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.
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.