A few minutes with the Singapore Land Transport Authority’s Henry Foo

Asia Pacific Rail was successfully organised from 21-22 March 2017. This year’s edition was our biggest and best yet, with more than 1,500 attendees from 668 organisation and 38 countries, cementing Asia Pacific Rail’s position as the must-attend annual gathering of APAC rail industry’s leaders and decision-makers.

We had the opportunity to sit down onsite with Mr. Henry Foo, Director, Thomson-East Coast Line (Civil Team 3), Land Transport Authority, Singapore, to find out more about the key challenges that he’s facing in his role and how he thinks the industry will evolve in the next decade.

1.What are the key investments or technologies that LTA is looking into?

At Land Transport Authority (LTA), when we build MRT stations, we have created a framework for ourselves that is underlain by a three-pronged approach. The first is to have more experienced and knowledgeable workers to execute our work, the second is to have more innovative and high impact technologies and the third is to use more Design & Build (D&B) approaches rather than Build Only models.

In the second prong, some of the initiatives include using an Rectangular Box Jack Tunnel Boring Machine (RTBM) to build underpasses in a couple of stations along the Thomson-East Coast Line (TEL). We are also going to use a big diameter Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM) for a future line. Currently in Singapore, the TBMs used to construct bored tunnels between stations are all 6.6m in diameter. We’re already looking at big-diameter TBMs in the range of 10-15m to construct such tunnels, using single bore instead of twin bore.

Another initiative is the use of carpet reinforcement to reduce the need to carry heavy, cumbersome bars. These are heavy, prefabricated reinforcement bars that’s done in factories and rolled up. On-site, the workers just need to roll it open and the reinforcement bars are being laid.

2. What are some challenges in incorporating these technologies?

With every innovative endeavor such as the RTBM in TEL, the challenge is how we do so without affecting the original design. We need to consider how to integrate it with our existing practices and systems. The starting point was tough. Another question we need to think about is how do we sell to management and convince people to change after using a particular method for the last 30 years. With every innovative method, there usually comes with it a cost premium, so the cost is something that we need to balance with tangible benefits.

3. One aspect you mentioned is getting the approval of the stakeholders. In constructing new metros, I believe LTA will need to convince not just the management but also homeowners who will be affected by the construction works. How does LTA manage that?

This is what LTA does very well.  Our business model is to subcontract to contractors to execute the construction work. Correspondingly we have a huge team from LTA to manage work activities. Besides time, budget, quality and safety & environment, community engagement is a major aspect of our 5 cornerstones of project management.

How do we translate community engagement to what we do on the ground? It’s almost inevitable, whether you do it in a trenchless or cut-and-cover way, there definitely will be impact on the stakeholders, be it residential or commercial. The important thing is to be able to apprise them in advance, be sincere and let them know what’s going to be imposed on them during the construction period. In my experience, most people are understanding. If you manage their expectations in advance, they will let us execute our works in a more tolerable way.

4. What is the biggest challenge that you face in your role?

I will articulate this challenge as one that we are going to face in the years ahead and that is how to change construction? One query that I have been getting a lot when it comes to constructing MRT is could we do it cheaper? Could we do it faster? There have been many similar projects that have shown that people elsewhere could do it faster and cheaper, why not Singapore? This is something that we need to look into and hopefully improve it and reach a comparable international standard without compromising the quality and in a safe way.

5. As we build more metro lines, there will come a day when we run out of land, both underground and overground. In that case, how do we manage that?

That’s a valid question. The current situation is that we haven’t reached that stage in Singapore. I always like to compare ourselves with very dense networks in Tokyo, Hong Kong, London where the lines are ubiquitously built and very comprehensive. The end in mind in Singapore is to reach that stage. I think by 2030, like you rightfully say, the amount of underground space will limit the continued proliferation of such projects and I think our network will be as dense as the cities I mentioned, that’s the point when the rollout of such projects will significantly slow down.

Want to find out the latest updates in the Asia-Pacific rail industry? Join us at Asia Pacific Rail 2018 to meet the rail leaders.

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