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Nothing routine about MRT cracks

The Transport Ministry and Land Transport Authority have assured the public that there are no safety issues, and no need for a review of processes, after reports surfaced that cracks were found on MRT trains. But should more be done to bolster confidence?

Since news emerged last week that Singapore was sending a batch of new MRT trains back to China to rectify a defect that has caused cracks, Singapore's Transport Ministry and Land Transport Authority (LTA) have appeared eager to downplay the episode.

Both have declared that the reported imperfections were merely "hairline cracks found on the surface" of the car-body bolster - an aluminium alloy structure under the train carriage.

They did not pose a safety risk, they added.

And it would seem there is no need for a review of the train procurement process, as the LTA says its two-envelope tendering system is sufficiently robust.

Kawasaki-Sifang - the Japanese-Chinese consortium which supplied the defective trains - was awarded at least one other major contract following the discovery of the cracks in the first batch.

The train procurement process may well be sound on the whole. But surely an episode which led to 26 out of 35 new trains being shipped back to the factory to have their bodies replaced because of impurities in the aluminium is cause to pause.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

The LTA has made the right move in sending the trains back. And the manufacturer has agreed to the rectification graciously. Either side could easily have swept the matter under the rug. The fact that they are addressing the flaws head on deserves credit.

But other parts of the saga raise questions.

For one, the communication in the aftermath does little to bolster confidence.

By using words like "routine" to describe what happened, and to compare the cracks on the train body to hairline cracks which often appear on a newly plastered wall, the Transport Ministry risks giving some the impression that it is taking the serious problem lightly.

Cracks do not always happen catastrophically. They may well begin as hairlines. But if impurities in the metal is the cause, the entire structure may weaken over time.

Tests commissioned by the LTA revealed as much - that the affected part, even at this stage of deterioration, could not withstand as much force as before.

As one engineer put it, "impurities in aluminium-alloy is a catastrophic problem - in any industry". The structure may be sound initially, but its durability will definitely be compromised.

The LTA is probably right to say the MRT crack situation is not "safety-critical" - at this point in time. But if the flaw is not addressed, there is no assurance that the cracks would not worsen.

MRT trains are subject to enormous stress as they are heavily laden and travel at relatively high speeds. When cornering and braking, these forces are multiplied. So, even if the cracks do not result in a train breaking apart, the undercarriage will require increasingly frequent repairs and reinforcements over time - which in turn results in downtime and the system's capacity being compromised.

So, sending the trains back to have their entire bodies replaced is the right thing to do. And to demand that the crucial body parts be cast in Japan by a Japanese company is also reassuring.

But there is nothing routine about the incident. None of our MRT trains has had cracks before - not even those approaching 30 years of age.

Sure, the first batch of Bukit Panjang LRT trains had cracks on their underframe. But the entire line has been problematic from the start. And those cracks were discovered only after the trains had been operating for 16 years.

LRT trains carry a fraction of the load of MRT trains, and they travel at far lower speeds. They are also running on rubber wheels, which means they have an extra layer of insulation against vibration.

Separately, it is somewhat glaring that Kawasaki-Sifang has not shown any public remorse.

In Japan, such an incident would likely have resulted in a public apology. Instead, Kawasaki-Sifang has echoed the LTA's claim that the flaws posed no risk to safety.

And it has also threatened legal action against parties which allege the flaws were a result of some intentional wrongdoing.

In Hong Kong - where news agency FactWire broke the Singapore MRT story - rail operator MTR Corp, which has ordered 93 new trains from CSR Sifang, reiterated yesterday that it will conduct metallurgical analysis on the metal used in its batch.

This, it said, was an extra precaution since the crack saga unfolded.

Elsewhere, the Financial Times reported that CSR Sifang made a bid for a subway train contract for Boston in 2014.

But it was eliminated when Massachusetts transport officials ruled that the technical, manufacturing and quality assurance components of its bid were "unacceptable".

The contract was won by rival Chinese firm CNR. But last year, CNR and CSR were merged to form CRRC, or China Railway Rolling Stock Corp.

Reuters reported that CRRC and Canadian rail company Bombardier were each fined 150,000 yuan (S$30,000) last year for setting up a joint venture before obtaining government approval.

Interestingly, Bombardier wrote to the Chicago Transit Authority in April to challenge the legitimacy of CSR Sifang's winning bid in a US$1.31 billion (S$1.7 billion) train contract it lost to the Chinese firm.

Given this, isn't it a little hasty for the authorities here to declare that all is well, and there is no need for any review at all?

Wouldn't it be appropriate to acknowledge that there had been slip ups in the procurement process and make clear how this will be put right?

Doing so might cause some consternation, but in the long term, public confidence will be bolstered.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 14, 2016, with the headline 'Nothing routine about MRT cracks'. Print Edition | Subscribe