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Expected to be “public enemy number one”, said Khaw

The Middle Ground logo The Middle Ground 14/9/2017 Suhaile Md

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by Suhaile Md

TRAIN delays as a result of changing the signalling system were expected based on the experiences of other systems like the London Underground, said Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan in parliament on Monday (Sept 11).

Good news is that plans are on schedule, with delays due to the re-signalling project on the North-South Line (NSL) having decreased from 20 in May to six last month. The London Underground took a “full year” to fix their signalling issue, but Mr Khaw said he expects the NSL to be ready “before year end”. “We have about 10 weeks left to December, and I see no reason why we could not deliver on this.” After this they will move on to the East-West Line (EWL).

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Mr Khaw said that it was the London Underground “who warned us to expect problems, expect trouble; expect yourself to be public enemy number one. I brought their painful experience to this House and have been trying very hard to prepare the ground on all these various things that we may have to go through.”

Which is why the plan for full testing of the system only started on May 28 this year at the start of the month-long school holidays. More testing was done during engineering hours to minimise the time required for testing during passenger hours.

Mr Khaw was responding to questions by Dr Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon), about the progress of the works. The NSL runs through her constituency.

The minister said that the NSL is in the last phase of re-signalling. It’s a “very complicated project” because NSL switched to a new system just four months back and the EWL uses a 30 year-old signalling system except for the stretch between Joo Koon and Tuas Link stations. There are four different generations of trains with each train requiring to be “completely rewired”. Furthermore, each train has its individual “idiosyncrasies”.

Dr Lee also asked if there could be more shuttle bus services provided in the event of a breakdown. Mr Khaw’s reply was that the “honest answer” is that buses are “not equal to” trains, which can carry far more passengers and arrive at two minutes intervals. “Tens of thousands” of buses will not be enough. But Mr Khaw added he would “take a look” at Dr Lee’s suggestion to have direct bus services to the city.

Opposition leader Mr Low Thia Khiang (Aljunied) asked whether specific targets had been set by Mr Khaw and how long it would be till commuters “see the light of day”.

To which Mr Khaw said “very good progress” has been made in the past two years. Then, trains on an average hit 200,000 MKBF, which is the distance travelled in km between delays that lasted more than five minutes. Now it’s almost 400,000 MKBF, surpassing this year’s target of 300,000 MKBF.

Said Mr Khaw: “We are halfway through the multi-year efforts. It’s a cup half full, but next year I’ll top it up even further.”

When Mr Khaw took over the transport portfolio in 2015, Taipei’s MRT system was one of the most reliable at 800,00 MKBF. So, Mr Khaw had then set Singapore’s target at 800,000 MKBF, to be attained by 2020. A target that, he said on Monday, was “perhaps even reckless on my part”.

Yet, he remains confident. In July this year, Mr Khaw had raised the target for 2020 from 800,000 MKBF to 1 million MKBF.

He added on Monday: “That is ambitious, optimistic, but I have reason to be confident that even if we can’t reach it, we’ll be quite close to it.”

This prompted a follow up from Member of Parliament Melvin Yong, who is also executive secretary of the National Transport Workers’ Union. Mr Yong asked that in the pursuit of high standards, he hoped the minister could “continue to assure” the well-being of workers as a top priority.

To which, Mr Khaw said: “Yes, I do”.

Mr Khaw added that he spends time with the “troops” on the ground “in the trenches, within the tunnels” to  “satisfy” himself that work is being done well. Sometimes buying them “some durian, some curry puff… each time there’s something to celebrate”. These gestures of support and appreciation make a difference to him and the workers on the ground.

In fact, he said, his argument with the media about its coverage more than a month ago, was because he felt for his “people”. The staff put “their hearts and souls into their project”.

Mr Khaw likened the efforts to improve the trains here to “fighting a war” and “staff morale is key”.

Featured image from TMG file.

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