SMRT-NTU lab to help tackle rail woes

$60m Corp Lab to focus on real-time monitoring systems for trains, tracks and power supply

Transport operator SMRT and Nanyang Technological University have set up a research laboratory to develop ways to fix rail engineering problems even before they arise.

The $60 million SMRT-NTU Smart Urban Rail Corporate Laboratory (Corp Lab) was launched yesterday, with equal funding from the two parties, along with $20 million from the National Research Foundation.

Although the lab is its first rail-related research venture, NTU is confident that its track record stands it in good stead.

NTU vice-president for research Lam Khin Yong cited the university's collaboration with companies such as ST Engineering, Rolls-Royce and BMW Group.

For Singapore's rail system, Corp Lab will work on a suite of real-time monitoring systems for trains, tracks and power supply.

For trains, these systems will continuously monitor vibration, wheel axles and gearboxes, as well as door mechanisms. Door faults often lead to trains stalling as a result of a safety design.

Sensors will also be embedded into the running rail and the power-supplying third rail.

SMRT head of trains Lee Ling Wee said some problems cannot be detected by off-the-shelf solutions - for instance, cracks developing on the underside of a running rail, which, if left undetected and unresolved, can lead to serious track breakages.

To this end, the joint venture will work on thermo-acoustic sensors, which can sense temperature fluctuations within materials. These will be able to detect cracks and defects which may lie deep within components. Corp Lab will also work on better maintenance and reconditioning of assets.

NTU president Bertil Andersson said Corp Lab will also "develop core competencies and human capital for the railway industry".

"It aims to train 50 research engineers, 35 PhD students and 100 undergraduate students in the next five years," he said.

"Commuting woes can cause tempers to fray, so as a university, we hope to develop technologies that can lead to smoother and more sustainable modes of transportation."

SMRT chief executive Desmond Kuek said monitoring systems have already been proven to work. The operator's Third Rail Sag Alert system captured 14 incidents last year which could have led to the third rail sagging.

"Timely remedial actions and time-critical decisions can be made, preventing a single but critical fault from cascading into a major service disruption," Mr Kuek said.

Corp Lab will work on more advanced condition monitoring systems. One example is defect detection of a train's electrification system via radio frequency. Another is automated inspection of train undercarriages.

Electrical faults are increasingly common in Singapore's rail network. More than half of the major breakdowns in recent months have been power-related.

For instance, a power trip at the Buona Vista intake substation crippled the western section of three MRT lines and one LRT line on April 25.

Corp Lab will have to show quantifiable results. Prof Lam said a number of patents must be filed and half of them must be commercialised.

The guest of honour at yesterday's launch was Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 21, 2016, with the headline 'SMRT-NTU lab to help tackle rail woes'. Print Edition | Subscribe