Lifting up the heartland

What's up with HDB lifts?

They take us to our homes each day, but recent accidents have given cause to pause. The Government will put up some $450 million to help modernise some lifts, but the scheme is voluntary and town councils must foot about 10 per cent of costs. With another $3 billion potentially needed to replace lifts that are too old to be updated, town councils have much to weigh up.

When an elderly Housing Board resident lost a hand in a lift accident last October, it turned out to be the first in a spate of accidents that have plagued HDB lifts over the last year.

Madam Khoo Bee Hua, then 85, had stepped into her lift in Jurong and pressed the lift button without realising that her dog was outside - while she was still holding its leash. As the lift rose, her hand is believed to have been pulled through a gap in the doors.

The worst of the incidents since then came this May when Mr Lim Hang Chiang, 77, died when his mobility scooter fell over while backing out of a lift that was not level with the ground floor.

Since then, the authorities have stepped up audits of lifts, and completed the first phase of a lift regulations review which began in 2014.

The latest move is a $450 million Lift Enhancement Programme (LEP) announced last month, under which the HDB will give town councils around 90 per cent of the funding required to modernise lifts of up to 18 years of age, by installing recommended safety features. Town councils will have to chip in the remainder.

The scheme is voluntary.

Officers inspecting the lift that caused the fatal accident in Pasir Ris in May. Mr Lim Hang Chiang, 77, fell backwards and hit his head on the ground when his mobility scooter toppled as he was reversing out of the lift, which had stopped about 15cm
Indonesian maid Evi Lisnawati, 36, reenacting in March her ordeal in a 23-year-old lift in Ang Mo Kio that suddenly shot up and down. She hurt her back in the process and was trapped inside the lift for 11/2 hours before she was rescued. TNP FILE PHOTO

In addition, town councils face a new requirement, which is not voluntary: They will have to put more of their service and conservancy charges (S&CC) collections and government grants into their sinking funds, and allocate resources to a new Lift Replacement Fund.

The balance in sinking funds - used for long-term estate maintenance, repairs and upgrading - across all town councils is about $1 billion, some of which is used for lift improvements.

As noted by National Development Minister Lawrence Wong in a blog post on the scheme last month, that is considerably short of the estimated $3 billion needed from now to 2035 to cover the cost of future lift replacements.

What impact might the new programme and funding requirements have on town councils, whether in terms of residents' demands or financial issues? And residents will be wondering: Will this lead to an increase in S&CC fees? And will we actually get improved lifts if the LEP is voluntary?

MODERNISING: WHAT IT INVOLVES

Preceding by three days the HDB's announcement of the lift enhancement scheme was a call by the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) for lift "owners" to modernise their older lifts for greater reliability and safety.

There are about 61,000 passenger lifts in Singapore, including those in private condominiums, malls, office buildings and public housing estates.

The BCA also released a list of eight recommended features that lifts should have. These include a battery-powered automatic rescue device that can bring a lift to the nearest landing and open the doors if there is a power failure (See the list on Page B4).

In its announcement, the HDB said it would support town councils to modernise their lifts in line with the BCA's list, with about 20,000 lifts expected to benefit.

Some might wonder why modernisation was not made mandatory, but the BCA noted that current lifts already meet safety standards.

"Existing lifts, when properly used, maintained and inspected, will continue to be safe for operation," it said.

Newer lifts already have some or most of the recommended features, said industry players.

Town councils said they are now assessing how many lifts will come under the scheme, based on age and whether they lack the recommended features.

To be eligible for the LEP, lifts must have been in operation for no more than 18 years.

This thus excludes older lifts like those involved in the incidents that cost Madam Khoo her hand and Mr Lim his life. They had been operating for 19 and 24 years respectively.

Lifts that old will eventually have to be replaced entirely. The HDB generally recommends that town councils replace them after 28 years.

In his blog, MrWong said: "For the older lifts, it will make more sense for the town councils to replace them with new lifts which will come with these enhanced features."

DOWNSIDE: IT COULD TAKE YEARS

The scheme instead seeks to improve lifts that are not yet up for replacement, but lag behind their newer counterparts.

Some new lifts might already have the recommended features. This could be the case in towns such as Punggol and Sengkang, as well as estates which have recently benefited from the Lift Upgrading Programme that ended in late 2014.

"As a mature estate, some of our lifts are currently either very new, as a result of the Lift Upgrading Programme, while others have been in operation for more than 18 years," noted Mr Pritam Singh, chairman of the Workers' Party-run Aljunied-Hougang Town Council.

Still, the town council will put up some lifts for consideration under the scheme, he added.

Finding out how many qualify is thus the first step.

Dr Teo Ho Pin, coordinating chairman for the People's Action Party (PAP) town councils, said the PAP Town Councils Lift Taskforce - formed in July - will collate the number of eligible lifts from the 15 town councils.

For instance, Pasir Ris-Punggol Town Council oversees 2,750 lifts, of which 78 per cent have been in operation for 18 years or less.

"We are currently checking to confirm the extent of works needed," said its chairman Zainal Sapari.

The fact-finding stage could take a while. As a Nee Soon Town Council spokesman explained: "We are currently working closely with the various lift manufacturers on details of the enhancement required on a per lift basis."

She added: "This exercise will require time and is important."

Some town councils already plan to implement the LEP for all eligible lifts. But that may not necessarily be the case islandwide.

In its announcement, the HDB said it would support town councils to modernise their lifts in line with the BCA's list, with about 20,000 lifts expected to benefit.

Dr Teo said the PAP's lift taskforce will study the safety enhancements, cost implications, and benefits of implementing the features.

He added that it will then make recommendations to the respective town councils, "taking into consideration the eligibility of lifts according to their age, safety performance and maintenance costs".

Even after such decisions are made, it could be years before the lifts are updated. The LEP is to be rolled out over 10 years, and implementation will have to be staggered.

"It will require scheduling... to minimise inconvenience to our residents - ensuring at least one working lift per block while the LEP is being carried out," said the Nee Soon Town Council spokesman.

Bishan-Toa Payoh Town Council chairman Chong Kee Hiong noted that the sheer number of potentially eligible lifts - 1,000 out of 1,300 under his purview - would require the programme to be carried out in phases.

"Completion of the LEP would also depend on the lift companies' ability to cope with enhancement of lifts, due to demand from all town councils," he said.

A SINKING FEELING?

Amid competing demands on finances, the LEP funding simply makes it easier for town councils to take that voluntary step.

"Town councils often have to look at different spending priorities," said the Nee Soon Town Council spokesman. "This fund provides the town council with a dedicated budget to implement the necessary improvements."

 

As it is, the town councils will only have to stump up about 10 per cent of the remaining LEP costs not covered by funding.

Less clear, however, are the likely effects of a new mandatory requirement: the Lift Replacement Fund.

Currently, town councils are required to set aside 30 to 35 per cent of their S&CC collections and government grants for their sinking funds every quarter. The rest goes into their operating funds.

But soon, town councils will have to contribute even more to the former. They will also have to set aside funds for a dedicated Lift Replacement Fund. This is because expenses related to cyclical works such as facade repair and repainting, which draw on the sinking funds, will rise as estates age.

And from now to 2035, some 11,500 ageing HDB lifts will have to be completely replaced - an exercise that may cost almost $3 billion.

Exactly how much will be needed, however, has yet to be determined. The Ministry of National Development will be asking all town councils to prepare and submit their financial projections for their sinking funds over the next 10 to 30 years.

"These projections will enable us to assess the appropriate levels of contribution to the TC (town council) sinking funds and Lift Replacement Funds," said Mr Wong on his blog.

The changes will affect how much operating funds town councils have, as well as how much of the sinking fund is used for non-lift-related works, noted Dr Teo.

Town councils declined to comment on the likely financial impact until more details are released.

They also declined to speculate on how much they might be required to put into the new lift fund.

But if past expenditures are any indication, town councils may have varied needs. For Nee Soon Town Council, lift cyclical works took up 8 per cent of the sinking fund for the 2015-2016 financial year.

In contrast, lift works formed 20 per cent of the sinking fund expenditure for Holland-Bukit Panjang Town Council.

Will S&CC rates - payable by residents each month- have to go up?

Dr Teo said the PAP town councils are "looking into" a revision, but gave no further details.

HIGH ANXIETY FOR SOME

Public attention may have been focused on lift-related incidents where there was a loss of life and limb, but other injuries have also drawn complaints from residents and observers.

A 23-year-old lift in Ang Mo Kio shot up and down suddenly in March, causing a domestic worker to fall and hurt her back.

And in June, a 22-year-old lift in Bukit Batok that was not level with the ground floor when the doors opened caused an elderly resident to trip and fall.

With such injuries making headlines, even incidents without casualties can cause unease.

In June, Sengkang resident Tan Joo Jin, 45, was in one of his block's three lifts with his neighbours when it jerked suddenly, stopped briefly between floors, shot down, and then stalled again before eventually reaching the ground floor.

No one was trapped or hurt, but the memory lingers, said Mr Tan, an assistant health and safety manager.

"Now, some people prefer to only take Lifts A and B," he added, referring to the block's other two lifts.

He lives in Block 299A Compassvale Street, which was completed in 2001, meaning that its lifts might be eligible for the LEP.

Mr Tan hopes the lifts at his block will be updated - and that residents will be informed of the details.

"As residents, we don't know what upgraded features have or haven't been added to our lifts," he said. "We are the ones living there, we should know the situation."

The LEP is thus important, not just for the tangible benefits it could bring to some 20,000 lifts, but also the intangible reassurance it could provide to the many more residents who use the lifts.

Admittedly, it will take both time and money, and residents will have to put up with temporary inconvenience.

Replacing aged lifts across the island, with its estimated $3 billion price tag, will exact an even larger cost - one that could spill over to residents if S&CC charges rise.

But for safer lift rides and peace of mind, this is arguably not too high a price to pay.

Additional reporting by Yeo Sam Jo

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 02, 2016, with the headline 'What's up with HDB lifts?'. Print Edition | Subscribe