A Student’s Take on Yesterday’s NSL Signalling Fiasco
Image credit: Jeraldine Phneah

TL;DR: Don’t try to run if you don’t know how to walk.

I’m just a student who read a few manuals and had some conversations with fellow enthusiasts, but I’d like to drop my 2 cents on the matter.

Most people would be familiar with the “signalling upgrade” along the North South Line and the mayhem that it brought. This is not something new to the rail industry.

London has done it before us (even installing the same Thales solutions) and so have KL and New York, who are still grappling with problems at the time of this writing.

Resignalling projects tend to be already difficult to manage, even when done slowly and carefully. In fact, the resignalling project on the North-South Line should have been done last year, but LTA missed the deadline. That said, it seems they may be rash in choosing to deploy relatively untested technologies into the system considerably ahead of time.

I believe LTA does have their reasons. First, the urgency to open the Tuas West Extension, which should have been opened last year. Second, the new C151Bs (white trains). Both these projects are only equipped with the new CBTC system (“CBTC” in short), and it would be important to have test coverage on the system to ensure the most can be made out of these new improvements.

Most other systems have chosen to take a phased approach towards resignalling projects. A few stations at a time would be the best approach – this minimises inconvenience while allowing test coverage to still be as expansive as possible. However, LTA has decided to move 40% of the entire system at one go.

To add fuel to the fire, they did not slowly and progressively expand the testing from Saturdays, to off-peak hours, and then to peak hour traffic. This caused considerable mayhem in the first few weeks. Things are probably going to get worse before they can get better.

We already know that a phased, one-step-at-a-time approach is possible – under the current arrangements, all trains must switch at Pioneer station into CBTC territory, even if they are not continuing into Tuas. This is because the turnback siding east of Joo Koon station is located in CBTC-only territory, and it cannot be entered under the old Westinghouse Fixed Block system. This causes delays while trains have to ‘reboot’ into the new system, which takes about one or two minutes.

The first phase would ideally be the stretch between Tanah Merah and the airport. This is an isolated line, so delays on this line tend to have less effect on the rest of the network. However, as far as I’m aware, the nearest depot (Changi) did not receive a full upgrade to CBTC, since it will be replaced by a new facility before 2027. Due to this, the new trains cannot run on the airport line since there’s nowhere else for them to go should one be disabled. Going west, the nearest place to store a disabled train is Outram Park, 30 minutes away. And the CBTC system must be ready for these trains to hobble there on their own power. It won’t be so until next year.

Perhaps they should have phased the North South Line upgrade first. Better to piss off everyone living between Jurong East and Kranji, for example, than those on the entire line. At least, that was the approach London Underground took with the Jubilee and Northern lines, and it has helped them considerably. London Underground also took weekend closures to install and test the system, but that’s something that might be politically unpalatable here.

Alternatively, they could have run the CBTC system in a sort of ‘shadow’ mode, where the old system still controls the train and the CBTC system ‘learn’ how to run the railway before the CBTC system actually takes over. London did this – they managed to reduce bugs even before the first passengers boarded a CBTC-equipped train.

However, this phased approach also does not allow them to make use of their new trains. Under a phased approach, SMRT’s 45 brand new trains will be gathering dust in Tuas Depot for a year or two, very limited in where they can go, while the existing ones are strained more than necessary. There would also have been even more delays when the Tuas extension eventually opens (perhaps next year, or the year after? These stations were completed in 2016!).

In response to that, the KL Ampang/Sri Petaling Line also faced a similar problem, where they had a set of trains with a legacy system only and another set of trains with a new system only. They ran a shuttle forcing people to change, which we could consider using to make the most out of a difficult situation.

Ultimately, this sounds more of a failing of LTA’s project management abilities. I’m one to talk as a commuter, not knowing of the challenges they face inside, but I believe they could have done better. The mess could have been avoided (to a certain extent) had the entire project been planned better.

Hindsight is always 20/20, of course.

Disclaimer: This was reproduced from Reddit Singapore with the author’s permission. It is not a factual writeup, but an opinion piece with additional context provided in the form of technical articles and conversations that the author has had. His sources can be found here and here
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