An article posted by Au Waipang on his blog Yawning Bread talks about how the Singapore government have seemed to make a U-turn on public transport and housing policies. I find that the author has made a good point in highlighting the changes in policies made since the previous transport minister, Raymond Lim, who has since stepped down from the position and political stage.

The new Minister of Transport, Lui Tuck Yew, was seen taking buses and trains since he entered the position after the May 2011 General Elections. A post from The Straits Times was quoted on Mr Au’s blog post and I would re-illiterate it here again.

. . . the Government will be working with the two bus operators to add ‘significant capacity’ to the bus network in the next three to four years, as new rail projects are being built.

He said that if it were left to the bus operators to add capacity to the overall system, they would take a ‘relatively cautious and gradual’ approach.

‘We are mindful that sometimes, it may not be at the speed necessary given the bottlenecks that we face in the transportation network,’ he said after the launch of tunnelling works for the MRT’s Downtown Line Stage 2 in Bukit Timah.

‘So, it is necessary for the Government to work together with the operators so that we can inject this capacity in a very timely fashion,’ he said, but did not elaborate.

Mr Lui, who took over the transport portfolio on May 18, said that adding significant capacity to Singapore’s public transport system was ‘very, very high’ on his to-do list.

‘We do need to buy more trains, we will build more lines, but they will take time to come into effect,’ he said, noting how rail projects can take seven to eight years to materialise. ‘So, for me, buses will be a matter of high priority in the coming months.’

The Straits Times, 9th June 2011, ‘Coming your way: More buses, travel information’ by Christopher Tan (Senior Correspondent)

Mr Au touched upon the fact of SBS Transit’s 7.53% after-tax profit and I would not go into that, however, my concern would not only be who is buying the buses, but also what will happen to the buses when the future rail projects, that they (the buses) are used to cover, are completed?

Internationally, a million population demands the need to build one heavy rail line. The population of Singapore is at 5.08 million at June 2010 (Statistics Singapore). This would translate to 5 heavy rail lines. This ratio does not directly account for bus transportation. The effectiveness of bus (road) transport, although cannot be directly compared with rail, is negligible, as it is often a connection medium rather than office-to-home transportation (explained later).

With the North-South-East-West Line (hereby NSEWL) system, two million is covered. North-East Line, another one million can be served. The Circle Line, being designed three-car long for station and rolling stock wise, can only effectively serve half a million population. The Land Transport Authority designed it as a ‘mid-capacity line’, however based on the scale of the construction (fully underground, 46 kilometers long when in full service Q4 2011) and areas it serve, it can be justified to be compared side-by-side with mainlines. At a simple sense, by Q4 2011, our 5+ million population will fight for 3.5 million-population-capacity rail lines.

A heavy rail line can be determined in different senses, but the numbers usually center on certain basic principles, connectivity from the city where people work in to the towns where people reside in, each train can carry about 1000+ passengers, consisting of frequent station stops and peak-hour frequency of 2 minutes or less.

Mass Rapid Transit Corporation, MRTC, a government headed body was born in the late 1970s to come up with a basic system of Metro in Singapore after the debate on future transport in Singapore sided over to the trains. MRTC master-minded the North-South and East West Lines, with the future expansion to include Woodlands area, back in the 1980s. Energy efficiency, noise insulation (apparently to be upgraded by LTA this year) and service planning showed positive in the development for MRTC, extensive effort was put in and still can be appreciated today.

It is however disappointing to point out that with certain changes in policies with the restructuring of MRTC, which gave birth to LTA and SMRT Corporation, one governing and one corporate body, somehow damaged the good seeds sowed by MRTC back in the 80s. MRTC, in 1987, had planned for frequency of trains to arrive 1.875 minutes (112.5 seconds) during the morning peak from 0730 to 0800h, while the rest of the morning peak would vary between 2 to 3 minutes.

At optimum scheduling, a train-following will coast at near-proximity before the forward-train will depart the station. This is one strategy that can be used to achieve 112 seconds frequency, but rarely used now.

5 minutes during rush? Very true. Not due to disruptions, but majority to scheduling faults which may have went quietly under the nose.

Come 2000s, our best train frequency had increased beyond 2 minutes, and trains were increasingly difficult to get on, not only due to the absence of parallel-running lines, but also insufficient trains vs population increase. Before 27th May 2011, there were 106 trains operational on the NSEWL. Ten percent (based on the service estimate by MRTC) of trains would be used to replace faulty units, hence 95 trains would be ‘constantly available’ for service. A simple calculation can show that operational margin was very narrow during several years when the system expanded but not the fleet.

‘EWL two directions add up to about 50 (24 Train-Per-Hour, TPH x2 + 2 trains as a margin) trains used. CGA Line uses 2 trains at rush hours. Total 52 trains.
NSL two directions at a mean 5 minutes per train means 26 trains used (12 TPH x2 + 2 trains as a margin). YIS to MRB takes 23 minutes, two-direction 46 minutes. In order to hit 2.2 minutes with SWT this sector alone has to have 21 trains running. Sector at 12 TPH (5 minutes per train) = 9 trains, sector running with 21 trains, 2.2 minutes frequency = 27 TPH. 21 – 9 = 12 additional peak hour SWT trains.
26 trains (at 12 TPH) plus 12 additional to bring MRB – YIS sector to 27 TPH plus 4 additional Yew Tee SWT = 42 trains.
52 plus 42 total train usage for normal weekday peak = 94. The immediate spare margin for operations is only 95 – 94 = one train.’
Posted on Skyscrapercity by the Site Admin.

Hence LTA rushed to tender Contract 151A, 22 trains for NSEWL in March 2009, which was awarded to Kawasaki Heavy Industries・Kawasaki Heavy Industries Rolling Stock Company (川崎重工・川崎重工業車両カンパニー) and CSR Qingdao Sifang Co. Ltd (中国南车青岛四方机车车辆股份有限公司) at 368 million SGD. The first 5 trains arrived in 2011 and were introduced into service on 27th May 2011 with the expansion of Jurong East Interchange. All 22 trains will be in service come December 2011.

It is not of shame to mention that the Contract 151A trains resembles the Contract 751B of 21 trains made in 1999. An engineer’s regret that I have would be the non-improvement of the running equipment despite the advancement made in the field though the ten years, apparently omitted due to standardization.

To improve the NSEWL system further, a new signalling system (actually an upgraded version from the present) will be in full service by 2017. New trains would be introduced with the completion of EWL extension to Tuas Checkpoint and Tuas Depot, which will be able to hold 60 trains and boost the depot capacity which currently stand at 100 trains. The other 6 (and 28 by end of this year) trains will park at non-covered sidings within the depots, as there are no sidings for parking within the system.

The present method to bridge the gap between rushing population and rushing rail projects is apparently buses, the alternative in Singapore. This gap, however would last fully until the Downtown Line is completed, well within the lifespan of the additional buses to-be bought to put out the fire. Then, we will have more buses to deal with than rail, even counting in the non-reduction of bus services.

No, its not the factor of who is going to pay for these buses. Neither is it the question of whether it will cause more ERPs, more jams or more conflicts with other public road users. It is, where these buses will end up, will they be wasted. Buses last 17 years by license alone, usage can be well 19 years, way lasting than the next rail project deadline.

Public transport is about utilization, one factor that sets us apart from developed countries. Our many examples of under-utilization has cost us much money. Ill planning and feedback contributed to this. Where there is no demand, there is still ‘historical’ routes running, where there is long standing, even future demands, there is insufficient service. Buying more buses, no matter from whose wallet, will cause a seemingly well utilized system now, a well defined surplus in the future when rail service seem to cover the road. A tussle over several years later may ensure, whether rail development or road development comes first. Budget is limited, this applies to the government as well.

SBS Transit over the recent years have embarked on a Godzilla momentum to renew its fleet, with the wheelchair accessible Volvo B9TL (200 units) in 2006, the Scania K230UB (1101 units, largest single order to date for Scania/Singapore) in 2007, the Wright Volvo B9TL (150 units with options) in 2010 and full low-floor Citaro (300 with options) in 2011. SMRT Buses however, have been holding its horses, introducing only limited amount of wheelchair accessible buses in 2008, the OC500LE (134 units) and the Citaro in 2010 (11 units).

Being cautious in this environment is appreciated, as rail development continues, the congestion on roads can be well felt. With more buses introduced, we are faced with a duo-sided progress, rail and road, which to choose and develop better? An interim solution would be hard to devise, but several suggestions can be looked upon.

  • Delay the scrapping of serviceable old buses until the next rail project is completed, namely the Downtown Line. At the same time, limit the amount of new buses introduced to ensure as much as possible, the surplus of buses will not be extreme after the rail line can satisfy the bus services it complement with. These complimentary bus services may see a reduction (large sectors of complement with little passenger catchment) or increase (sectors where rail service cannot cope alone/festive seasons).
  • Revision of services within the current rail system. Adjust the amount of cross-over trains, adjust the connection timings between different lines, manage the crowded sectors and introduce perks to commuters who take public transport early (before 7 am). Of course, working hours have to be adjusted and only limited amount of commuters can benefit from this.

Certain issues were also raised up about the negative experience on the rail system. Several strategies can be considered.

  • SMS system (subscription, paid/unpaid) for notification of train service disruptions. This system will only be used when the identified problem/incident/accident exceeds a nominal 10 minutes. This will allow commuters who are already in the system to exit and find alternative transport instead of waiting beyond their buffer travel time, importantly, for commuters yet to enter the system to find alternative transport quickly, often before they step out of their homes.
  • Better deployment of information throughout the system, from management, control to ground crew levels. The installed RATIS (Rail Travel Information System) provide a good existing channel, albeit damaged by the frequent commercials and not-so-often display of the next-train timing. The channel of communication from management to ground would be hard to advance presently especially with the amount of resources already used, hence a step-by-step approach would be necessary to improve yet not waste resources.

I believe that I have put in enough suggestions to probe into this U-turn of policy. Rome is not built in a day, neither will our infrastructure. Company policies are often affected by political powers, no matter in which country you live in. Next time you would like an improvement in you area, and you have good proof/reason to do so, it may be a good idea to go for your area’s Minister of Parliament (MP).