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24 Mar 2021 Updated 25 Mar 2021

Devising common standards key to sustainable rail sector

The Straits Times Christopher Tan

The Technical Committee on Railway Systems aims to come up with 60 standards in five years, with the first focused on permanent way, or the tracks which trains run on. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

As the rail network grows in length, complexity and usage intensity, so will the cost of operating and maintaining it. Standardisation - which aims to enhance common best practices - can help increase efficiency and keep costs in check.

Driving rail standardisation is Dr Richard Kwok, a Singapore Technologies veteran who was appointed to the audit committee of rail operator SMRT after a tunnel flooding incident in 2017.

During yesterday's launch of the Singapore Railway Standards by the Institution of Engineers, Singapore (IES), Dr Kwok, the IES president, told The Straits Times the first tasks include harmonising terminology so "that we all speak the same language".

Noting that the MRT system had improved dramatically - due largely to a massive asset replacement exercise - Dr Kwok said this may not be sustainable.

"We can't keep on replacing assets," he said, adding that the industry needs to learn how to make better use of its assets. "You can buy a piece of expensive equipment, but you might find out later that it's not really suitable."

Standardisation can also help optimise maintenance and cost efficiency, he said.

For instance, there may be different tolerances between operators, original equipment manufacturers and regulators on when an asset needs to be upgraded or replaced.

A technical committee on railway systems was set up last year under the Singapore Standards Council as part of the national standardisation programme overseen by Enterprise Singapore.”

The committee identified four main areas for standardisation: asset management, maintenance, safety and security, and service.

It aims to come up with 60 standards in five years, with the first focused on permanent way (the tracks which trains run on).

Dr Kwok said standardisation can result in economy of scale. For example, if track lengths can be uniform across all lines, it would allow for larger bulk purchases, which are potentially less costly.

Standardisation will lead to better understanding of components, since it will mean fewer variations of each component.

Otherwise, "suppliers might try to corner us because we don't know our own products", said Dr Kwok.

It will also prevent suppliers from offering "boutique" solutions which are "too specific". They can then command a high price because no one else supplies them.

Ultimately, clear standards pave the way for improvements.

"At the end of the day, people are afraid of change because there are no standards," said Dr Kwok, who is an adjunct professor at the Singapore University of Social Sciences.

Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung, who was guest of honour at yesterday's launch event at Shangri-La Hotel, said: "The standards are a collection of insights and experiences by the rail industry, crystallised to a set of common language."

Mr Ong said standardisation is an art. "It must be quite specific, yet not so specific that it becomes restrictive... Ultimately, you have different players. Everyone goes through the same standards, but everyone cannot end up working under the same standard operating procedure. That would be wrong.

"But you must work to the same quality standards," he said.

Correction note: Enterprise Singapore has clarified that it is the Singapore Standards Council's Trade and Connectivity Standards Committee (which it oversees) which is drawing up the 60 rail standards over the next five years - not the Institute of Engineers, Singapore.

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.