Infrastructure: the importance of planning for maintenance and upgrading

One important aspect of infrastructure construction that is constantly neglected is to build it such that it is easy to maintain and upgrade. The reason is due to the usual human short-sightedness and tendency to place short-term gains over long-term practicality. In particular, budget considerations (important) and appearance (entirely overrated) take precedence.

Example #1: Esplanade theatres on the bay

This building is actually an example of FAILED design, although it is presented everywhere as an architectural triumph. It was initially designed with an all-glass roof. Yes, an all-glass roof in a tropical country with average temperature of around 30°C.

I’m sure that everyone can see the problem with trying to air-condition a pair of giant greenhouses. Just sit in a car which has been parked under the sun for 1 hour.

The architect, after belatedly realizing that he was designing a building for Singapore and not Antarctica, simply tacked on metal sunshades over the glass roof and declared mission accomplished.

After it was constructed, cleaning the roof (glass AND sunshades) is VERY expensive and time-consuming. Unlike skyscrapers which can be cleaned with a gondola, the spiky roof requires cleaning staff to maneuver around each point.

Ladies and gentlemen, before you commit millions of dollars to building something pretty, take a minute to think about how you are going to keep it looking pretty 5 years after it is built.

(The all-glass roof wouldn’t have worked either. Are you going to keep roof-cleaning staff on standby to rush up every time a bird defecates on the roof?)

Additional example #1a: Glass-roofed covered walkways were built as part of my estate’s upgrading. They provided no shade from the tropical sun initially. A few months later, they got a little more shaded, but if you looked up at the roof while walking under it, you could see the accumulated birdshit, dust and dead leaves which provided the shade.

Example #2: Underground train tracks

Yes, we all know that land is precious in Singapore. I don’t see such concerns when road-widening or road construction is proposed. Go to the Marina Bay area and see the new 4-lane roads for an example.

The argument against underground train tracks is about maintenance and upgrading difficulties.

Maintenance: Despite claims about “ageing” being the cause of more frequent breakdowns, the best-performing line so far is the green East-West line, which is the oldest. The red North-South line has tended to break down around the underground section. The newer purple North-East and yellow Circle lines actually have the worst performance, when comparing the number of breakdowns with their years in operation.

Underground lines have already been proven to have some additional problems compared to above-ground lines: water seepage, inspection difficulty due to the need for artificial lighting, ventilation for tunnels and stations while work is performed, etc.

Given the poor track record of underground lines, why are we putting all the new lines underground?

MRT lines transport more people and take up less space than expressways, so why can’t we make space above-ground for new MRT lines? After all, there was no space constraints for CTE widening.

Upgrading: Above-ground lines can be easily expanded. The Dover MRT station was built around an existing track. The Jurong East MRT station had an additional platform built. If we decide to increase capacity by using longer trains, we can easily extend the existing above-ground MRT station platforms.

Capacity expansion is only possible for underground lines and stations by increasing train frequency. Unfortunately, the government is not following their own advice to “build ahead of demand”. The NEL, Circle and Downtown lines are all running very short trains with small stations. The NEL and Circle line trains are already full during peak hours at a frequency of once every 3min, so it won’t be possible to increase the capacity much further.

If you insist on putting all the new lines underground, why are all the trains and stations built with such limited capacity (just enough to meet current demand)? Are there no new homes / workplaces / leisure sites planned for the vicinity?

MRT trains generate noise, but so do roads (especially with the increase in “farting” cars and motorcycles).

Example #3: Road works for pipes and cables

I’m sure that everyone has an example of the road junction(s) in their neighbourhood that gets dug up once every few months for power line / fibre optic cable / water pipe / sewer / gas pipe etc upgrading.

This not only disrupts traffic, but also poses risks to the workers (who are standing in the middle of a busy junction) and motorists (who must avoid the obstruction). Furthermore, such work is inefficient, requiring jackhammers to break up the road, then covering it up, re-surfacing and re-painting the road.

If such upgrading and replacement work is going to be done so frequently, wouldn’t it make more sense to provide an access point as part of initial construction? For example, to put all the pipes and cables along the side of the road, and install a removable cover (of course, only removable with heavy machinery and/or a key).

How about putting the pipes and cables along the empty space beneath MRT / LRT tracks and flyovers? This would occupy space that is currently wasted.

Example #4: Sengkang and Punggol LRT

Just one line from this article “2-car trains roll out on Sengkang LRT”: The Straits Times understands that a contributing factor to the lengthy process has been that the original trains did not have coupling devices that would allow additional carriages to be added.

So the authorities spent money on a rail system and originally intended it to have less capacity than a bus (LRT carriages are much smaller than a bus)? Why spend so much money building a rail system (for MASS transit) if the usage is expected to be so low? If you have already spent so much on lines and stations, does it make sense to scrimp on this crucial feature of the trains?

All these examples show that maintenance and upgrading considerations are very low priority in construction and design of buildings and infrastructure. Society unfortunately places priority on outward appearances and short term benefits, which is why these aspects have always been neglected. I’m guessing that university courses don’t place much emphasis on such considerations either.

Designs which do not consider ease of maintenance and upgrading eventually impose efficiency and monetary costs. Cleaning roofs, repairing tracks, breaking up and re-building roads all cost money, manpower and time. Such activities also inconvenience people and generate waste. A system which cannot be upgraded must be abandoned and re-built.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to consider these aspects during the planning and design phase instead?

2 thoughts on “Infrastructure: the importance of planning for maintenance and upgrading

  1. If “planning and maintenance” is TOP of your list, I encourage yourself to go NORTH, over the causeway. You will have an extremely HUGE SHOCK. Lots of WHITE ELEPHANTS.

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