Singapore’s metro – better known as the MRT – is one of the most reliable in the world. It is also one of the most sustainable. Yu Feng Tang, director of Thales Ground Transportation Systems in Singapore, describes the work Thales is doing – and highlights the success of a partnership that spans over a quarter of a century.
What is the scope of Thales’ work in Singapore?
We provide technology to support urban rail operations – specifically, railway signalling, integrated communications and supervision, and ticketing. We also provide Long Term Support Services to the supplied technologies. We work with three main customers. One of these is the Land Transport Authority (LTA), who is the asset owner and governing authority for land transportation. In addition, we work with two major public transport operators. These are the SMRT Corporation Ltd and SBS Transit. We are immensely proud of the work we are doing with our customers and the trust they place in us.
How important is rail transport in Singapore?
Rail plays a huge role. Singapore is committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2050 and one of the key policies supporting this is Walk, Cycle, Ride – the aim is that all journeys to the nearest neighbourhood centre should be possible to complete in less than 20 minutes. Rail is a really important part of this because it provides connectivity between the major nodes of the city. Singapore already has a comprehensive metro network, as well as Light Rapid Transit (LRT) lines, and there are plans for further expansion.
How does Thales’ signalling help?
Modern signalling makes it possible to run more trains on existing tracks. On the North-South and East-West Lines, two of Singapore’s busiest commuter routes, we replaced a legacy signalling system with Thales’ SelTrac™ CBTC (Communications-Based Train Control). This provides our customers with the capacity they require, especially during the peak hours. With SelTrac™, the headway – the time gap between trains – was reduced from 120 seconds to 90 seconds. That means more frequent trains for passengers, as well as improved reliability.
How do you modernise a busy working railway?
Teamwork is critically important in a major resignalling project. A real game changer was working as “One Team” with LTA and SMRT – communicating transparently whenever we encountered issues, finding solutions together, and staying aligned. Regular contact is the key: we had a meeting every week with the customer during re-signalling, which included both the local Thales’ team and our overseas team from Toronto or France. Having all three parties working together was a key success factor for the project.
The MRT has a reputation for reliability. How is this achieved?
First and foremost, the railway has to be safe. Secondly, it must be reliable. This is in line with the Singapore government’s objective to encourage people to take public transport: reliability is the key to making the railway attractive to travellers.
One of the big reliability drivers in Singapore has been the adoption of joint metrics. The measure used is MKBF: mean kilometres between failures. In this context, failure is defined as a delay of more than five minutes. Back in 2015, this metric stood at around 150,000km – so that was the starting point. To drive improvement, an approach was adopted that involved identifying root causes when an incident occurred and closing the loop with the customer. As a result of doing this week by week, reliability on the North-South and East-West Lines has gone from an average of one failure every 150,000km to one more than every 1million kilometres – a huge achievement for everyone.
What about energy savings?
Our signalling technology – Thales’ SelTrac™ CBTC – makes it possible to save energy by adapting the way that trains are driven. It’s like how you drive a car – sometimes, you can reduce acceleration and rely on coasting to save energy. We call this Green CBTC and it is already an integral part of the signalling we deployed for SMRT on the North-South and East-West Lines since 2017
In Sep 2022, we launched an initiative of Green CBTC Next Gen to identify where energy savings can be further made on the North-South and East-West Lines, we first collect data logs from trains and transfer them to the cloud. We then use data analytics to find out how we can improve the speed profile or the operation patterns. Ultimately, it is about being able to predict the savings in kilowatt hours on the customer’s energy bill.
Our analysis suggests that we have good potential to achieve further energy savings of 10-15% with Green CBTC Next Gen. Right now, we are moving towards the very first milestone and we want to do some quick wins to reach 5%. The first quick wins could come from optimisation of the timetable. Green CBTC Next Gen is a fantastic tool for achieving these objectives.
You’re using “digital twin” technology – what is this, and how does it help?
We worked with our customers to build a CBTC Simulation Facility – a digital twin – that replicates the North-South and East-West Lines. This has two important benefits. First, it makes it possible to test new software changes before they are put into service. This reduces delays and increases confidence in deployment.
The second big benefit is familiarization training, because we can replicate failure scenarios using simulation. People from the Operation Control Centre (OCC) take part in exercises so they know exactly how to react to different types of incidents. It goes back to reliability: we have a five-minute window to react to avoid a delay. The CBTC Simulation Facility is a good example of how customer-supplier partnerships can make a real difference to passengers. We were the first to implement such a facility in Singapore.
What about ticketing?
This is another area where we a proud of our contribution. We are currently upgrading Automatic Fare Collection (AFC) gates across more than 80% of the metro network. The new gates are ergonomically designed, with contactless technology to provide a smoother journey for passengers. We have a long heritage in revenue collection in Singapore – we equipped the North East Line with fare gates 20 years ago. We run a Digital Competence Centre (DCC) as part of our revenue collection activities. This is a framework created by Thales to encourage innovation projects with our customers.
How important is innovation?
It’s a vital part of improving the passenger experience. A good example is crowd detection using our Distributed Intelligent Video Analytics solution. This makes it possible for station managers to receive alerts about overcrowding and – in the future – to dispatch additional trains. This has already been piloted at one of the interchange stations. Four stations on the North East Line are now in the pipeline. It’s a good example of how our Digital Competence Centre works. We regularly conduct workshops with our customers to understand what kind of use cases they have in mind. A recent example for SBS Transit is the “Smart Station” initiative to detect automatically scenarios where the operator can intervene to improve passenger comfort and safety.
What work are you doing in the wider region?
We have customers in several countries in east and south-east Asia. For example, we are supporting three LRT lines in Taiwan with integrated communications and supervision systems. Thanks to the success of Taiwan, we are venturing into the Philippines and the team has been working on a new project for Metro Manilla Subway. Support is provided by the technical engineering team from Singapore together with the onshore project team. And in conjunction with Thales Canada, we are supporting three signalling projects in Kuala Lumpur – the Kelana Jaya Line, the Ampang Line and the KL Monorail.
Local capability building is a critical success factor for our projects. We develop people to support our customers locally. That means improved collaboration with customers, shorter turnaround times and quicker project delivery.
Finally, how are you recruiting the next generation of talent?
We are engaging with universities in Singapore to promote our internship programmes. We have more than 40 interns working on our Advanced Development Projects (ADPs): these are innovation projects in areas that include signalling, communications and supervision, and ticketing. In terms of education, we are looking for people with a background in areas such as software engineering, computer science and data science. The other two main areas are electrical and electronic engineering: these skills are the bedrock of the signalling business.
We also run a Testing and Commissioning (T&C) engineering programme for new and recent graduates. This is a two-year training programme under the guidance of experienced T&C engineers. Participants acquire familiarity with our domain, and benefit from expert on-the-job training to build their competence.
At Thales, we are immensely proud of what we have achieved in Singapore over the past 25 years – and we are really excited about what we can achieve in the years ahead.