The growth of the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system parallels the development of our rail engineering corps. Three senior engineers reveal what it took over the decades to build and maintain our ever-evolving rail network.
Senior Group Director (Rail),
Land Transport Authority

The growth of the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system parallels the development of our rail engineering corps. Three senior engineers reveal what it took over the decades to build and maintain our ever-evolving rail network.

I was a student in the United Kingdom during the 1970s when I rode London’s Tube for the first time. I fell in love with it and thought, “If Singapore ever builds something like this, I’m going to be a part of it.”

My opportunity came in 1983 when I read a newspaper advertisement calling for engineers. I left my job in the private sector and joined the then Mass Rapid Transit Authority as an Assistant Design Engineer.

I was assigned to work on tenders for power supply systems. Back then, most of the local engineers had knowledge of the alternating current system. However, for metro trains, direct current is used to propel trains. I visited libraries to read technical papers and learn more about the direct current system so that I could oversee the tenders and thereafter supervise the works.

In 1996, I was involved in supervising building services contracts for the Woodlands Line Extension. I looked into tunnel ventilation works and fire protection systems. Then, when we began our first Light Rail Transit (LRT) project at Bukit Panjang, I managed the trains’ signaling and control systems. I became Project Director in 1998 and took on the civil engineering scope as well.

My most memorable project – the one that brought me to tears and then up in the clouds – is the North-East Line (NEL), Singapore’s first driverless steel-rail system. In fact, NEL was the first of its kind in the world. We began work on it in 2000, with 250 engineers.

Our trains and signaling systems were from France; our communications system from Japan. We integrated various systems and carried out off-site tests in France. In 2002, all the systems were installed in Singapore and we ran our first test. My heart fell. The trains didn’t move; the systems didn’t “talk” to one another. So I called for conferences every night with our partners in France and Japan. We went through every single detail and made sure we had a solution ready the next day for testing. Each unresolved issue also meant time lost – we had to meet the June 2003 opening.

By April 2003, we were confident that the system worked. I’d lost quite a bit of weight, but adrenaline kept me going. We were delighted when the NEL launched to great success. Now visitors from around the world come to learn about NEL.

After that project, I began managing the Circle and Downtown Lines, both of which have added new stations every year since 2011. I’ve spent my career building our rail lines, and so have many on our team. What keeps us going is seeing people on our trains.

My relationship with rail has been driven by passion, one fed by those we work with: transport operators who are cooperative, contractors who persevere with us, and fellow engineers who give their best. When team members bring their families to station openings, you can witness their pride. It’s a priceless feeling.

Deputy Group Director (Rail)
Land Transport Authority

Toa Payoh MRT Station remains one of my most memorable rail projects. It was our first MRT station and the project I embarked on when I joined LTA as a junior engineer. The station had a soft launch in 1987 – the year my first child was born. The sense of achievement we felt in delivering the station to the nation was extraordinary.

With the MRT, we entered a new era in public transport. In the early days of rail, we learned from expatriate engineers. As the MRT network expanded across new lines and extensions, we learned on the job, improved our skills and adapted to new challenges.

As an engineer, what I enjoy most is putting my helmet on and getting my hands dirty on-site to progress the works and resolve problems. I still remember that when we were building Sembawang MRT Station in the early 1990s, the HDB town was still developing and our construction traversed thick vegetation and farmland, with many stray dogs in the area. They would chase us! We had to run to our four-wheel-drive vehicle. Being an engineer isn’t easy, but there will always be funny moments.

Technology has also changed the way we work. In the 1980s, we didn't have pressure balance tunnel-boring-machines, so the open tunneling method required us to pressurise the entire tunnel using compressed air. The workers had to work under these arduous conditions for their full shift. With improvements in technology, our work has become safer, and we’ve also drastically reduced our reliance on manpower.

Now, a big challenge for us is how we can better communicate with people and explain the impact due to our construction.As we intensify our MRT network, our rail systems are going deeper underground. Planners sited the stations under road intersections and near developed areas to provide good connectivity for residents and businesses. This has added to the construction challenge but we’re constantly innovating, improving our construction methods and adopting new technology to reduce the impact.

We engage our stakeholders early, take their feedback seriously and try to make changes where we can. If we can’t, we convince them with good technical reasoning. Most of the time, when we can't change something, it’s because of a safety issue – we never compromise on that.

Rail systems must make up the backbone of a city’s transport network. I’m full of hope for rail engineering here. What’s important now is training our young engineers. We can’t train them on paper; we have to spend time with them. I’ll be happy to see younger teams take the lead. We’ve tested them and they’re ready to write the next chapter of our rail story.

Deputy Chief Executive,
Infrastructure and Development
Land Transport Authority

I first joined LTA as an engineer in 1985. When I was studying electrical engineering in the United Kingdom, my thesis was on the simulation of operations on rail networks, and this study helped me later when we began planning the fully automated NEL.

We went around the world to do our research, visiting major systems and contractors. When we returned, I led a team of experienced rail engineering colleagues and started work by going through every task that a train operator had to perform under both normal and emergency situations, identifying the corresponding requirements and capabilities that needed to be incorporated into a driverless system. This formed the basis of a comprehensive list of engineering specifications for the driverless railway. At that time, while driverless technologies were available for light rail systems, we noted that there was none for heavy metro systems, which carry a much larger load. We embarked on the challenge and mobilised the industry to work with us to overcome the odds and make it happen in Singapore.

We achieved many milestones on NEL. It’s the first driverless heavy metro system in the world, capable of carrying a normal train load of 50,000 people per hour, per direction. Being fully automated and driverless provided many advantages such as increased flexibility in train operations, reducing human error in operations and also lowering the dependency on manpower to operate the trains. Many cutting-edge engineering technologies were employed. The most exciting and satisfying moment came when the trains started operating in 2003. We saw the fruits of our labour and it was gratifying to see commuters warmly receiving and using the system. Today, our system is recognised and much-admired around the world. When Shanghai Metro approached us to help them develop their metro system Line 10, to be built in time for World Expo 2010, their requirement to us was for a “NEL-plus” system.

But developing new lines systems doesn’t mean ignoring the existing ones; upgrading to improve capacity and reliability are equally important. I was involved in the Jurong East Modification Project. We had to close the station and shut a section of the North-South (NS) Line and subsequently the East-West (EW) Line for 52 hours each over two weekends in September 2010 to incorporate a new track and platform at Jurong East MRT Station. By increasing from three tracks to four and adding a new platform, we could improve train operating frequencies by physically having separate tracks for the NS and EW Lines at the station, and also increase the platform capacity for passengers.

Once the last train passed Jurong East that Friday night, hundreds of LTA officers and contractors were on the elevated viaducts working non-stop till Monday morning. What made it even more challenging was that it rained heavily that Saturday afternoon, forcing us to stop work for a good five hours. I was so stressed, I think that project must have shortened my life by three years! But with great determination and teamwork, we made it. Monday morning came and we handed the line back over to the operator at exactly 4am, in time to allow it to commence operations.

Other improvements on existing stations include the installation of screen doors at elevated MRT platforms to enhance safety, and lifts to provide barrier-free access. These are technically challenging since they are carried out when commuters are using the stations, and also because they have interfaces with “live” operational systems. We had to minimise the inconvenience posed and ensure commuters’ safety while carrying out these improvements. And right now, we’re carrying out major improvement works to upgrade the rail signalling system on the NS and EW Lines, as well as replacing the aging wooden sleepers on the tracks.

Talk to our engineers and you’ll learn that one of our favourite stations is Bras Basah MRT Station on the Circle Line. What amazes me about this station is how our architects managed to make it bright, open and beautiful, despite it being one of the deepest stations in Singapore. It’s 35 meters underground, and could have induced claustrophobia in some passengers! But our architects created a water-filled glass skylight feature that cleverly brings sunlight into the station and visually enhances the space. Bras Basah successfully merges engineering, architecture and art. I believe that in the area of rail transit, we’ll continue to be a sector of cutting-edge possibilities.