Ex-transport minister Raymond Lim may be a little rueful that on Friday, 27 May 2011, when the modification to the Jurong East metro station finally opens, he is out of office. This project was launched under his watch after complaints crashed on him about congestion at that interchange station. On some days, escalators were so jammed they had to be turned off for safety reasons. The average commuter at peak hour had to let 2 or 3 sardine-packed trains pass before he could squeeze himself into one.
Will things get noticeably better from May 27th? Living as I do on the western side of the city, I’d be interested to know. This especially as, from what I’ve seen and read, the “improvements” sound a little illogical.
The Straits Times reported earlier this week:
Next Friday, a new platform will open at the busy Jurong East MRT interchange.
The platform will allow five new trains to be deployed on the North-South and East-West Lines (NSEWL) that use the station.
Passenger load [erm… Straits Times, I think you meant ‘passenger capacity’] on the two lines during morning peak hours will increase by 8 per cent to 21 per cent, depending on which direction a train is heading, and crowding at the station will be reduced.
By December, an additional 17 new trains will join the five, bringing the total number of trains on the NSEWL to 128.
Once those 17 trains are added, the number of passengers that can be carried on the two lines will increase by 15 per cent during peak periods.
Waiting time for commuters will also be cut. During peak hours, they need wait two to three minutes for a train compared to the current 2.5 to four minutes.
The new platform and trains are part of the $800 million Jurong East Modification Project announced in 2008 to ease crowding and increase capacity of the NSEWL.
— Straits Times, 17 May 2011, Shorter wait for MRT trains
The “need wait two to three minutes” statement is misleading. That’s the time interval between trains. It is significantly longer if you have to let a few trains pass without being able to get on.
So what is it that appears illogical? Well, it’s like this: At the morning peak hour, the most popular travelling direction is from the residential suburbs towards downtown. That would mean hordes from Woodlands, Choa Chu Kang and Bukit Batok coming down the North-South Line (the red line) and changing to the East-West (green) Line heading to Clementi and downtown. The problem is that the green line by that point is often packed with commuters who had boarded at Pioneer and Jurong West. So those coming in via the red line, as well as those who live in Jurong East itself arriving on foot or by bus have difficulty boarding the green line, going east. That is provided they are not stuck unable to even get onto the escalators.
As far as I can see, the modification involved adding a new platform to accommodate more trains (and people) coming in via the red line:
That being the case, it looks like the main “improvement” has taken the form of more capacity to the incoming line, not the outgoing line. In the diagram below, the result is represented by the thickness of the arrows:
Does that reduce congestion or increase congestion?
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It’s probably not as simple as that. The Straits Times reported that additional trains would also be added to the green line, allowing the system to clear more people out of the interchange. But I recall reading some time back that due to limitations of the signalling design, the present frequency of trains on the green line, at peak hour, is already at the maximum. It said then that the system could not accommodate trains more frequently than two to two-and-a-half minutes apart.
I find the latest news about improvements puzzling. Nor does it even make sense when you think a little harder. If indeed they could squeeze an extra run or two within the limitations of the signalling system, why did they have to wait until the red line modification was complete? Being a matter restricted to green line capacity, couldn’t they have initiated it earlier?
Times like these, I wish our newspaper reporters knew to ask these searching questions of our officials.
Anyway, we shall see. Let’s monitor whether people feel any improvement at Jurong East after a week.
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Saturday’s Straits Times article about transport was quite fair to Raymond Lim in pointing out that many of the problems were inherited by him from his predecessors. The lead time for transport infrastructure is a very long one, longer than even housing — it takes 10 – 12 years to design and build a metro line or road tunnel, for example — and the crisis that hit him was largely due to inaction by ministers before him.
Lim’s predecessors as Transport Minister were Mah Bow Tan (Minister for Communications 1991 – 1999) and Yeo Cheow Tong (1999 -2006).
In 1996, when Mr Mah Bow Tan was Communications Minister and handled transport issues, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) released a White Paper entitled A World Class Land Transport System.
One aim was to create a denser rail network, and the LTA committed to launching one major rail project a year.
In 1999, Mr Yeo Cheow Tong succeeded Mr Mah at the helm of the ministry, which was now known as Communications and Information Technology.
Though Mr Yeo tweaked development goals, such as extending rail line targets, ‘he didn’t really follow Mr Mah’s plan very well’, said Associate Professor Lee Der Horng of the National University of Singapore.
Transport economist Michael Li of the Nanyang Business School noted that Mr Yeo had focused more on developing the air transport sector, through open-skies agreements and developing demand for services at Singapore’s airport.
— Straits Times, 21 May 2011, Raymond Lim ‘inherited public transport woes’
Yeo’s term was also the one in which civil servants miscalculated the number of Certificates of Entitlement (CoE) that were in effect, and as a result issued far too many new ones, giving rise to vehicular congestion on the roads soon after Lim took office. Lim then had the unenviable task of squeezing the number of CoE’s available, leading to skyrocketing auction prices.
But beyond a change in leadership at the ministry in 1999, there might also have been a fall-off in confidence around the same time. After the Asian financial crisis cut a swathe through regional economies in 1997 – 1998 came the dotcom meltdown in 2001. Since then, Singapore’s economy has swung wildly from boom to bust. Every time a bust comes along, planners instinctively cut back on investment, either because of funding shortfalls or because they gauge that capacity may not be needed so soon.
‘After the 1996 White Paper was introduced, the Government became more reactive instead of proactive in urban transport development,’ [Michael Li, Nanyang Business School] said.
Some have said that the 2004 Nicoll Highway collapse during the construction of the Circle Line reinforced this cautious approach.
But a decade ago, transport planners may have also expected far slower growth in Singapore’s population.
In 2000, Mr Mah as the National Development Minister projected that the population could possibly rise from 3.9 million in 2000 to 5.5 million by 2040 or 2050.
By last year, however, Singapore’s population had already surpassed five million, largely because of a greater influx of foreigners over the decade.
The worries over economic performance perhaps also led to a decision to open the floodgates to immigration, in the hope that having more hands on deck would help keep the economy afloat. We know the strains that this move placed on public transport. This only shows how interlinked these problems are.
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I recall that around twenty years back, planners had foreseen that transport would become a huge problem, as residential estates spread further and further out. There would be strongly uni-directional traffic flows at peak hours.
They said the smarter solution was to avoid having to move people around so much. People should live nearer where they work, rather than have to commute 60 – 90 minutes to work or college each morning (and back in the evening). When you think about it, it’s a no-brainer: it’s a greener and more family-friendly solution.
However, since not enough flats could be built near the jobs downtown, then the jobs (and downtown) would have to move to where people lived. The plan, as sketched, was to create new downtowns in Jurong East, Tampines and Woodlands; that way too, people would head in different directions at peak hour, rebalancing the directional load on trains and buses.
As anyone who lives in Singapore will know, there are no downtowns in these regional centres. Instead we’ve spent loads of money building a new downtown in Marina Bay adjacent to the old downtown, further reinforcing the directionality of traffic, making for even less efficient use of infrastructure.
It’s time to get serious about implementing the master plan. As of now, the only effort being made is at Jurong East, though how long that will take, I don’t know.
It’s also time to rethink the sacred cow of home-ownership. The fact is, people switch jobs. Unless people can easily move to live closer to their new job, any hope of reducing commuter load will not be realised. As economists have known for eons, home ownership is a serious drag on residential mobility. Once committed to a huge purchase, it is very difficult to consider selling and moving. It gets impossible at certain times when prices dip below the historical purchase price of a home; who would want to sell at a loss? Therefore, a high ratio of renters in a population allows greater ease of matching people to jobs.
In any case, as I argued in an earlier article, everyone who is living in public housing today is deluding himself, thinking he “owns” his flat. He does not. What actually is happening is that he has paid 99 years’ rent in advance. In that case, if we’re actually renting anyway, why can’t we pay a month at a time? That allows people to move easily, enabling them a wider choice in the job market. People will naturally choose to live closer to their jobs, thus reducing commuter load.
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As the above shows, solving our transport problem requires creativity and thinking out of the box. It is not enough to throw money at the problem, launching one project after another. For example, the Jurong East Interchange modification project cost S$800 million and took two years to build, but now that it is completed, will be operated only two hours each weekday morning to relieve the peak load. Around December, it may open for two or more hours in the evening to cope with the evening rush. In other words, nearly a billion dollars have been spent for a project with relatively low utilisation.
Surely we can do better. Surely we can go back to first principles in urban planning, in the economics of housing, and come up with a more wholistic solution.