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MRT's past 'teething problems'

Teething problems are common whenever a new train line opens, so the Transport Minister was right to warn commuters to expect them when the new Downtown Line 2 opens on Sunday.

Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan's recent emoji-sprinkled blog on the chances of Downtown Line 2 having "teething problems" after it opens on Sunday has elicited two types of responses from the public.

Cynical ones see Mr Khaw's post as a move by a master politician out to manage public expectations.

More generous observers say the minister is merely laying it out as it is: Teething problems are a known phenomenon, hence the public should expect them.

Both sides have reasonable grounds.

If Mr Khaw was managing expectations, he would not be the first politician to do so. But he does it in the nicest way possible, peppering the message with personal anecdotes. In this case, he draws a parallel to his oldest daughter's teething stage as an infant.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

Commuter expectations may have risen over the years, simply because the MRT system had been running fairly smoothly in the first 20 years or so. Also, as train ridership has risen by leaps and bounds, a disruption today affects many more people than one back in 1987. Trains are also a lot more packed than in the early years, leading understandably to shorter fuses when things go wrong.

Given Singapore's MRT history, Mr Khaw's message is quite understandable. When the country's first trains started plying the North-South Line nearly three decades ago, there were technical glitches that took more than two years to resolve.

Even when the line had been running for several years, there were embarrassing incidents - such as a derailment in 1999 that was caused by human error. Fortunately, it was an empty train and the only impact was a seven-hour service disruption.

When the North-East Line - the world's first driverless heavy rail system - was completed, it was ridden with teething problems that delayed its opening by more than six months. Engineers initially could not even get the autonomous trains to move.

Then, there were innumerable difficulties with the line's 500 computer systems - which the Land Transport Authority initially denied, but later admitted to. It was so problematic that operator SBS Transit warned then that there would be on average one 15-minute delay every two days. (As it turned out, there was one every 10 days.)

The earliest major breakdown happened within days of its delayed opening - a technical fault at the Punggol station disrupted service for 90 minutes.

And soon after the Circle Line started operating in stages from 2009, it experienced a string of breakdowns which were mostly caused by power faults.

Next, when the Downtown Line 1 started running two years ago, it was hit by a breakdown on its very first day, followed by two more within the next three months.

One apparently was caused by a child who accidentally activated a detrainment switch (which cuts power, and allows passengers to leave a train in an emergency).

To be fair, these incidents are not unique to Singapore. Even the most reliable rail system in the world faces teething issues.

On Nov 30, service on Tokyo's Yamanote Line was disrupted when a new train was put into service. Japanese press reported that the train overshot a station within minutes of being put into service, and then stopped short of another station later in the day.

The most serious glitch was when the train doors and the platform doors could not close fully, resulting in a delay of 15 minutes (an eternity in Tokyo Metro). The train was withdrawn unceremoniously.

Not all faults can be attributed to "teething" issues, though.

Take the case of Singapore's Bukit Panjang LRT system, which was beset with one problem after another from its first year of operation in 1999. Even today, an end to the problems does not seem to be anywhere in sight.

In the first nine months of this year, the LRT line had eight major breakdowns (defined as more than 30 minutes each) - double the combined number of the last two full years.

While this spike may have been contributed by new train-cars that were recently deployed, the persistent regularity of glitches points to fundamental weaknesses in the design of the system.

Did poor design trigger one of the Downtown Line 1's early breakdowns? Investigators had blamed a child accidentally activating a train's detrainment device, but the question is - why was it so easy to trigger a switch to such a crucial function? It is almost akin to a child being able to open an aircraft door in mid-flight.

The same might be said for the Circle Line. The technical issues that surfaced in the early stages were narrowed down to the network's 120km of power cables, which had to be replaced just three years after the new line opened.

The cables were exposed to water that had seeped through the tunnel walls, thus compromising their insulation. It is a well-known fact that our tunnels are not water-tight. So, why were power cables laid so low?

And if it was not possible to install them higher, why were more water-resistant cables - which were eventually used - not specified at the design stage?

Although the bulk of the $15 million cable-replacement bill was borne by the contractor, the exercise had a public cost, as the line had to be closed intermittently for the works to be carried out.

Of course, it is commendable that the Government identified the fault and rectified it swiftly. Otherwise, the disruptions would have carried on till today, and the public outrage would have been hard to quell.

Indeed, the Singaporean public expects much of the rail system - or for that matter, any system.

As Mr Khaw pointed out during a recent address, the "high expectation of the state of infrastructure in Singapore stems from the track record of our pioneer engineers, and is not common globally".

"Citizens of many countries, both developed and developing, have come to accept poor infrastructure as a way of life. But not here in Singapore," he said.

In fact, commuter expectations may have risen over the years, simply because the MRT system had been running fairly smoothly in the first 20 years or so.

Also, as train ridership has risen by leaps and bounds, a disruption today affects many more people than one back in 1987. Trains

are also a lot more packed than in the early years, leading understandably to shorter fuses when things go wrong.

And if things go wrong with a brand new line, will people accept it as part of the teething process? Probably not, since no one expects a brand new car or a brand new toaster to malfunction.

Granted, a rail system is far more complex than a toaster, which is why there is a long testing and commissioning phase before a new line is open for service.

Yet, there will be things that are hard to replicate during the testing phase, such as the passenger load, which on a fully occupied train means an additional 100 tonnes or so. It is not a constant load either, as the movement in and out of carriages means that the system is exposed to dynamic forces that are just not practicable to mimic.

Then, of course, there are unforeseen situations, which might include another child with unusual strength.

In his blog, Mr Khaw said he had been told by engineers that a "bedding-in" period of several months is to be expected of the Downtown Line 2.

So, if you are going to hop right on the new line when it opens on Sunday, be mentally prepared that glitches may occur here and there.

If you are unable to accept that possibility, you might want to stick to your current travelling pattern until the bedding-in phase is over.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 24, 2015, with the headline 'MRT's past 'teething problems''. Print Edition | Subscribe