Additional public transport capacity: hard to estimate benefit

I count myself lucky that I usually do not need to go downtown during the early morning rush. However, thrice in the last two weeks, I had an early appointment. On one day, it was raining, on the other two days, the sun was out and I didn’t want to break into a sweat walking to the metro station. So I waited for the feeder bus.

The rest of the story does not need much telling. Suffice it to say, on all three mornings, I quietly grumbled to myself: What’s the point of boasting about trains running at 2-minute intervals if feeder buses take 10 –  15 minutes to arrive?

Even the 2-minute boast has been revealed to be less than what the words say. Over the last month or so, the public has now learned that “peak hour” in the parlance of our two public transport companies lasts only one hour, the “peak of peak”. Most of us think of “rush hour” or “peak hour” as lasting two to three hours in the morning and as much as four hours in the evening. But the 2-minute promise is only applicable for one hour, the exact time of which as far as I can tell has never been revealed precisely.

Ha! Now it turns out that even the “one hour peak of peak” is not true!

In parliament last Monday, Minister of State for Transport Josephine Teo admitted that:

At present, the trains run at two- minute intervals between Yishun and Marina Bay stations, on the North-South Line, for about 45 minutes.

— Straits Times, 22 Nov 2011, 30 new MRT trains on the way, by Maria Almenoar

What about the other lines? I wish our government and public transport companies would spend less energy on public relations obfuscation and more on actually improving service.

Teo told parliament last Monday that fabulous plans are being implemented to improve train transport — no word on feeder buses, I noted — with 30 new train sets to be added over the next four years, 17 of which will arrive in 2012. These are for SMRT Corp’s East-West and North-South lines, and, taking into account the five that had been delivered in May this year, will improve capacity by 25 percent.

New trains will also be arriving for the North-East (NEL) and Circle (CCL) lines, where ridership has risen as well.

But they will be delivered only in four to five years, she said.

A total of 12 trains have been ordered for the NEL and 16 for the CCL.

The additions, she added, will increase the NEL’s capacity by up to 50 per cent and the CCL’s capacity by up to 40 per cent.

— ibid

A few years back, then-Transport Minister Raymond Lim declared a goal of having 70 percent of morning rush hour trips made on public transport by 2020 compared to the 50 – 60 percent then (and I suppose, still around that figure now). If this is achieved, it implies a 25 – 30 percent increase in public ridership during the morning rush hour by 2020. It will more or less use up the additional capacity on the North-South and East-West lines that Josephine Teo spoke about. In other words, don’t expect crowding to ease by much.

Of course, projections cannot be made so simply. The Downtown Line is scheduled to be completed before the end of the decade, and with luck, at least part of the Eastern Region Line.

On the hand, new lines have spillover effects on other lines that can add congestion to particular nodes. For example, with the full opening of the Circle Line, Bishan station has unexpectedly become a crush point.

Other parts of the government expect the population to keep growing, which may be why the Ministry of National Development has already spoken about the need to develop Tengah, Bukit Brown and Bidadari into three new towns. If our total population grows from the current five million to six million, that’s another 20 percent increase. The Transport Ministry’s targetted 70 per cent use of public transport out of a larger population is not the same number as 70 percent of current population.

These issues raise a host of other questions, such as: Should population increase and at what rate?

But I would also ask, in view of the ongoing controversy over Bukit Brown: Even if population is to increase 20 percent, do we really need to clear away more green spaces? Can’t we intensify use of existing suburbs? For example, several blocks of public housing in Ghim Moh have in recent years been demolished and replaced by taller ones. I vaguely remember the previous blocks to be 15 – 20 storeys in height. The new ones, at about 40 storeys would represent a doubling of housing capacity. If we do this more consistently in existing estates, we can easily achieve a 20-percent increase in housing capacity without disturbing the remaining green areas.

And where does this end? Do we keep growing from six to seven million? I don’t rule it out. Contrary to the bulk of public opinion in Singapore, I have faith in technology. I do not think it is impossible to accommodate that many on this island. But it may be politically impossible because of the social effects, and then at some point it’s got to stop.

That in turn puts the spotlight on another question: How do we get economic growth without increasing labour input? The answer would be to rely on productivity improvements, which sounds simple, but is in fact difficult to obtain beyond 2 – 3 percent a year. The practical limit may be lower in Singapore’s case because of our social and political context — a strong  tendency to risk-aversion, inhospitable social environment to start-ups and failures, hierarchical social attitudes, excessive political control, high costs that inhibit experimentation, education that tends to close minds rather than open them. These factors tend to favour maintaining the status quo over change, which in economic terms actually means favouring stagnation over creativity and growth.

And yet more questions kept coming. All in the space of the 15 minutes that the feeder bus didn’t.


ADDENDUM, 29 November 2011:

I would like to highlight a comment (below) by Georgelamb. He raised the point whether the new trainsets being purchased were really for additional capacity or as replacements for old trainsets that need to be retired. There is a good likelihood that some, at least, are meant as replacement since the East-West and North-South lines are now 24 years old. Unless Josephine Teo and the ministry reveals the total number of trainsets with purchases and retirements in the years ahead, it is hard to take on faith that these purchases really do represent increased capacity.

23 Responses to “Additional public transport capacity: hard to estimate benefit”

  1. 1 digital angel 25 November 2011 at 00:31

    I don’t understand. Why can’t we telecommute more? It would solve so many problems. I see the issues we have with hospital beds replicating itself in public transportation 😦

  2. 2 jax 25 November 2011 at 01:10

    space is just a small (no pun intended) aspect of the bigger picture of growing the population, and the economy, and the no of businesses. there’s the matter of water. if the govt cant get transport, housing and hospital beds right, how much trust can one put in its planning for enough water?

    and in providing sufficient electricity, whether from coal or gas. and then there’s food, which we dont grow – vegetables, rice, chickens, pigs, cows, goats, sheep, fish, other seafood…

    it’s all very well to say we just need to have the money to pay for this stuff, but we also need willing sellers. and they must have a surplus of these things to sell. if they don’t, it doesn’t matter how much money you have, you still cant get these basics. at which point your booming economy will only look good on paper, which it is what is already happening now.

  3. 3 Claudia Chia 25 November 2011 at 01:58

    I rather walk than to take the feeder bus. It’s faster although I have to walk for about 10-15mins =.=

    • 4 tk 25 November 2011 at 18:42

      same thing as i said to alex – get a cheap bike and a good lock. you’ll be amazed at how much easier (and cooler!) life gets.

      • 5 lobo76 28 November 2011 at 11:10

        Except you have a crowd of people baying for the blood of cyclists, citing how dangerous they can be. Whenever an article on cycling surfaces in ST forums, you will see them.

    • 6 Yesman 29 November 2011 at 08:06

      I stopped taking the feeder bus when I get home from work because of 2 reasons: overcrowding and I’m not comfortable taking a bus with all the foreigners.

  4. 7 ricardo 25 November 2011 at 07:56

    There is a simple solution to overcrowding in trains/busses that I’m certain the Transport Ministry is considering right now. The only impediment is that the Ministry of Truth still hasn’t finalised the publicity campaign to launch this brilliant initiative.

    It is deeply rooted in sound economic theory and mass transport principles.


    The price of taking the train / bus will rise in stages over the next 12 mths. so that 50% of present commuters will be unable to afford them. These will be the unwashed masses and probably include the majority of those who do not Dignify our Lord LKY, the HoLee Family, their Ministers and friends.

    To prevent inconvenience to tourists and FT, special passes will be issued to these VIPs so they can benefit from present prices and the lack of overcrowding that will result.

    This will also maximise profits to SMRT and hence Dignity to our Lord LKY etc. Very easy to fine tune this process too.

    You think I’m joking don’t you !

    • 8 Poker Player 25 November 2011 at 11:58

      It’s time to stop and try something else when it no longer makes a difference whether read at face value or tongue-in-cheek…

  5. 9 The 25 November 2011 at 09:01

    The nub of the problem is the rapid increase in population. Total population went from 3 million in 1990, to 4 million in 2000, and to 5.1 million in 2010. During these periods, there were no commensurate increase in train or bus capacities. Or for that matter no increase in hospital beds at all until Khoo Teck Puat Hospital came into operation recently.

    This is really a case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing. One part of the government wants more “foreign talents”, but the rest of the government involved in infrastructure planning were sleeping on the job. And this from a government who prides itself on long-range planning. Remember Bukit Brown – those carved out land will be needed for the living (instead of the dead) in the year 2025.

    • 10 melbyfool 26 November 2011 at 07:01

      And you wonder why the left hand is not talking to the right hand?? Don’t they have their insider Cabinet meetings? I remember the Propaganda Times doing a story on it a few months back. Apparently, the Cabinet Ministers meet and discuss policies. Wonder what are those scholars doing during the meetings? Health minister and Transport minister seating around listening to the Manpower minister saying that population will be increased, and they don’t think that their ministries are affected??

  6. 11 tk 25 November 2011 at 09:58

    alex – sounds like you need to get a “beater bike” (a cheap crappy bike from giant supermarket or your local bike uncle, preferably with a step through frame and fenders – should be about $100-150) and a good lock for the station bike parking. what is currently a sweaty and inconvenient walk would instantly become a pleasant 5 minute (i’m guessing) quiet cycle through your neighbourhood. use the footpaths (no-one else does) and hdb driveways if necessary.

    rather than waiting around for 15 minutes and then stopping every 2 to pick up more strap hangers, you gain your independence while at the same time becoming so much more connected to the places and people around you.

    you expend the same effort as you do walking, but you gain a breeze of ~10km/hr which is amazingly cooling. try it, you might be surprised!

  7. 12 Steven Fleming (@BehoovingMoving) 25 November 2011 at 11:32

    Doesn’t Singapore have a bike hire scheme? The island is mostly flat. It would be hard to steal bikes. You’re not burdened with mandatory helmet laws. The bikes could have ads on (pro government ones, yay!) Plus its cooler cycling than walking, with the humid air whistling around your ears. Yes, and you have the requisite density. You could have the world’s best bike hire scheme, to match your world leading MRT system.

  8. 13 georgelamb 25 November 2011 at 17:14


    Those JoTeo quoted train increases look suspiciously like original maintenance figures WITHOUT considering the pop increases. Also don’t forget service live of trains – like buses they need to be replaced, unless they can be refurbished/major refitted. Anyway, the limitation is really the maximum rail capacity of the line concerned – how many trains can you have running to and fro on any given line without creating a ‘traffic’ jam or worse. Trains don’t operate like buses on roads they can go only where there are railway tracks. It is not difficult to work this out. Really standard stuffs that I would be surprised the LTA or the operators don’t already know, but kept secret from the public for political and other reasons. The real question is whether we are not already reaching the max capacity/load of the respective lines.

    Clearing a hugh influx of riders at any station depends also on the numbers of riders converging to it. If line A unloads X numbers of pax at station 1 (an exchange station) every 2 minutes, line B, the other exchange line must have the capacity to clear the crowd brought in by line A as well as have room for pax who would be boarding at all its stations down the line. Namely, this requires COORDINATION between lines at exchanges. For example, SBS and SMRT must coordinate their train services at say, Serangoon Station and Buona Vista Station.

    On building more flats, I don’t think it is an issue of technology as you put it. It is an issue of living space and environment, facilities (shop, kindergartens, hawker centres, supermarket, etc), parking, peak hour crushes and the light. Super high-rise residences is not the same as similar heights office buildings. Quiet a lot of different factors are involved.

  9. 14 Yujuan 25 November 2011 at 17:26

    The solution lies in truly independent transport providers, Companies that are not connected with the Govt GLCs, then we’ll see real results in improvement. All GLCs have the same thinking cap as that of the Govt, always thinking in the same mode, and refusing to think out of the box as seen by the ordinary folks.
    It will do us a lot of ease and convenience if we adopt the “little bus” concept of Hongkong, these private independent small buses superbly ply the nooks and corners of the SAR, bringing commuters to the main roads and train stations with quick and cheap ease.
    One could say our 2 main transport companies are Govt GLCs who selfishly hog the industry, as their profits contribute greatly to their cash kitty, so actually our Govt is practicing anti competition through SMRT and Comfort-delgrow. The Govt just want full control and most of the profit of the local transport industry. And they spend so much effort in beating about the bush to disguise it.
    Similarly our taxis also pale in comparison with Hongkong. The surcharges at different times of the day are mind boggling and irritating to the commuter, who has the time to keep track of in fast paced Singapore.

  10. 15 Dy 26 November 2011 at 02:01

    Don’t take the public transport then! Drive! Oh wait…that means we’ve to clear more bukit browns to build more expressways…

  11. 16 Chow 26 November 2011 at 19:04

    My opinion is that all this requires a change in mindsets, both of the people and the government. The apparent ‘lack’ of foresight in the cases of hospital beds and transport (among others) appear to point towards entrenched values among the policy planners. I look forward to the day of greater political participation and more openness because only then can we really start to discern the truth behind all that doublespeak.

  12. 17 georgelamb 26 November 2011 at 22:26

    The truth is already there and has been for quite a while – a completely relevant parallel occurrence took place in the 1960s, that of the ‘Stop At Two’ population policy.

    It gives you a fairly accurate idea of the sort of policy planning that the ruling party habitually indulges in – immediate and short term, no checking back, no monitoring, no hindsight. When and if an issue crops up downstream, it would be assumed to be a completely NEW problem which would be tackled and resolved once again with whatever it takes. And the norm for ‘whatever it takes’ is whatever it takes to make the citizens pay for the solution. The examples of what the citizens have paid to date abounds – COE, ERP, regular transport fare increases, ridiculous ERP hours, higher rentals, higher charges, peak hours crushes, job redundancy, job competition, depressed wages, rocketting property/HDB prices and you get less (living space) for more ( prices), gimmicks to hold back your CPF retirement cash, etc.


  13. 18 Chanel 28 November 2011 at 11:31

    It costs hard dollars to buy additional trains and buses, but public relations obfuscation in Parliament is FREE.

    For so many years, commuters have been told repeatedly that the low train frequency was due to constraints of the ageing signalling system. Now PAP MP Josephine Teo is telling us that the real reason is that there simply isn’t sufficient trains to run at 2-minute interval!! Like every mother tells her child, if you tell a lie now, you will need to tell more lies in future to cover the initial lie. Hong Kong’s MTR was built before our MRT, yet MTR trains can arrive at 1.5-minute interval and the Hong Kong government has far greater foresight in building longer station platforms (versus S’pore’s).

    SMRT CEO has made a Freudian Slip some time back when she told us that commuters can board a train (no matter how crowded), it is only a matter whether they want to. Don’t expect the overcrowding problem to go away even after the new trains have been added to service, because the government’s push for more motorists to switch to public transport and re-opening of the floodgates to immigration will keep our trains packed beyond the brim. The ultimate nightmare will be when our train system is linked to Johor Bahru (which is currently being discussed).

    On housing, you can’t double housing capacity by merely building taller flats without any deterioration in quality of living. You also need to have adequate amenities such as schools, food centres, carparks.

  14. 19 The 29 November 2011 at 11:28

    Did the newspaper get your permission to reprint this article?

  15. 21 Simon 30 November 2011 at 12:00

    Singapore’s population grew from 3 million to 5.1 million in 20 years with the Government’s forced implantation of immigrants (mainly). That should be enough time to put infrastructure in place such as housing, electricity, water, transportation, recreation, education, jobs……..etc. Our Ministers claimed they are the best in class – where is the planning? It is obvious that the close to 35% explosive growth in population is too much on the plate for any country to handle, or to absorb in such a short span of time.

  16. 22 Anonymous 4 December 2011 at 20:32

    Nobody in Singapore calls the MRT metro. Why can’t you call it the subway like everybody else.

    • 23 yawningbread 4 December 2011 at 21:01

      Nobody in Singapore calls it the subway either. So what’s your point?

      My editorial decision for my website is to use international standard English, not Singapore English. That means no term specific to Singapore is used when an internationally-recogniseable term is available. The internationally accepted word for a metropolitan railway is metro. It is used in a number of different countries (including Washington DC, for example) and is the generic word even when a city has a particular name for its system.

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