Singapore's MRT is renowned for its well-designed stations (Photo: Andrew Griffith)

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Singapore is investing billions
to expand its metro rail system

By Brian Baker, Chief Correspondent

30 July 2012: Singapore began building its Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system in the 1980s. Since the initial 6km section opened in 1987 the investment has continued as the population has grown and the network had reached 167km in 2011. New sections will open every year up to 2017 and the approved investment programme envisages a system of 275km before 2025.

• Policy and strategy
• Organisation
• The beginning
• Past investment and growth
• Current and future investment
• Operational problems
• Passenger services
• Conclusion

The city state is unique in many ways and its population, currently 5.3 million, is predicted to rise to almost seven million in the next 15 years due to immigration from the Chinese mainland. With a land mass of only 70,400 , it is crowded and the Singapore Government, which has built a lot of road-space but still ended up with congestion, now recognises that the only solution is to increase the use of public transport to even higher levels.

Policy and strategy
In 2010 roads already occupied 12 per cent of the land area and although Singapore is building even more new road capacity, its overarching policy target is for 70 per cent of journeys within the city state during peak hours to be made by public transport by 2020. In 2009 it was 59 per cent, less than it had been three years earlier, though in 2010 it edged back up to 60 per cent.

The 70-per-cent target was set in 2008 in a high level government policy document called the Land Transport Master-plan: Making public transport the mode of choice which sets out how the target is to be achieved through a mix of investment and better integration. This will reduce point to point journey times by public transport across the city state. 

By 2020 the number of daily journeys made on the island is predicted to have increased to 14.3 million. If this turns out to be accurate it will be a 60 per cent increase on 2008.

The strategy for addressing the increase includes road pricing mechanisms, co-ordination of public transport with other services, information innovations and better support for cycle use but at its core is the expansion of the rapid transit fixed-link network.

The second key target in the strategy is for 85 per cent of journeys to be one hour or less by public transport. This relates to door-to-door journeys and is currently at around 66 per cent. It is estimated that this achievement will be likely to make journeys by public transport on average 50 per cent quicker than car journeys during the busiest periods.

Complete integration across travel products and scheduling supported by enhancement of more locations to full-on multi modal interchange function will be necessary in conjunction with the rapid transit expansion to make this objective a reality.

The third central objective is to achieve an intensity of metro stations across the central quarters of the city and other high population density areas which will offer walk times of less than five minutes from all locations.

The policy and the investment programme supports the objective of making Singapore a garden city. The garden city was originally a vision of the still highly influential former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.

The Ministry of Transport and its in-house division, the Land Transport Authority, are the key organisational mechanisms in moving the city state forwards in these objectives. The government entities entrust the delivery of public transport services to two large private businesses. They are SBS Transit and the SMRT Corporation. SMRT was incorporated in 2000 and includes under its umbrella corporations established earlier including SMRT Trains, which dates back to 1987 and the more recent SMRT Light Rail, which was established in 1997.

SMRT has been listed on the Singapore stock exchange since 2002 and has an annual turnover of around 700 million Singaporean dollars (US$560 million). Its assets are valued at 1.4 billion S$ (US$1.12 billion). It also operates some bus services and taxi services.

SBS Transit is owned by the Comfort Del Gro Group. Due mostly to mergers and acquisitions this has become one of the largest transport operations and services businesses in the world and has interests in five continents.

In 2012 SMRT was delivering over two million journeys a day on the North – South, East –West and Circle metro lines and the airport branch off the East-West Line and the Bukit Panjang light rail feeder line. SBS Transit caters for 3.1 million daily journeys by bus and rail. It operates over 75 per cent of bus services on the island and has 2.6 million journeys per day on its 250 routes and 3000 buses. The company operates the North East Metro Line and its light rail feeder systems and the combined total of journeys on these is 0.5 million passengers daily. It also operates the Sentosa Express monorail system.

Both its bus and rail journey numbers have increased every year since 2007. SBST announced in July 2012 that by 2015 its bus fleet would number 3,400 vehicles and 90 per cent would be less than 10 years old and over 95 per cent would be air-conditioned.

The beginning
The gestation period before the construction of the first phase of the North South Line – Yio Chu Kang to Toa Payoh- began in 1983 was lengthy. That Singapore began delivery of a fixed-link system in the 1980s was largely due to its former president, the late Ong Teng Cheong. He was an urban planner and architect and became convinced that a fixed-link system was essential whilst working for the Ministry of National Development in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Later, when he was Minister for Communications and Transport in the 1980s he pushed through the decision to begin building in the face of considerable opposition from within government. In the 1990s, when Ong Teng Cheong was President he had the pleasure of seeing the fledgling system succeed and was able to authorise decisions which led to expansion into a very substantial network.

The North-South Line was extended to Marina Bay and Jurang East by the 1990s when it had a total length of 44km. The East – West Line was extended to operate from Pasir Ris to Boon Lay. This was a distance of 43km.

Past investment and growth
The first of the island’s light rail feeder lines opened in 1999. The 7.8km route is linked to the North South line. There are 14 stations and it is elevated throughout. It serves the Bukit Panjang new town and connects at Choa-Chu-Kong.

The Changi Airport branch off the East-West line connected into the burgeoning metro network in 2002. The 6.4km section also serves the Singapore Exhibition Centre. It cost 750 million S$ (US$600 million). The introduction of a direct attractive service between the airport and the central business district was an important advance for the system.

The North East Line was the first fully automated underground system in the world. It opened in June 2003. Journey time for the whole 20km route is 33 minutes. It has16 stations and operates from Harbour Front to Punggol. It has an overhead wire system and uses 6 car train-sets from Alstom. Two of the stations were opened subsequently as new housing was completed.

Two light rail feeder lines were built to connect the North East Line to new town settlements. The Punggol new town line opened in 2005. It has 14 stations, two of which were added as new housing areas were completed. The Sengkang new town feeder line opened in two phases in 2003 and 2005. Users of the 13 stations enjoy a 3.5 minute frequency in peak periods.

Current and future investment
Work on the current S$20-billion (US$16 billion) phase of investment continues following the phased opening of the Circle Line between 2009 and 2012. Recent system failures have added impetus to re-signalling and other renewals of the older sections of the network and the rising demand is being met by expanding the train fleet so that more seats can be provided in busy periods. In March 2012, the Land Transport Authority and the operators announced that a further increase in train services of 60 per week from 19th March would bring the total increase in peak seat availability since 2008 to over 2,900.

1500 of these were added between 2011 and March 2012. 800 of those followed the completion of the Jurong East Modification Project in May 2011 and the subsequent gradual insertion of 22 additional train sets. This has introduced more morning peak services on both the north-south and east-west lines.

The Ministry of Transport is also focussed on rolling out incentives for commuters to vary their travel times by enhancing the range of off- peak journey discounts across the bus and rail network.

The first phase of the Circle Line, which is operated by SMRT, opened in May 2009 from Bartley to Marymount. It was followed by Bartley to Dhoby Ghaut in April 2010 and Dhoby Ghaut to Harbour Front in 2011. It is an automated system and operates with three car sets. The 33km line is not a complete circle but it does provide six interchanges with other metro lines. Some of these are at major multi-modal hubs which are the model for future enhancement of other transport transfer sites or will be served by future new lines. Major hubs include Harbour Front and Dhoby Ghaut.

In January 2012 the long awaited branch section of route which extends off the Circle Line opened for commercial service. It operates from Promenade to Marina Bay with an intermediate station at Bayfront.

Although only 2.4km in length this was always seen as critical by the government and especially by property investors in the city state. Marina Bay is the focus of development in the present period.

The Tuas West extension of the East – West Line will open in 2016. There will be five new stations. The 7.5km extension, which will be part underground and partly on viaduct, will increase the total length of the East West Line to 57.2km. It is set to serve up to 100,000 commuters along the corridor between Joo Koon and Tuas Link. The stations will serve a large number of workplaces,

The Downtown Line will open in three phases between 2013 and 2017. Construction began on the first phase in 2010.It is to be operated by SBST who won the opportunity in a tender process. The 42km line, mostly underground and fully automated, will connect the east and northwest quadrants of the island and terminate at Expo and Bukit Panjang.

The 4.3km first phase between Chinatown and Bugis has six stations and opens in 2013. Phase two, from Bugis to Bukit Panjang is 16.6km and will have 12 stations. It is due to open in 2015 and will provide interchange with the Circle line at Botanic Gardens and the North East Line at Little India. 

Construction of the third phase began in 2012 and will add a further 21km to the network in 2017. Serving areas in the east of the island it will offer interchange with the Circle and East-West Lines and form a part of the future major hub at Tampines.

It is estimated that once fully built the Downtown Line will cater for 0.5 million daily journeys and shorten journey times to the central business, retail and leisure districts from several residential areas.

The Land Transport Authority has lead responsibility for the projects which are going forward in order to fulfil the Singapore government’s ambitious objectives.

Construction of two new lines is expected to commence between 2014 and 2017. These are the Eastern Region Line and the Thomson Line. There will also be an extension of the North South line across the bay to the planned International Cruise Terminal in Marina South at Marina Pier where other developments are also proposed.

The Eastern Regional Line will serve recently expanded eastern suburbs and the Changi Airport. It will be 21km in length. It is expected that the route will be underground for most of its length and will operate from Changi Airport to Marina Bay and serve Tanjong Rhu, Marine Parade, Siglap, Bedok and the upper east coast. There are likely to be 12 stations. Several of the neighbourhoods in the north east of the island will have direct journeys to the central business district for the first time.    .

The Thomson Line will extend for 30km in a north-south alignment. It will serve the central business district and it will run from Woodlands in the north to Marina Bay in the south. It will serve Kim Seng, Thomson, Kebun Baru, Sing Ming and Ang Mo Kio. There may be a connection at Woodlands to Johor Bahru in Malaysia.

Both of these post 2007 investment phases have been priced at around 20 billion Singaporean dollars (US$16 billion).

The Land Transport Authority is also creating more integrated transport hubs where all modes of transport and commerce are fully co-located. There were six sites where bus interchange was fully integrated with commerce and rail by 2012. In the next decade, opportunities to improve the transport facilities in tandem with re-development which introduces better commercial offers for travellers will be realised at four more locations.

In addition, some of the central rail stations including Somerset, Raffles Place and Tanjong Pagar are integrated with prime shopping offers.

The Government has realised that the climatic conditions in Singapore are such that to be able to make a multi modal journey and to shop without leaving an air conditioned environment is very attractive to residents.

Operational problems
In 2011 the metro system experienced two of the most disruptive interruptions to services in its history. On December 15th the North-South Line was shut for 12 hours trapping several thousand peak hour travellers on trains in tunnels. Two days later the East-West line failed. Although no customers were in danger there was widespread criticism of the system operators SMRT and the Government moved to respond by setting up an independent inquiry into the causes.

In January 2012 the SMRT Chief Executive Saw Phaik Hwa offered her resignation which was accepted by the board. The Singapore Government has taken this problem very seriously. Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew has ordered that the capacity of the system to recover more quickly from failures has to be the top priority for ministry officials and the operators. Lui Tuck Yew apologised to customers after both of the major incidents in December 2011 and again after further failures in the first three months of 2012.

At the groundbreaking ceremony for the beginning of work on the Tuas West extension of the East-West Line in May 2012 the Minister re-iterated the message to commuters.

“The level of reliability needs to be improved and the Ministry, LTA, SBST and SMRT will follow through to make sure this is done. This is the top priority for the rail sector and we will spare no effort in the process but this will not be a one-time or one year task so l ask commuters for patience.”

In July 2012 the independent committee of inquiry established by the government reported and said that the incidents could have been averted or better managed through a combination of improved management, maintenance and monitoring of the system’s key engineering elements.

Passenger services
SBST and SMRT have been in the forefront of introducing new travel product and use technologies. Commuters in Singapore are able to use  the Symphony for E payment which was introduced in December 2008 to buy travel, parking and pay road pricing tolls.

SBST has a network wide information system in place which is branded as Iris Bus and provides real-time information on all of its bus and metro services to customers through both street installations and on mobile communications devices.

The web-sites, social networking media and messaging to phones are all used prominently and extensively by both operators in Singapore. The customer is given as many alternative means of payment as possible. Unsurprisingly, the system has been in the forefront of using Apps. 

The prices have been kept reasonable despite the high costs associated with major tunnelling schemes and with the need for air conditioning throughout. The core price for a single journey was S$3.80 (US$3.04). There is a small discount for very short journeys and much larger discounts for pass holders and concessions. Journeys can be by a combination of modes and can include up to five transfers.

The late president Ong Teng Cheong was a critically important figure in the development of Singapore to its current global position. It is inconceivable that a congested city without fixed-link mobility would have secured the growth in key sectors and the favourable opinion of international companies and investors which the city state has enjoyed since the 1980’s.

Sustainable mobility systems work best if they meet the needs of all residents and if they strive for constant improvement. Singapore has been an exemplar in tailoring its payment and information provision to the young and in fully integrating fares, modes and schedules to attract all ages but especially the older person.

By starting to build a metro system in the 1980s and by continuing to invest in each decade the Singapore authorities have just about kept pace with population growth and the building boom. The money for the approx. 20 billion Singaporean dollars price of the current phase of extensions has been delivered as programmed. The benefits will become dramatically clearer by 2016.
Future prosperity will depend on delivery of the similar sum allocated for the building of the two new lines and some smaller connecting schemes in the years from 2015 to 2024.

The major failures at the end of 2011 may be evaluated as a timely warning for the government and operators. They highlighted the need to keep the earlier sections of the network in good order and reaching the over-arching policy targets will depend on this. Good management and maintenance and expenditure on new trains and buses on a continuous basis are also pre-conditions of success. 

The achievement of modal share targets will also be influenced by ease of use for a largely educated and middle class clientele so the operators must continue to be incentivised to keep pace with modern consumer communications preferences. The integration of payment and information methods with other mobility and wider everyday life transactions and choices is vital. In this, Singapore is currently in the forefront globally.

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