From the Red Line
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From the Red Line

To turn a ship around

The LTA has some hard choices to make about the BPLRT.

No, that doesn’t mean tearing it down, unfortunately for some people. But recent news that the renewal project is extended all the way to 2026 should provide some pause for rethinking of the project scope and policies.

We have come a very long way from the hopium-filled Straits Times article back in May that posited the chance of the first two new LRVs being ready in December and more new LRVs being delivered in the meantime. Yet, at the same time, the LTA then refused comment regarding how the refit of the 13 C801A vehicles was going.

That, I say, might be the bigger problem. The situation we find ourselves in may be the worst of all possible outcomes, and any way out from here really also depends on how willing the LTA and the MOT are to swallow bitter pills.

A long way away

2026 is a really, really, long way away. Thankfully, the project milestones as initially planned means that we do not need to wait until 2026 to enjoy some of the benefits of the project.

Under the original project plans, all vehicles were to be sufficiently upgraded to function under the CBTC system by end 2022. That’s now. And then only in 2024 would the power rails that supply power to the vehicles be fully replaced. This means that it is very likely the power rail replacement can only start once the migration to the CBTC system is complete, a fact that is also alluded to in the LTA’s own document.

It makes sense, especially if parts of the power rail were used for the current fixed block ATC, such as track circuits. And if that means before we can do anything about the power rail, we have to finish the transition to CBTC so that nothing train control-related is using the power rail.

source LTA

What actually happened? The first two new LRVs, initially scheduled for the third quarter of 2020, now only arrived in the second quarter of 2022 — a loss of 1.75 years, nearly 2 years at the most uncharitable definition. Assuming that the entire project is being kicked down the road at a similar pace, it means that the milestone of all vehicles operating in CBTC is in 2024, and completion of the power rail replacement is delayed to 2026.

That makes the new announcement a fair milestone, but we have to ask ourselves how we got here in the first place.

Gremlins and goblins

To be fair, we’re not the only ones facing this problem. Denver International Airport, who are likely to get the same 300R vehicles as us to also replace their current ones, will only begin receiving their vehicles between February to October 2023, similarly two years behind schedule, and also delayed similarly from a May 2022 date.

There is much in common between us and Denver. Contracts were awarded around the same time — we had an edge of four months or so — but that should mean that the vehicle developed for Bukit Panjang should also have been used for Denver. Solving this is only half the problem.

In order to make the most out of the C801A trainsets only delivered in 2015, it was decided that these should also be upgraded with the CBTC signalling system. On paper it seems like a simple job considering that there are already other similar systems — previously I mentioned San Francisco and Guangzhou, now throw in Las Vegas as well.

But what happened? The two vehicles — Cars 128 and 131 — that were selected to be the first to undergo upgrading are probably going to be out of service for at least three years and counting — removed from service in 2019, they returned to Singapore in 2021, and chances are might not see service until 2023 at the earliest. For these two vehicles that came in 2015, these could mean that they’ve spent half their service lives on the bench for what should be a relatively simple refit job.

That said, I can’t help but think that could the LTA’s requirements be much higher than any of the current APM100 + Cityflo650 deployments? Based on images, the Las Vegas units have just a single antenna or perhaps two in the corner, whilst the refitted BPLRT ones have four — one in the corner and three dotted elsewhere along the roof. Software customizations might also have been made to process data coming from four antennae instead of just one.

But these concerns can potentially be dealt with. Programs can be fixed. The LTA may be able to persuade itself by how other systems have survived with similar CityFlo650 configurations as that run by Alstom-Bombardier peoplemover deployments. Reducing scope and its accompanying complexity may help make the work easier and potentially sooner as well. There may be some rework needed, but for a one-time cost it may be easier to stomach it anyway.

As detailed previously, with all other project financials and long-term maintenance feasibility studies, it might even be a better idea to see if some parts of the project, like refitting the existing C801A vehicles, can be done away with. Purchasing new vehicles to replace those may even be better in the long run for operations and maintenance — it was a big part of why the LTA chose to expand the R151 order instead of upgrading older trains; likewise a full replacement here might both get some useful life out of older vehicles due to the extended timeline, while eventually allowing only one generation of vehicles to be maintained in the long run.

Scraping the barrel

A bigger issue, though, might be vehicle availability, but this underlines the point in why we need the work done faster. The ageing of the first-generation vehicles is, to me, the most likely reason for the off-peak suspension of Service A. If you don’t use them, they won’t break. But having to keep them in service past 2022 means that there’s an increasing chance they’ll break; and if it’s difficult to get spare parts due to age or external situations, we have to get them off other vehicles. The decision to refit theC801A vehicles also means that they’ll be out of service for months at a time while new ATC equipment is installed; with a chance of this taking longer than it does to accept 19 new vehicles.

Doing that means less vehicles are available for service, and that gap needs to be filled. While supply chain issues may excuse vehicles yet to be delivered to Singapore, it doesn’t say anything about the 4 vehicles currently onshore — unless further interventions are still needed to address certain gremlins, and the parts needed for those are being held up by supply chain snarls. It also doesn’t explain how Alstom has managed to continue delivering R151 trainsets, also made in China, but not the new LRT vehicles.

Still, if the test program doesn’t need to stop to address deal breaking issues, it should not stop. If all that is found is just largely fit and finish and somehow Alstom has managed to deliver a vehicle largely “ready to go”, then by all means the test program should proceed nevertheless to prove the vehicles, both out of service and subsequently in service.

Here, Sunday Closures may prove useful to provide additional time for vehicle testing in “overnight hours”, or for the complex hoisting operations needed to get vehicles on and off the guideway. Yet it is very reasonable why the LTA might want to be careful. Our vehicles operate in a far less forgiving environment than the fully underground Denver Airport system. And then there’s one more reason.

A large concern with late-2010s Bombardier, and one that a younger and more inexperienced me was quick to jump on, was how management issues at the train manufacturer resulted in quite a lot of delayed projects and the need to pay compensation to buyers for missing deadlines. This was also a large factor in why Alstom managed to swoop in and buy Bombardier Transportation — they viewed themselves as saviours to turn around a broken company. And they have their work cut out for them.

I find it difficult to believe that these management issues may not have played a lingering part in why the new LRVs are so delayed. Especially considering the rapid resumption of work within the PRC so quickly in 2020, there would otherwise not be any other explanation apart from design work being dragged out by chaotic management that started long before the outbreak. In this, perhaps some compensation can and should be arranged.

Bite size

I suspect local MP Liang might be reading the blog. (if you are, Mr Liang, hi!) At the risk of blowing my own trumpet, his statement about a “stabilized pace” doesn’t seem to gel with the LTA’s current public statements about benefits only being realized after the project is considered completed. But may be potentially closer to things I’ve previously discussed.

Previously, Mr. Chua Chong Kheng of the LTA even gave us some optimism to look forward to in 2022 even if the project wasn’t supposed to be complete at that time. He said, and I quote,

When the majority of works are completed by 2022, residents and commuters will be able to experience improvements in overall reliability and smoother train rides.

What this seems to mean, and what the MP may want to see, is that we might need more granular milestones to be set and achieved compared to just “we finish this, we finish that”. And doing that may be very necessary. Why?

You can’t fight entropy. (photo by me)

Funnily enough, on my way to work the morning of that Parliament session, I saw this. One might not mind waiting 8 minutes for actual buses, but for an LRT system that prides itself on high frequencies to provide higher carrying capacity, this might be unacceptable. One might hope that there were actually trains running and this may be a bug with the new Automatic Train Supervision system that was already commissioned, but it’s hard to be optimistic.

I can only speak anecdotally, but the current situation means that the fleet as it is spread quite thin, a similar situation with what happened at the Circle Line before 2015. This is just one example, where it appears they may have cancelled a service because they don’t have enough vehicles to operate the service; thus the extended waiting times. You can’t fight entropy, and it shows.

But that depends on where the main issues with the project are. If issues are not with the trains, but with the ATC upgrade, it might make sense to still take Sunday Closures to provide all the necessary time needed for ATC upgrade work; providing for rigorous testing of the new systems being brought in. They’ve done it before in 2020, they can do it again. But this probably really makes more sense with vehicles largely at the ready already.

Just be done with it

In a similar vein, 10 parallel bus services won’t pay for themselves, and if Sunday Closures allow the most to be made out of those bus services while allowing the project to make up for lost time, then we might just have to accept that. At least unlike previously, this is a final solution, with a clear milestone for when it starts (now-ish?) and when it ends (when the new CBTC ATC system is installed with all operating vehicles running on it)

Again, I speak anecdotally, but I’m sure many will agree with me that three years of single-tracking have already pushed people off the LRT and onto the 10 parallel bus services. The relatively marginal usage of the LRT during the weekends could thus be covered by some service increase in the 10 parallel bus services — which might not even be necessary if there’s already excess capacity to begin with.

It’s not entirely the same, but this has happened before, and they responded in a similar way to what I’m proposing. Unlike during the DTL, no bridging bus was provided during TEL early closures. In TEL1 no one used the line anyway, and in TEL2 the provided answer was that the parallel bus services still remained for anyone who needed to get out that early. Why did this work? Poor off-peak/weekend frequencies. At twelve and nine minutes respectively, it would be a hard ask for people to break their habits and use TEL1/2 even if the line could meet all their travel needs.

The same gimping of travel opportunities through BPLRT single tracking has resulted in the same situation once again happening. Of course, some form of OEM compensation could go towards defraying the cost of the parallel bus services, much like the free rides Bombardier covered for London Overground to make up for late delivery of trains.

But when people are already inconvenienced this much, it doesn’t make as much sense to just tank any project delays anymore. Just rip off the band aid, prioritize delivery, and be done with it. And delivery doesn’t have to be in a block either. Clockwise service in Bukit Panjang doesn’t necessarily mean Service A, it can mean Service C as well, and that means lesser trains needed.



Here to make you think about 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:

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