Rail opportunities – Life as a British engineer in Singapore

Singapore has ambitions of doubling its current 178 km urban rail network over the next three decades. It’s a level of rapid growth and investment that the region’s railways have enjoyed since the very first line opened in 1987.

Tough licensing rules and high taxes mean relatively few Singaporeans own their own car, making an efficient mass transit system all the more essential.

The city’s automated metro is one of the most modern systems in the world and its development is down, in no small part, to the work of British engineers.

[pullquote align=”right”]What is lacking, which mirrors a worldwide trend, is the pool of senior rolling stock engineers of both mechanical and electrical engineering rolling stock design backgrounds, with more than 10 years of experience to guide and train them.[/pullquote]

Mike Harrison, a rolling stock engineer from Yorkshire, has spent a significant chunk of his 45 years’ experience in the rail industry in Asia, having made the bold decision to move to Hong Kong in 1992.

Mike spent the beginning of his career developing and designing electrical chopper equipment for different rail companies before rising up the ranks to oversee the Central Line Trains project in 1990 – a major modernisation programme which included the procurement of a new fleet of 85 trains for London Underground. Five years later, Mike said yes to a move to Hong Kong where he became responsible for the electrical design of two fleets of aluminum-bodied electric multiple units (EMUs) for the city’s airport link and Tung Chung lines.

Now in Singapore, Mike is in charge of the design of the region’s train fleet, including those that will run on the landmark Downtown Line when it opens at the end of the year.

The demand for experienced British rail engineers continues to grow in the Far East and for Mike, it’s a move he wishes he had made earlier in his career.


How does a British engineer find himself in Singapore delivering major rolling stock programmes?

“In the early 80s, two of my close friends left the UK to join Hong Kong MTR Corporation (MTRC) to work on the construction of the new Island Line for HK Island.

“A couple of years later, I was offered a job working on the same project. I declined the offer, because the timing then wasn’t quite right for me at that time. However, several years later, in 1992, I applied for the role of Traction and Electrical Engineer, to work on the Airport Railway and Tung Chung Line Projects with MTRC. Once that project was completed, I took on the role of Rolling Stock Engineer, responsible for the design of 13 trains for the Tseung Kwan O Extension.

“When these projects were completed, an opportunity arose to move to Singapore to work with the Land Transport Authority (LTA) and take responsibility for the design of 40 new driverless metro trains.”

What does you job involve doing day to day?

“My role is very varied and involves the preparation of procurement specifications for rolling stock, design negotiations with contractors, approval of submitted design material and support of a team of multi-disciplined engineers.

“One other element of my job which I really enjoy is guiding and mentoring junior staff. It is a very rewarding element of the work here.

Mike Harrison2
Mike Harrison

What opportunities have you had in Singapore that you never would have had in the UK?

“When in the UK, my work was mainly associated with the design of propulsion systems for supply to many car builders worldwide. This meant that the work mainly consisted of managing detail design and manufacture of one of the many subsystems which make up a complete train.

“Being involved with the design of a complete train, which is what I have been doing for a number of years in Asia, is a much more complex challenge. It’s a continuous learning process; new ideas are constantly introduced and new technologies are developed regularly. The projects in Singapore are much more complex than those I worked on in the UK and of much higher value.”

With so much activity and growth on Singapore’s metro, what skills are in real demand?

“Singapore is not a huge country and at present does not have any rolling stock manufacturers. Therefore, the only people with railway engineering skills are those currently employed by the LTA or by one of the two operating companies – the SMRT Corporation Ltd (SMRT) and the SBS Transit.

“There is a ready supply of well-qualified university graduates, who are keen to develop their skills in the railway industry. What is lacking, which mirrors a worldwide trend, is the pool of senior rolling stock engineers of both mechanical and electrical engineering rolling stock design backgrounds, with more than 10 years of experience to guide and train them.”

It must be nice working with brand new infrastructure. Not having to deal with the limitations of a Victorian-era railway?

“I have been fortunate enough to work on a number of projects on “green field” sites in both Hong Kong and Singapore. This involves the supply of trains for entirely newly constructed lines, so the concept of modernising an ageing infrastructure doesn’t apply.

“The two latest projects that I’ve been working on involved supplying additional stock for existing lines. This poses another challenge, as often trains are designed in Europe and manufactured in China. This would involve working with a joint venture company, where although the design is the responsibility of the European partner, the actual sourcing of the sub-systems and sub assembly piece parts is often by the China partner, locally within China.

“Final train assembly would also be in China. Establishing and maintaining quality levels, compatibility of Chinese and European standards, type and routine testing in a different environment in a different language all add to the challenge.

“I have a lot of experience working with modern train designs. This is interesting because it means we’re making use of the latest technologies in power semiconductors, microprocessor-based control systems, data communication protocols and so on. As a result, we’re always working at the forefront of innovation.”Transport Photos (5)

What was the move like for you and your family? How did you adapt?

“They say that two of the major areas of stress in life result from changing jobs and moving homes. Adding those both together and then including changing countries into a totally different culture is highly stressful.

“For many people in the UK, I think Singapore is seen as an unknown quantity, with a reputation for strict laws with regards to capital punishment, chewing gum and jay walking. Having lived here for 10 years though, I can safely say that there is a great deal more to Singapore and it’s a great place to live with a very vibrant culture.

“Singapore is actually an extremely safe and easy place to live. As well as being a very beautiful country, it also has every amenity imaginable. The schools have a great reputation, the hospitals are excellent, with all modern facilities and there are a number of modern universities with a global reputation, not to mention a selection of different cuisines second to none.

“Singapore can be quite an expensive place for an expat to live with rental accommodation having a reputation for being amongst the most expensive in the world. Given the restrictions on home ownership and the usual short-term contract nature of employment here, home ownership is a challenge. There are, however, plenty of options for finding a property which is suited to any budget; it’s just a case of knowing where to look.

“As I came from Hong Kong, adjustment to life here was very easy, as the cultures are relatively similar. Talking to others who were first posted to Singapore, they have also encountered very few difficulties and quickly got used to the way things work here.

Advice time. What words of wisdom can you share?

“The best advice I could give to anyone looking to move here would be to keep an open mind and be respectful of other people’s culture and behaviour. Above all, it’s important to refrain from continually drawing comparison with one’s previous life.

“I have only have one regret with regards to my last 21 years as an expat and that is that I didn’t grab the opportunity to go to Hong Kong in the 80s.”


This feature is sponsored by Contact Singapore



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