The last few weeks have seen a running battle between commuters and Singapore’s main metro operator SMRT. Commuters have complained in the Straits Times’ Forum pages and online about trains so crowded during peak hours that one simply cannot board at all.
This easily feeds into the ever-present xenophobia among some sections of our population, with the more voluble ones blaming the rush hour crush on Singapore’s immigration policies.
That the trains are crowded is not in dispute. SMRT, in a letter published in the Straits Times on 3 July 2010 provided some numbers:
During peak periods at our busiest sectors, trains are already running at two to three minutes.
This is the highest frequency our network can maintain given the system’s design. At this frequency, train loads range from 1,200 to 1,450 passengers. This averages 3.8 passengers per sq m, lower than that of metros in major cities like London, Shanghai and Tokyo, where it is five to eight passengers per sq m.
At Choa Chu Kang, Bukit Batok, Bedok and Eunos stations, between 7.30am and 8am, train loads range from 850 to 1,350 passengers, which is within peak range.
— Letter from Bernadette Low, SMRT in Straits Times print Forum, 3 July 2010.
There’s no new observation I can bring to this issue, especially since I hardly ever go out during the morning peak and so have no reports of my own to offer. However, what I think commuters should note from this letter is the distinction between the operator (SMRT) and the builder of the rail network — the Land Transport Authority (LTA). What SMRT is saying is that the rail network is now running close to the design limit. Another paragraph in the letter talks of the LTA rushing up a project in Jurong East to ease a structural bottleneck:
In areas like Jurong East, where crowdedness is a problem due to constraints of the system’s design, the average train frequency is 3.5 minutes.
In view of this, the Land Transport Authority is undertaking infrastructural works at Jurong East station, including the construction of an additional station platform and railway track, to be completed next year.
If the trains are already running as frequently as the system allows, directing complaints at SMRT may not therefore be addressing the real “culprit”. For its part however, the LTA has remained mute.
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In 2007, the government mooted the idea that Singapore’s population should eventually reach 6.5 million. Many people then thought this was crazy and that the island would be intolerably crowded. Readers might remember that I took a contrarian view. To me, urban space is not totally determined by geography, our built environment multiples land acreage many times over. That is to say, the state of art in building technology is the limiting factor, not land area, a view I still stand by. Whether at 6.5 million this city feels crowded or not depends on how we build; it is not a foregone conclusion that our living space will get smaller and smaller. It is not a foregone conclusion that we will be packed like sardines in our trains and buses.
If we suffer from unacceptable crowding now, I should think it’s because our urban planners have not been doing their job well enough. That said, “well enough” is relative. To be fair, if you look at other cities, they have some gawd-awful problems too, and it’s not entirely fair to expect perfection of our urban planners when no other city’s has demonstrated the same.
But domestically, it is not hard to recall examples when our much-vaunted civil service totally failed to anticipate things reaching capacity limits. Off the top of my head, let me list a few:
1. In the 1990s, the waiting list for Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats stretched up to five years. Their building program was insufficient. It wasn’t as if Singapore’s population was then exploding; rather, it was a case of aspirations changing rapidly. Newly-married couples no longer wanted to stay with parents, household sizes were shrinking. The HDB was doing straight line projections for housing demand, failing to consider social changes.
2. In the mid-2000s, there were horror stories of critically-ill patients turned away from emergency departments of hospitals, especially Tan Tock Seng Hospital. Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan subsequently conceded that the hospital building program under his predecessor had been very tardy, resulting in wards and clinics bursting at their seams, even as Singapore’s population aged and demand for medical services increased rapidly.
3. More recently, Transport Minister Raymond Lim admitted that one reason why congestion on our roads has worsened considerably was because LTA miscalculated the growth in car numbers year after year.
I suspect that despite the propaganda about our superlative public transport system, the planners have been relatively slow in anticipating demand and building for it.
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It may not look that way, considering how many holes we currently have in the ground as the Circle Line and Downtown Lines are being built. We’re always having to put up with traffic diversions and noise as construction proceeds.
But let me show you a schematic map of the rail services to the Marina Bay area, when completed in a few years’ time. This district is going to be the new financial centre. When the skyscrapers under construction are completed and occupied, the numbers of office workers commuting there every day will probably equal or even exceed the numbers in the existing financial centre of the Raffles Place and Shenton Way areas.
Two metro stations are being built — Downtown station and Bayfront station. The Downtown Line will serve both, while the Circle Line will serve Bayfront, connecting to Marina Bay station. Sounds sufficient, right?
Let me tell you this: The Circle Line is a 3-car line, unlike the 6-car lines of the East-west and North-south lines. And guess what? It appears that the Downtown Line, which will eventually serve Bukit Panjang, Bukit Timah, Bendemeer, Bedok Reservoir Road and Tampines — all high density suburbs — will also be a 3-car line. (I am not 100-percent sure, because I can’t find the specification on the LTA’s website, but instead saw it here.)
If it is correct, then I think the new financial district will be underserved. If the 6-car lines at Raffles Place and Tanjong Pagar are already jam-packed, what more the 3-car lines in the new downtown? Crowded trains today? I suspect we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.