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Asia Pacific Rail 2017 Event Highlights: Interview with Desmond Kuek

At this year’s Asia Pacific Rail held earlier in March, we had the opportunity to sit down onsite with Mr. Desmond Kuek, President and Group CEO, SMRT Corporation Ltd., Singapore to find out his key challenges and the latest technologies that SMRT is  looking to adopt to improve service reliability and passenger experience.

Q: As an industry leader, how do you think the rail industry is going to evolve in the next 5-10 years?

The focus will continue to be on reliability and customer experience. As many countries in the world urbanise and populations in urban centres grow, public transport needs will continue to be a dominant issue. The most cost-effective and environmentally sustainable solutions are usually to be found in mass rapid transit rail systems. We expect that in the foreseeable future, this will continue to be the solution of choice for many cities. So much emphasis will be placed on systems, processes, technologies needed for rail asset owners and operators to provide the best possible quality of transport services that is, at the same time, affordable to commuters.

As we look to the future, end-to-end connectivity for public transport journeys will be even more important. Many cities already have good connectivity for trunk nodes, but typically missing is that first mile connectivity to the nearest MRT node and the last mile connectivity from the MRT node to the destination point for the commuter. We are already seeing great interest and innovation through ICT with new modes of transportation and third party mobile applications – for mobility as a service to commuters.  The aim is to make transport journeys seamless across various public and private, including personal mobility, modes – so that commuter choice based on time and affordability for their journey – can be better discerned.

Q: Is SMRT intending to invest in technologies for the next 5-10 years? If so, what are the technologies or solutions that SMRT is looking to invest in?   

At the rail engineering end of technology, we’re looking to invest in condition monitoring, and how data can be collected, collated and analysed with a view to meaningful decision-making for more predictive maintenance. We are interested in sensors, sense-making and the way in which information can flow wirelessly and in real-time back to decision or control centres that can make those meaningful decisions in a time-relevant way for safety and reliability.

We are also looking at technology to make our workplace more productive and efficient, especially in the face of an aging workforce. The jobs are physically demanding.  There are innovations with robotics and drones that can help us in areas where maintenance activities are mundane, hazardous or not so easily accessible.

A third area of technology exploration is with commuter touch-points, such as passenger information systems, payment systems, and to facilitate inclusiveness in the community.

Q: What are the key challenges that you face in your role?

The challenges evolve. A lot of our current challenges have to do with enhancing the reliability of our network as the systems age. Our oldest lines are now 30 years old, and we have begun the renewal of all the component systems and look forward to completing many of the programs in the next 1-2 years. This includes sleeper replacement, upgrading the third rail and power systems, and introducing a new CBTC signaling system. Our trains are also being progressively overhauled for better reliability.

The challenge for us is doing all these upgrading works while the system is still running live. We only have 3 hours every night to get all these engineering works done in time before commuter service at dawn the next day. So everyone is working under tremendous time pressure, and there is a need to plan and resource the activities well in order to fully optimize track access. And we want to ensure, in all the intensity of work,  the highest level of safety for our workers and commuters.

 Q: One of the key challenges that rail operators face is the lack of human resources. What’s the situation like in Singapore?

It is certainly so in Singapore as well. We do have a steady pipeline of people joining us through collaborations with vocational institutes, polytechnics and universities. They run programs that are geared towards rail engineering and maintenance so they form a natural pipeline of talent flowing into SMRT. At the same time, we’re stepping up our staff continual professional development and career progression plans so that they see not just a job, but a meaningful lifelong career ahead of them. There is strong interest in joining SMRT – our graduates consider this to be engineering work with a social purpose because of our mission focus on public transport service.  But numbers are still limited, and we have to also bring in foreign expertise to help with our efforts and learn from best practices out there.

Q: How did you find Asia Pacific Rail 2017?

The event has grown since I was last here a couple of years ago.  There are a lot more vendors, and certainly the discussions and breakout sessions cover a very rich array of topics, they’re all very interesting and relevant to the needs and demands of today’s railway professionals.

Do keep up with the good work in the Asia Pacific Rail conference. As more participants and vendors come to attend this, I think it feeds on itself and becomes even more valuable as a meeting place for rail professionals to come together to network and exchange best practices.

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Want to find out the latest updates in the Asia-Pacific rail industry? Join us at Asia Pacific Rail 2018 on March 20-21, 2018 in Hong Kong, to meet rail leaders in person.

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