From the Red Line
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From the Red Line

Here be dragons

Remember the days when all there was to worry about the R151 project was Bombardier’s build quality? Well, this was important enough news that I felt it necessary to break my weekly posting cycle for.

Since I last wrote about the matter, the world has changed massively. Of course, Bombardier Transportation has been acquired by Alstom, which may be an answer to the company’s financial woes. But if that gave them any thought at rejoicing, things elsewhere are worse. The bottom has fallen out of great power relations and that could still further deteriorate. The current human malware situation still persists.

Before I begin, of course, I have to put in the relevant legal disclaimers. I am not a lawyer, I do not specialize in international relations either, and this is all speculation as to what could happen.

The main reason why we are here today is because the LTA has just announced an additional purchase of 40 trains from Bombardier-Changchun. This means that they are now responsible not only for 92 3-car DTL trains, but also 106 mainline 6-car trains, resulting in a total of 912 cars delivered to Singapore.

Enough has been said about the Chinese that I need not repeat, but as if Bombardier couldn’t top themselves in terms of epic fails, earlier in June there was a case of an R179 train completely splitting apart in New York. That they blamed on a supplier and faulty manufacturing processes, but it underlines all that was concerning with the company and their build quality internationally.

Fortunately for us, I have said previously that we have not yet encountered any serious issues with new Bombardier products ourselves, and the LTA appears to be a pretty rigid procurer especially once you look at all the complaints over the nexgen ERP in-vehicle units. This may actually work in our favour if LTA’s R151 Project Team is sufficiently on the ball to catch any fast ones Bombardier-Changchun may pull and enforce the contract clauses accordingly, including making good and/or financial penalties.

We’ll see just how many lessons the LTA learnt from the Kawasaki-Sifang mess, but I think it probably says something when Hyundai Rotem got the J151 contract and finally cracked the Singapore market. For the Cross Island Line, I wouldn’t be surprised if we brought in another new maker (the Japanese? Stadler? CAF?) in to challenge the Alstom-Bombardier/Kawasaki duopoly existing in our rail network at this point.

A while back, I took a look into Bombardier’s financial results and found something interesting:

“During the first quarter of 2020, order volume was mainly driven by contracts for metro trains in China, India and Singapore.

Who else would buy trains in Singapore apart from the LTA? And why? The first possibility is that maybe I was wrong at first and they need more trains for the DTL, thus a direct top up order from Bombardier so as not to create a unicorn situation.

The second possibility, which is now true, had been a lot more tricky. SGTrains had already indicated that several of the Siemens C651 have been permanently taken out of service. We know the train refurbishment project has been halted, and the one or two trainsets that have been refurbished by SRE aren’t put into service. In any case, the rest of the trains should also be coming up to the end of their 30-year design life — which just so happens to fall within the expected delivery window of the Bombardier R151 trains.

And with the cancellation of Contract 1502 calling for consultancy services to determine the condition of the C751B trains, this is the reason why they’re also off to the scrappers too, especially since we may not be in a position to retire the first two generations of trains while taking the third generation trains out for refurbishment. A theoretical refurbishment program, even if it started last year, could drag all the way to 2024 or 2025 with limited workshop space, or even if we have to send them back to Japan. By that time, they could well be coming up on their 30 year design life too, which fits the delivery timeline for replacing them as well..

Furthermore, the hack sticker job they did on all the older trains to add Canberra station may indicate that it wasn’t worth modernizing the passenger information systems, which makes sense if the trains themselves were on the way out. It would also make sense when a second round of the stickers adds TEL3 in 2022, you just don’t need to buy so many stickers.

You may not like it, but with billion dollar infrastructure projects, that is the way it is. Of course, any student with a passing grasp on General Paper or Social Studies would understand the concept of bias. For me to thus claim that I will not unconsciously allow my anti-Bombardier and perhaps Sinophobic biases to show would be quite disingenious indeed.

I was looking for some other information and found the CCCS’ decision on the now-aborted Alstom-Siemens merger. Ms. Vestager and her opinions aside, the Alstom-Siemens merger would not have a lot of effect on our local rail industry, given that Siemens last won a train contract in the 1990s, and only provide signalling for two lines — the DTL and JRL.

In contrast, Bombardier being acquired by Alstom creates a massive juggernaut for the LTA to deal with, as identified by the CCCS in its Grounds of Decision on this particular deal (the EU has no problem with the Alstom-Bombardier deal, for the record). The resultant company would have an interest in every single MRT line in Singapore except the JRL — with near-total domination of key systems on the Circle, North East, and Bukit Panjang LRT lines. But this can be easily rectified, if necessary, by simply not giving Bombardier-Alstom contracts if there’s not compelling cost or technical reason to, just like how Rotem got into the Singapore rolling stock market with Contract J151 and Siemens supplying signalling under J152.

Political dangers of operating in certain countries aside, I think this thus presents a moral obligation for the consolidated Bombardier-Alstom company to not only develop maintenance, repair and overhaul capabilities within Singapore, there should also be a certain level of manufacturing taking place here. Especially since the current situation has also resulted in layoffs taking place within the heavy manufacturing sector (looking at you, aviation!), doing a certain level of manufacturing locally would also provide much needed jobs to a workforce that could well need it, even if it’s a short term project until 2026.

Though given the new prices offered for the 40 additional trains ($337.8 million for 40 trains, $8.5 million each) vs the initial order ($827 million for 66 trains, $12.5 million each), the economies of scale in fleet management achieved by keeping the status quo and not having to spin up a new manufacturing plant, would simply be too good to pass up if you ask me. And if there are further external complications making the contract hard to execute, we can cross that bridge when we get there.

For now, they should just be careful with retirements, even if we have a surplus right now. Don’t draw down the reserves too much.

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A blog on transport issues in the Garden City of Singapore. You can say that I love controversy. Posts can get technical! Abuse of comments may be blocked. Subscribe to Telegram for updates: https://t.me/ftrlsg

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Sometimes I am who I am, but sometimes I am not who I am not.