SINGAPORE: SMRT Trains managing director Lee Ling Wee on Monday (Oct 3) acknowledged problems with the 17-year-old Bukit Panjang Light Rail Transit (BPLRT) system and listed three possible options that the public transport operator was considering for the renewal of Singapore's first light rail system.
"The eight-hour disruption on the BPLRT on Sep 28 shows that the ageing system continues to test the mettle of our engineering staff and the patience of users," he wrote in a post on the company's blog.
The line was temporarily suspended last Wednesday to facilitate "urgent inspections" after a track fault the previous evening, which damaged 15 train cars.
It was the latest in several disruptions to the line in the past two years. In June last year, SMRT and the Land Transport Authority (LTA) announced plans to improve the robustness of the system, which will reach the end of its 20-year lifespan in 2019.
The improvement plans, which SMRT said is expected to cost "millions" and take six to nine months to implement, were meant to address system faults that had previously caused the loss of track signals and traction power.
The company also said in March this year that it was working with authorities to explore future alternatives for the renewal of the system, noting that the BPLRT was one of remaining two systems in the world that use Bombardier CX-100 driverless train cars as a light rail metro within a town.
In Monday's blog post, Mr Lee listed three options identified by the joint SMRT-LTA team to "completely transform" the BPLRT system. "It will be more than just a makeover," he wrote.
The first option is to replace the current trains with self-powered autonomous guided vehicles on the existing viaducts. The BPLRT trains currently draw on external power, and in April this year, four trains on the BPLRT system stalled when the line was hit by a power trip.
The second option the firm is considering is replacing the current system with a new conventional LRT system with "significant" design enhancements in key infrastructure like power supply, signalling, rolling stock and track and station assets.
The last option SMRT is considering is renewing the existing system, keeping the AC power design but with a more updated signalling system that will allow more accurate control of trains as well as more trains moving at faster speeds and closer headways on the network.
The team is also monitoring how the BPLRT can be better integrated with the North-South Line and Downtown Line on the main MRT system, Mr Lee said.
Mr Lee said that another idea floated involved completely doing away with the LRT network, with the neighbourhood being served by enhanced bus services. This was "not far-fetched", he said, noting that a fully loaded double-decker bus can take 130 passengers, more than the 105-person capacity of a single train car on the BPLRT, although the train cars are paired during peak hours for a total capacity of 210.
However, he noted that replacing the light rail with an all-bus option could lead to more road congestion.
In response to media queries, LTA said that "replacing the light rail system with an all-bus option is not likely to be practical, given road capacity".
The authority said that it is working with SMRT on an overall review of the longer-term future of the Bukit Panjang LRT system.
"We are carefully evaluating the various options given the implications on residents and commuters," LTA said.
"STOP-GAP MEASURES" TO BOOST RELIABILITY
The managing director was critical of the current reliability of the BPLRT. "The driverless LRT system is not living up to its name as Rovers have to be deployed at the stations, which were designed for unmanned operations," he wrote.
'Rovers' are SMRT staff who are trained to manually operate a stalled train and bring it safely back to a station.
To address the problems in the near-term, SMRT engineers have also proposed renewal works for the signalling system, the trains and track infrastructure, as well as stepping up repair and maintenance measures, he said.
Noting that the public transport operator deployed staff to assist passengers affected by the suspension of the BPLRT line last Wednesday, Mr Lee said 26 additional staff have been added to the team in charge of the line to "enhance response time and assistance to commuters".
The near-term measures should be complemented by "an in-depth review of the BPLRT to future-proof the transport system", Mr Lee concluded.
"This will enable the future system to serve Bukit Panjang residents years from now by providing transport options for safe, reliable, comfortable journeys that are cost-effective to operate and maintain."