Wed, Sep 07, 2005 - Page 3 News List

Engineer stands by rail-link critique

BY MAC WILLIAM BISHOP  /  STAFF REPORTER

Although one of the world's pre-eminent railway engineers has questioned the safety of the design for the proposed rail link between CKS International Airport and Taipei City, the government currently has no plan to let an independent organization review the project.

The alleged flaws with the design were so serious that one international company, the Canadian firm Bombardier, decided it would not bid for the project.

The safety concerns first came to light in an article in the Chinese-language daily the China Times, which reported on a closed-door meeting at the Ministry of Transportation and Communications on Aug. 26.

During the meeting, legislators from across the political spectrum met to listen to a safety review conducted by an independent consultant, Brian Mellitt. Mellitt was hired by Hong Kong Transportation Consultants, a firm which was asked to conduct an analysis of the project by the Legislative Yuan's Transportation Committee.

Mellitt is the former dean of the faculty of engineering at the University of Birmingham and former president of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, and has held the top engineering posts at Railtrack (UK) and with the London Underground, as well as having served in dozens of professional and academic posts since he began his career in 1956.

Mellitt has worked on consulting projects for some of the biggest firms in the rail industry, including Siemens, Mitsubishi, Kawasaki and Alstom. He has acted as a consultant on projects for the Singapore MRT, the Hong Kong MTRC and a host of other railways.

The safety review endorsed by Mellitt highlighted a number of specific concerns, and recommended that the Bureau of High Speed Rail -- the government agency in charge of the project -- conduct an independent "hazard analysis of possible safety risks, conducted in accordance with normal international process."

However, officials from the bureau responded that their "consultants to the project said there is no problem with the design of the project."

Mellitt, interviewed by the Taipei Times last week, defended his conclusions.

"The first question has to be: `How do you make the system safe?'" Mellitt said. One of the problems he identified was a situation described by engineers as low adhesion -- where the wheels of the train can not gain traction on the tracks, affecting the train's ability to accelerate or decelerate. This is a major concern on a train system with sharp turns and steep gradients -- such as the proposed CKS-Taipei MRT link.

"Some people are of the opinion that if you have no ice, no snow, you won't encounter situations where low adhesion is a problem," he said.

"The essential difference of opinion between myself and [the bureau] is that I believe -- periodically -- adhesion will be quite low," Mellitt said.

Instances of low adhesion have been encountered in Singapore and Hong Kong, which have climates similar to Taiwan's, according to the review.

Also, the design for the CKS-Taipei rail link would have trains running on it every six minutes, according to Mellitt, and if even one train was unable to stop at precisely the right spot -- as is necessary with systems like Taipei City's Muzha Line -- the train would have to back up, potentially throwing the entire system into chaos.

"It can't just be right sometimes. It has to be bloody right every day," he said.

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