Transport of tomorrow: Smart technologies help in rail planning and maintenance

Miss Amira, Mr Chen and Ms Lai use smart technologies to plan rail lines and conduct maintenance work. PHOTOS: CHONG JUN LIANG
Miss Amira, Mr Chen and Ms Lai use smart technologies to plan rail lines and conduct maintenance work. PHOTOS: CHONG JUN LIANG

The public transport industry is transforming. The Land Transport Industry Transformation Map (ITM) launched in February spells out initiatives that leverage emerging technologies to increase productivity, achieve smarter mobility and provide better service for commuters. The vision is to bring about an innovative land transport industry enabled by technology and a highly competent workforce. In the last of this three-part series, we look at how smart technologies such as drones, data analytics and condition monitoring help the industry carry out inspection and maintenance duties more effectively.

Technology matters


Miss Amira is part of the LTA Drone Task Force and she is involved in testing drones for inspection purposes. PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

Senior assistant project engineer Nur Amira Amran is part of the design instrumentation team for the Thomson East Coast Line (TEL) project. She is also a member of the LTA Drone Task Force, which was set up to test the use of drones for inspection purposes.

In her main role, the 23-year-old is in charge of supervising the installation of monitoring equipment on-site and assessing instrument readings for underground movement to ensure that the ongoing construction of the TEL stations and tunnels are safe and progressing as planned.

Miss Amira says: “I enjoy having a non-deskbound job. I’m on the ground a lot and it gives me immense satisfaction to see the construction activities carried out on site. I get first-hand knowledge on how the train network is built.”

Workplace productivity

As part of the LTA Drone Task Force, she is also involved in testing drones to explore how they can be harnessed to monitor construction progress and inspection of underground tunnels. Being in the team also allows her to find out more about how technology can be used in the construction and transport industry.

Traditionally, tunnel site inspections have been carried out manually by engineers who enter the tunnels to take photos and videos.

“We are exploring if drones that are fitted with cameras can be used to monitor construction progress and inspect underground tunnels. This will boost efficiency as the drones can be used to access difficult-to-reach areas and allow us to carry out intensive supervision,” she says.

Recently, Miss Amira attended a course to learn more about 3D photogrammetry mapping via drones. LTA is currently exploring to harness the technology to map ongoing construction sites.

This technology will allow staff to focus on specific areas when monitoring construction progress. It is also able to create visualisations to help in planning.

She says: “We are always harnessing emerging technologies in the industry. The use of drones and artificial intelligence technology will increase productivity as it relieves engineers from manual inspection. They can focus on analysing data instead.”

Learning on the job

Miss Amira started out as an intern in LTA when she was pursuing her diploma in civil engineering in Singapore Polytechnic. She will complete three years in the organisation next month.

She says: “I have gained exposure and technical knowledge moving from the civil construction team during my internship to the design and instrumentation team.”

One of the challenges she faces at work is a steep learning curve and learning how to assert herself in a predominantly male sector. She overcomes them by persevering and staying optimistic.

She says: “I am blessed to be able to work with a great team of colleagues under knowledgeable and nurturing bosses. The management is also supportive and gives young engineers opportunities to develop and grow.”

Her biggest motivation lies in knowing that each day she spends working at the site allows her to contribute to better rail connectivity for Singaporeans.

Unsung heroes


Mr Chen utilises technologies to scan our rail networks for defects. PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

At 1am, the last train rolls into the depot, marking the end of commuter service for the day. But for SMRT Singapore’s Wayne Chen, 35, and his team of engineers, the job of maintaining the country’s close to 200km of rail tracks has just begun.

Their time window is short — the crew performing maintenance on the ageing North-South and East-West lines has from 1am to 4am to complete the work. To perform stringent checks in such a short time, the maintenance team uses a range of equipment.

“We utilise technology such as the Multi-Functional Vehicle, which scans our network for anomalies so that defects can be detected early,” Mr Chen says.

Two other workhorses of train maintenance are:

• The Track Tamping Vehicle, a bright yellow locomotive, which is used to pack ballast on the track bed. This helps the sleepers on the track to support the rail and ensure a smooth ride.

• The Rail Grinding Vehicle corrects the wear-and-tear occurring from heavy track usage and any defects on the surface of the rails to prevent damage to the train.

Other than equipment, Mr Chen also implemented changes to the maintenance process. He recently embarked on a project to improve the efficiency of track patrollers.

“Instead of the traditional method of walking along the track to find defects with a torch light, we will replace it with a vehicular inspection system,” he says.

Raising productivity is crucial because it frees up time for other maintenance work, he adds. “SMRT works with other metro operators, research institutions, consultancy firms and companies to see how we can increase maintenance productivity,” he says.

“This will not only improve the reliability of our network today, but also help us to manage the challenges of tomorrow.”

Mr Chen obtained first class honours when he graduated with a Bachelor of Engineering (Mechanical) from Nanyang Technological University in 2008. He is currently pursuing a three-year post-graduate course in railway engineering to sharpen his technical competencies and keep up with the complex functions of the rail network.

The continuous challenge of providing a seamless journey for commuters every day keeps Mr Chen motivated at work. He remains optimistic despite occasional disruptions. “Our progress is not immediately obvious, but I believe our efforts will pay off,” he says.

Nipping problems in the bud


Ms Lai uses data analytics to identify trends in the train system. PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

Ms Cheryl Lai, data scientist at the Land Transport Authority (LTA) uses data analytics to identify trends in the train system. She uses it to devise proactive maintenance strategies to fix possible snags before they become problematic.

She says: “The problem is no longer that we do not have enough information, but whether we are able to use it well. That is where data science comes in.”

Learning every day

The 27-year-old works in the information technology, cybersecurity and digital services group at LTA translating numbers into viable and effective solutions that make things work better.

Having graduated with a Master in Physics from Nanyang Technological University in 2015, Ms Lai’s experience doing research opened her eyes to the usefulness of data in proving hypotheses and substantiating theories, sparking an interest in how data analysis could be applied to solve real-world problems.

This eventually led her to join the public transport industry.

With no experience in programming, she had to learn rapidly as her job involved lots of coding. “It was a steep learning curve, but there were many useful tools online and I spent large amounts of time on the weekends practising,” she says.

Her job requires her to stay abreast of new developments. She attends workshops, product launches and even goes on overseas study trips to learn about new technologies.

For instance, in March this year, she visited Shanghai, Hangzhou and Shenzhen where she learnt about how AI and data analytics can be used to improve traffic conditions.

Find and fix

Her favourite part of the job is the “eureka” moments she gets from analysing data.

In a recent analysis, she identified potential faults in some train equipment and managed to get engineers to rectify them before any
incident occurred.

Identifying problems early and conducting targeted maintenance not only saves time and manpower, but also prevents potentially disastrous situations and inconvenient breakdowns.

Says Ms Lai: “Knowing that I am making a difference to society is what keeps me motivated in my work.”

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