already more heavily used than Taipei. The rail network in Taipei (including Taipei Metro, TRA suburban services, and the Taoyuan Airport line), is also more extensive than Singapore. With lesser capacity and higher demand, if we do as they do, this could very well end up with very explosive results.

Well, rant all said and done. I invite the brain trusts at MOT to try getting a train out of Tuas on a weekend. As they say, we’re not in Kansas anymore.



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