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Speech by SMRT President & Group CEO Mr Desmond Kuek at the SMRT Annual Group Review

28 March 2018


1.    Last year, we commemorated 30 years of MRT operations. From 5 stations in 1987 joining Yio Chu Kang to Toa Payoh on the North-South Line, our network today encompasses 105 stations with 145 km of tracks across the country. Together with our bus operations, we carry more than 1 billion passenger-journeys annually. Last year, we were awarded the license to run the Thomson-East Coast Line which will add 30% more to the network size – with another 31 stations and 43 km when fully operational in 2024. When the Rapid Transit System Link is open in 2024, we will also connect people from Johor Bahru to our network in Singapore.  
2.    In line with our vision to move people and enhance lives, we strive to connect communities and transform the way people live, work and play. To help add vibrancy to the network and improve convenience to commuters, XCO was set up as a separate entity to grow capabilities in lifestyle services. Our Buses, Taxis and Private Hire Vehicles continue to take pride in delivering high-quality rides and enhancing passengers’ travel experience. This year, Mobility X was set up to explore future urban mobility initiatives and develop Mobility-as-a-Service solutions for end-to-end commuter connectivity. 

3.    Following SMRT’s privatization in November 2016, we assured the media that we would continue to report publicly on salient developments in the company even though we are no longer subjected to disclosure under listing rules.  We are aware that what goes on in SMRT is of public interest, and so our 2017 Group Review was released on-line this week to update on the progress we have made on all business fronts in SMRT as a Group. 

4.    This morning however, my briefing will focus largely on our Trains’ status, in the key areas of strengthening Operational performance to deliver a positive Commuter experience, and nurturing our People and organisational competencies to be future ready.
Strengthening operational performance

5.    Let me first talk about operations. For the 12 months of 2017, our Mean Kilometres Between Failure (MKBF) for the North-South Line more than doubled from 156,000km in Dec 2016 to 336,000km in Dec 2017. Over the same period, MKBF for the East-West Line increased from 145,000km to 278,000km, and the Circle Line improved from 228,000km to 523,000km.  Considering that we started from an MKBF base of about 60,000 km on all our lines in 2012, these results are noteworthy improvements in reliability. I would like to thank our teams in SMRT and LTA for their relentless effort every day and night in driving operational excellence, and the close collaboration in asset management, projects and joint inspections.

6.    Many have asked what MKBF means. It is an international performance indicator for rail reliability that measures how far trains travel before incurring a delay lasting more than 5 minutes; so the farther the better. Last year, among the best metros in the world, only a handful exceeded 1 million in train km. As this may not be very intuitive to commuters, let me illustrate another way.  Achieving 1 million in MKBF would mean that our trains run 25 times around the equator; or if we just consider the North-South Line, 20,000 times along its entire length - before incurring a single delay lasting more than 5 minutes. Alternatively, if we consider that our trains on the North-South Line travel nearly 900,000 km each month, then 1 million in MKBF works out to having less than an average of 1 delay incident each month.  This is the bold target that we have committed to achieving by 2020.

7.    The reliability statistics show steady improvement especially in the last 2-3 years.  But we acknowledge that they do not seem to square with commuters’ experience on the North-South & East-West Lines last year.  This is because of project-related disruptions faced between May to October in the implementation of the new CBTC signaling system.  This data is not captured in the MKBF numbers because MKBF data is used for comparing the intrinsic reliability of the network from year to year, without the temporal and possibly distortive effect of short-term projects.  

8.    Separately, however, we are closely tracking delays caused by the new CBTC system. The majority of faults were caused by a loss of train-to-trackside signal.  When this happens, emergency brakes immediately kick in as a safety precaution.  The train then has to be reset, causing an initial delay.  Our joint project team from SMRT, LTA and Thales also had to deal with each unique train configuration (on our 5 different generations of trains), topological factors specific to stations, as well as the impact of wet weather conditions on train braking distance in the exposed track sections on the viaducts that are above ground. 

9.    More software patches and hardware changes must still be made in the coming months, but the system has stabilized in recent months. We are grateful for the patience and understanding of commuters as we worked through the teething technical and operational issues last year.  Lessons learned from the North-South Line have been ported over to the East-West Line that started testing during engineering hours back in February. We are doing all we can to ensure a smoother run when we cut over fully to the new CBTC signaling system in June 2018. So far, the test runs have been positive.

10.    We look forward to better journeys ahead. With the strong support from Government, we are making good progress on the renewal of our core systems. Following the implementation of the new signaling system, replacement of the power (third) rail system, completion of change-out of all 188,000 wooden sleepers, and introduction of new trains, we are now seeing a steady improvement in rail reliability as the network gets progressively renewed. 

11.    The early closures and late opening along stretches of the network have been most helpful in allowing engineering staff more time to carry out renewal and maintenance work. The extra time has also allowed us to fast-track the implementation of the new signalling system on the East-West Line by June instead of end-2018.

12.    Keeping with this positive momentum, rail reliability has further improved in the first two months of this year on all our lines. Whilst we are encouraged that next year’s MKBF targets have already been exceeded, we will continue to work hard to ensure reliability is sustained and improved. We are observing that delays experienced over the past few months have been caused mostly by signaling problems, either legacy or CBTC.  So when we can transit smoothly and fully to the new signaling system by the middle of this year, we can expect even further improvement to network reliability.  
13.    We run a complex system of systems with more than a million moving parts distributed across the city. To anticipate and avert faults, we have been investing in new systems and technology for condition monitoring sensors, artificial intelligence and data analytics.  Earlier this month, we updated the public on some of these initiatives and our ongoing effort to set up by year-end our third version of the Maintenance Operations Centre, to better predict and prevent faults from occurring. Even so, should any fault occur, our priority of effort is to respond and recover as swiftly as possible with operations and technical staff deployed within minutes, supported by subject matter experts at the Maintenance Operations Centre to help with troubleshooting. 

14.    Our goal is to reduce any delay to less than 5 minutes, and in the worst, ensure that it does not last longer than 30 minutes. It is these major incidents, lasting longer than 30 minutes that we must strenuously avoid. Last year unfortunately, we had nine incidents that lasted longer than 30 minutes on our lines, excluding CBTC-related delays.  This is three fewer than in 2016, but still, far too many.  

15.    Two incidents, in particular, shook public confidence in our train safety and reliability.  Service was disrupted in October along the North-South Line because of flooding in the Bishan-Braddell tunnel. The Bishan storm water reservoir had overflowed when two critical float switches did not activate as intended. As a result, no alarms were sent to the Operations Control Centre and the water pumps were not triggered to extract the storm waters. Since then, the portal pumps have been replaced and pump controls enhanced to improve the robustness of the flood protection system.  In November, a collision took place at Joo Koon station caused by an unexpected disabling of a CBTC protective feature. This has been rectified, and as an added precaution, train service has been ceased between Joo Koon and Gul Circle to remove the complications of operating two different signaling systems concurrently. This separation will continue until re-signaling works are completed on the East-West Line. Both incidents were most regrettable, and gave us cause to pause, reflect on shortcomings and resolve to do better to address underlying discipline and process issues that led to the breaches. 

16.    Going forward, we are gunning for 0 safety breaches and 0 >30 minute delays, even as we aim for 1 million in MKBF.

Going the extra mile with commuter service 

17.    Besides safety and reliability, we know that two other aspects are important for a positive journey experience: train punctuality and crowdedness. We monitor these closely.  

18.    For train punctuality, we measure whether trains arrive at the end destination within two minutes of the scheduled arrival time. Journey time is affected when speed restrictions are imposed, in many instances, to allow time for the affected track or ballast to set firmly. Sometimes it is because of insufficient time to complete complex repairs within one night window, and so a speed restriction is imposed as a safety precaution until the repair can be completed the following night.  The re-signalling implementation hiccups have also led to speed restrictions being imposed at problematic segments of the line. Taken cumulatively, these have led to slower travel in recent months, but we expect that punctuality will steadily improve as the network stabilises and systems are progressively renewed. 

19.    As for crowdedness in the network, especially during peak periods, we are seeing improvements with more trains added to the lines.  We took delivery of 45 new trains on the North-South & East-West Lines since 2017, 24 new trains on the Circle Line since 2016 and 13 new trains on the Bukit Panjang LRT since 2014. Our availability rate, defined as the percentage of total train fleet available on weekday peaks, has consistently been above 85% for NSEWL, and above 90% for CCL and BPLRT last year. With more new trains, and when the new signalling system is fully operational, we will be able to run trains at shorter intervals of 100 seconds, down from the 120 seconds, during peak periods.  All in, capacity would increase by another 20% during peak hour, alleviating the crowdedness faced by commuters. 

20.    Notwithstanding these enhancements, whenever there is an unexpected train disruption or imposed speed restriction, trains upstream of the incident will inevitably experience a bunching up that tails back.  Even after the fault has been rectified, it takes time to ease the trains back into their routine headway again.  Our initial delay notifications to commuters had previously been based on the engineer’s technical assessment of the time it would take to rectify the fault, but did not account for the accumulated delay felt by commuters in an upstream train, or the wait time to board a train at a crowded station.  

21.    Last month, we launched a new mobile application with SMRTConnect to provide commuters with real-time travel information such as train arrival timings up to the third train, and station platform waiting time expressed in numbers of trains. We hope our commuters can use this to anticipate and plan ahead for more seamless travel.

22.    The quality of our MRT network is not only about technical and operational performance. Equally vital is the human touch in service quality. SMRT has embarked on a culture of service excellence since 2013.  Our staff share the common purpose to build trust and bring on smiles every day, and in everyone who journeys with us.  This is anchored on our service attributes of Safety, Reliability, Care and Comfort.  Last year, we launched our next phase of service excellence with Inclusive Service Delivery. Frontline staff are trained with the necessary practical skills to be able to identify and support the elderly, wheelchair-bound, visually impaired and those with special mobility needs so that they can use our public transport network more confidently. 

23.    As part of our 30th anniversary last year, we also pledged $30 million in cash and kind to The Gift of Mobility Fund in support of the Community Chest and our beneficiaries.

24.    In recent years, we have introduced many commuter touch-points to make the journey more pleasant and convenient. QR-embedded posters in our stations provide commuters with easily accessible information on alternative travel options during disruptions. Free train-ride vouchers are given to affected commuters, and electronic excuse slips are being introduced to do away with commuters having to queue to obtain a hardcopy at the station. Charging kiosks have been installed for those who need a quick power boost on their mobile devices. Care zones, priority queues for the elderly, and identification stickers for those who feel unwell, have all helped to make travel on our network more hassle-free. 

Developing our people and competencies 

25.    Our strong service culture stems from an engaged workforce that is committed to our mission, high in morale, and strong in values.  Our values include safety and service excellence, mastery, respect and responsibility, teamwork, nurture and integrity – spelling SMRTnI.  These values are inculcated from the start, as part of the curriculum in SMRT Institute when our staff first join, and continue to be reinforced in the business lines.  

26.    Nurturing our People in their skills, values and workplace discipline, as well as developing organisational competencies to be ready and resilient for the future, require careful and constant attention. This is ever more crucial when our headcount has significantly grown in recent years to meet operational demands - from 6,900 in 2012 (with 3,600 in Trains) to 10,500 today (with Trains headcount growing this year to more than 5,000).  Our engineering headcount grew from 175 in 2012 to 500 today, and will grow by another 200 more over the next 2 years. 

27.    44% are millennials, while 34% are above the age of 50 so it is important that we have emplaced multiple individual, team and organisational development programmes to keep our workforce engaged, enabled and energized.

28.    We have put in place a comprehensive continual training and education roadmap to equip our workers for today’s requirements, while preparing them for future demands in the evolving landscape. SMRT Train Engineer Professionalisation (STEP) was launched in 2015 to enable our engineers to attain a professional rail engineering chartership awarded by the Singapore Institution of Engineers (IES). 30 of our engineers have since been awarded the chartership.

29.    In 2016, we developed a first-of-its-kind partnership with the University of Birmingham, one of the world’s top universities for railway research and education, to offer postgraduate certification leading up to a Master’s degree in Urban Railway Engineering.  Running now into its third year, more than 300 of our engineers are undergoing various stages to earn a postgraduate certification while they work and grow in SMRT. It underscores our commitment to develop staff throughout their careers so that they can step up to their fullest potential. 

30.    This is part of our effort to deepen our local rail engineering capability to better sustain the burgeoning rail industry in Singapore.  We set up Singapore Rail Engineering in 2014 also with this goal in mind – to build an indigenous core of rail Engineers who can undertake system integration and upgrade of our own trains and grow deep expertise across the whole value chain.  We have made a good start with the mid-life upgrade of our second generation trains, with the first two trains ready for testing on the line next month. 

31.    On the ground, and in the lines, maintenance supervision and leadership are being enhanced with a new Engineering Maintenance Managers scheme for these mid-level managers and supervisors.  In mid-2017, we began working with DuPont, world-renowned for their safety systems and training, to strengthen the middle management in SMRT Trains. Working with the line, they are coaching the managers and helping to sharpen effectiveness on the ground through a targeted and hands-on approach to inculcate a stronger culture of discipline, ownership and accountability within the ranks. This complements the parallel effort to strengthen up readiness and compliance audits.

32.    We know that building the desired workforce culture takes time and constant effort. It has been an ongoing management emphasis. To be most effective, we also need ground-up support and commitment from staff. Here, we are working closely in partnership with the National Transport Workers Union (NTWU) to gather feedback, motivate our workers and address any ground issues.  We inked a Memorandum of Understanding with NTWU last year to develop a future-ready workforce anchored on lifelong Employability, greater productivity and Efficiency at work, Enhanced safety and discipline in the workplace; and stronger staff Engagement. 


33.    The past year has had its difficult moments, but there have also been many high points. What has been outstanding is the incredible solidarity by the Board, Management and all our staff - not just within our Trains group but also across all other Business Units. Everyone rallied together to overcome the challenges, resolving to learn the right lessons and committing to do better in our collective pursuit of excellence.

34.    SMRT has faced with a number of crises over the past years as we sailed through choppy waters. Some turbulence is not unexpected as we simultaneously undertook massive organisational transformation, and large-scale network renewal on the ageing system while it is still running live and ever more intensively. The journey continues, and we take heart that we are seeing clearer skies and calmer waters.  There has been tremendous progress, with concerted effort by all parties, and SMRT today is better positioned to take our journey to the next 30 years.  We remain committed in our mission to be the people’s choice, by delivering a world class public transport service and lifestyle experience that is safe, reliable and customer-centric. 

35.    I would like to thank our commuters again for their patience and understanding; and all our stakeholders for their strong support as we forge on - to better journeys ahead.