This man is 61 & he spent 35 years building S’pore’s MRT network

Are you reading this article while commuting on the train?

| Zi Shan Kow | Sponsored | October 30, 2021, 10:41 AM

Prior to the pandemic, our MRT network saw an average of around three million commuters a day in recent years - talk about putting the mass in Mass Rapid Transit (MRT).

While many of us take the MRT train daily, how much do we know about the amount of work that goes behind building Singapore’s rail network?

One person who has seen the ups and downs of our MRT network is 61-year-old Chua Chong Kheng, Deputy Chief Executive (Infrastructure & Development) at the Land Transport Authority (LTA).

When he graduated from university in 1985, Singapore was just starting to build our MRT system. Chua was part of Singapore’s first batch of engineers working on the pioneer North-South East-West lines (NSEWL), and he has spent more than 35 years building up our rail system to what it is today.

We sat down with Chua who brought us through his journey in the rail industry, including the lessons learnt and why the North East Line (NEL) holds a special place in his heart.

Let’s start from the beginning. Walk us through your personal journey with the MRT, starting as a train engineer.

In my first eight years, I was a rolling stock engineer, working on all sorts of trains in Singapore. I worked on the NSEWL, and I also studied proprietary LRT systems to apply them to Singapore. While building the Woodlands extension, to close the gap between Yishun and Choa Chu Kang on the North-South Line, I was appointed manager for the Electrical & Mechanical team. That’s when I picked up skills beyond trains, and learnt a great deal about the complex systems that make the MRT system tick.

I was later tasked to lead the electrical and mechanical systems projects on the NEL with a relatively new team, which took seven years. After that, I was put in charge of a larger scope of work for the Circle Line, which included civil works and construction. This was something new for me, and quite a different ball game. I learnt how to deal with new aspects like civil works design, safety and construction risks, as well as managing road traffic and various stakeholders impacted by our construction works.

In 2003, I attended a management development programme overseas and took on a new role when I returned: overseeing safety, contracts and programme management of all LTA’s infrastructure projects. There, I learnt about procurement, tendering, contract management and administration. This was quite complex as our LTA projects involve contracting with local and international parties from all over the world.

Today, I am the deputy chief executive for infrastructure and development at LTA, overseeing various rail projects in Singapore, including the latest Thomson-East Coast Line.

Chua in the 1990s, inspecting the NSEWL trains manufactured in Germany.

Wow, I never considered the many components to building a train system, and it seemed like you were involved in almost every MRT line in Singapore. Having worked on all these MRT lines, do you have a favourite?

Having built and worked on it from scratch, I feel most strongly for the NEL. As the first fully-automated heavy metro system in the world, I think we set an international benchmark with that line.

It was a huge challenge because there weren’t many references aside from light-rail systems, and we were cutting down on our dependence on expatriate expertise who helped us build the NSEWL.

Why did we even think about building an automated line in the first place when no one in the world has done it before?

There were a lot of advantages to it, and being the first to achieve fully automated operations was a bonus.

Automation helped us reduce human error and removed our reliance on the availability of train operators, which improved operation flexibility, thereby providing better service.

Today, the performance of the NEL and its delivered systems are still something that rail operators and developers in other countries are aspiring towards. We are happy that even now, it's one of the most reliable lines we have.

Besides improving the train system through automation, what are other major improvements made to the rail system since its inception?

When we faced some crowding issues in 2008, I was in charge of a new group dedicated to look at how we can enhance our existing rail infrastructure.

Back then, the arrangement of the tracks at the Jurong East station created a bottleneck in the frequency of the trains, as a middle track was shared between the NSEWL.

To increase capacity for the system, we built a fourth track and added a whole new platform at Jurong East station, as well as additional viaducts so the two lines could operate independently.

In view of the increased ridership, we enhanced the safety of the system by retrofitting half-height screen doors on all elevated stations.

To cool down commuters (quite literally and figuratively) while waiting for the train, we added huge ceiling fans and jet fans to our train platforms at elevated stations on the NSEWL.

Besides the crowding issues, I believe many commuters would remember a series of train disruptions back in the early 2010s. What happened?

Over time, the ageing and obsolescence of hardware, together with software-related issues, led to a deterioration in performance and reliability that caused many disruptions. In response, we made adjustments to the NSEWL so that the system gets a different level of care and maintenance.

I read that there was a massive overhaul of the NSEWL after that, which included a complete renewal of the sleepers, third rail and the signalling system.

So what is the mindset behind these major investments and changes made to the train system?

The main lesson we learnt from the major train disruptions was to cultivate a mindset where both operations and maintenance requirements are comprehensively considered when designing and implementing the system.

Besides ensuring that the train systems meet the operations needs, we also have to consider how to manage the systems over time, and work with the operators to focus efforts on preventive maintenance rather than reacting only when things go wrong.

The implementation of these changes were made easier since LTA took over the ownership of our railway assets with the New Rail Financing Framework. It allows for more timely investments in expansion, replacement and upgrading of these assets such as the trains, power supply and signalling system when they reach the end of their life cycle.

To continue providing reliable train rides, we have also invested in infrastructure to ramp up our testing capability and R&D efforts. For example, we invested in signalling simulation facilities for all our lines and are currently building an Integrated Train Testing Centre (ITTC) to eliminate the constraints of testing new trains and systems on existing lines.

The ITTC will be able to accommodate all types of signalling, communication and power supply systems used across the rail network, enabling us to conduct concurrent testing of trains and systems from different rail lines. This will also allow us to try out new technologies while ensuring that our operating systems remain reliable.

Despite our ups and downs, one key positive takeaway is that we have a resilient and competent team of people with a can-do spirit, similar to the pioneer batch of people who built the first train line.

We have learnt to deal with new challenges, pick up new skills and develop solutions along the way. We can also work around constraints, such as fixing things efficiently at night after trains have ended service, such that the system remains operational when the sun rises. It is a lot of hard work and pressure, but the team has learnt to overcome and work around challenges by persevering and thinking out of the box.

Massive changes did not just happen to the infrastructure itself for sure. I also noticed a few cute cartoon characters introduced in recent years, as well as how the newer stations are more aesthetic. Can you share more about that?

We want the trains to not just bring people from Point A to Point B, but also build an affinity with the people so that they can take pride in the system, and care for it. Over the years, we have made it a point to consistently gather feedback to improve the commuting experience.

As a result, there have been many things that have been implemented to improve accessibility, comfort and inclusivity. By enhancing signages, reducing the platform gap to less than 100mm for safety, and having barrier-free features at our stations and trains, we have dedicated ourselves to catering to the needs of the visually-challenged, elderly and wheelchair users.

The Thoughtful Bunch under our Gracious Commuting initiative was created after noting the pain points experienced by commuters – such as people carrying bulky bags (Bag-Down Benny) and standing near the doors instead of moving into the middle of train carriages or our public buses (Move-in Martin). In a more lighthearted manner, we hope to get across some important messages on how to be considerate while sharing a train ride with others.

We also have an Art in Transit programme which provides a platform for our local artists to showcase their creative works. It first started on the North East line, and has expanded to all subsequent new lines, including the latest Thomson-East Coast Line. Along the way, we’ve involved the community in the creation of these artworks which commuters can enjoy during their public transport journeys. We have, as part of the programme, appointed art review panels to help identify curators, themes and artists. The initiative is very popular, and meaningful at the same time.

And what else can commuters look forward to in the future?

On the hardware side of things, we are looking to further minimise crowding near to the train doors. You might have noticed that the trains serving the latest Thomson-East Coast Line have five doors instead of four on each side per car. Along with an improved train grab pole design, we have reduced the space between doors so passengers can move in and out of the trains more easily. We also have more rail lines coming soon to enhance connectivity, like the Jurong Region Line and the Cross Island Line.

Public transportation is a key part of Singaporeans’ green lifestyle and we are working towards becoming more environmentally friendly. Our MRT trains are already running on electricity and our platform screen doors at underground stations minimise the leakage of air conditioning. Our trains regenerate electricity when braking to recover the electricity for use at stations, and we are looking into installing more solar panels on the roofs of our depots. We hope that more people will switch to public transport as a greener way to move about.

For all of this to work, I would like to extend my appreciation to all our public transport workers who toil in the background everyday, just to keep our buses and trains running safely and reliably for everyone.

Chua standing in front of a train mockup for the upcoming Jurong Region Line.

35 years is almost half your life spent working on trains. Do you ever get bored at what you do?

It’s really been an exciting learning journey for me so far, and I think there’s still a lot that can be done. When I first started my career as a rolling stock engineer, I never thought I would be involved in heavy civil engineering work, managing mega projects and developing rail/roads implementation strategies, or working on procurement and contracts administration. There are so many factors and aspects to consider in ensuring that a rail system runs smoothly, and my personal experience is that there is always something new to learn, even after so many years in the industry. That has really enriched my experience, and as I always tell my colleagues, there is never a dull moment.

From one line to another, we always strive to do better.

This sponsored article by MOT has this writer marvelling at the engine-uity of Singapore’s rail system.