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Will transport infrastructure catch up with our population?

For most Singaporeans, the daily commute usually starts and ends with a packed ride on a train or bus. And needless to say, it is awkward to have your face just inches away from another passenger. However, some of us may already have noticed improvements to the rush hour situation in the recent couple of years.

Plans have been set into motion to expand the capacity of our trains and buses. Some of these have come to fruition, and others might take a few more years as infrastructure projects need a longer lead time. Still, the question remains on many Singaporeans’ minds: “When will our transport infrastructure catch up?”

We’ve done the homework for you, and here is a summary of how things are shaping up for our transport system.

Trains

There are few things more frustrating than train disruptions, and improving train reliability is the main order of business for the Land Transport Authority (LTA).

Older trains naturally need more maintenance to be in good working condition. SMRT’s existing trains are being upgraded, and 99 new trains will be added from 2015 - 2019, at a cost of over a billion dollars. A worthy investment according to LTA, as these aren’t just shiny and new, but also are built for better reliability and less maintenance.


SMRT’s new trains come with an updated orange, red and black livery – see if you can spot any of these during your next commute (Image credit: SMRT)

The train signalling system, which dates back to the 1980s, is also being improved. Signalling system upgrades will be completed along the North-South Line by 2016, and the East-West Line by 2018. This new signalling system is designed with more backups and failsafes – meaning less faults; and it will allow trains to be spaced as close as 100 seconds apart, instead of 120 seconds in the current system. This is expected to reduce waiting times by 25% during peak hours, resulting in more frequent trains, less crowded train platforms, and a faster journey.

Looking back, it’s quite amazing that from our first MRT line, a 5-station stretch from Yio Chu Kang to Toa Payoh which opened in 1987, our train network has grown to 162 stations today. The train network continues to expand, with newer lines spreading out the load from existing lines, and decreasing the impact of disruptions by providing alternative routes.

Recently completed and new train lines to look forward to:

  • Circle Line (CCL): Opened in 2011
  • Downtown Line (DTL):

- City section (DTL1) opened in 2013

- Bukit Timah Section (DTL2) opened in 2015

- East section (DTL3) opening in 2017

  • Thomson-East Coast Line (TEL): opening in stages from 2019
  • Extension connecting DTL and TEL (DTL3E): opening in 2024
 

From this map of our train network when complete, can you locate the station that is nearest to your house in 2030? (Image credit: Land Transport Authority) - Click for enlarged view.

Overall, the outlook for our train system seems to be looking up, with faster and more convenient ways of getting from point A to point B, and (fingers and toes crossed!) fewer disruptions.

Buses

Improvements are also being made to Singapore’s bus network. The Bus Service Enhancement Programme (BSEP) may sound like just one thing is being done, but is actually a large scale, multi-prong effort for higher capacity and better connectivity.

Under the BSEP, 800 new vehicles are being added to the current system by 2017, which means a 20% increase in the number of buses plying our roads. And it’s not just more of the same, there will be 80 new bus routes rolled out across the island. These bus routes will guarantee smoother journeys for commuters as they will facilitate travel between crowded stretches of Singapore’s transport network. This includes high-traffic nodes such as MRT stations in the city, and bus interchanges located in residential hubs.

In line with these changes, the current number of City Direct Service buses (CDS) was also raised to 20 last year, from the 15 services first announced when BSEP started in 2012. This is a boon for those working in the Central Business District as it allows for fuss-free travel between the city and the heartlands, even during peak periods.

Changing travel patterns

Apart from improving the physical infrastructure, another way to tackle the rush hour squeeze is to nudge changes in commuters’ behaviour, and decrease or at least smoothen out peak hour load.

In 2013, LTA bravely piloted free pre-peak travel for commuters who end their journey earlier than 7.45am on weekdays at designated MRT stations in the city, and a discounted fare for commuters who exit these stations between 7.45am and 8am. How did this affect behaviour?

Unsurprisingly, the majority of commuters kept to their preference to commute during peak hour from 8am to 9am – many of us would happily forego a couple of dollars for those precious extra minutes of sleep. Still, the results were not too bad, with a lasting reduction of 7% in the number of commuters during the morning peak period. The Free Pre-Peak Travel scheme is having a good run, and from a year-long trial, it has been extended three times, up till 30th June 2017 – good news for morning larks!

Travel to work early, and save more to pay for your morning cuppa.

The Free Pre-Peak Travel scheme proved that travel patterns can change, and paved the way for a broader Travel Smart initiative. Under this, there are benefits for commuters who travel off-peak, including Travel Smart Rewards, and the Off-Peak Pass, which, for a flat fee, gives unlimited rides on the public transport network, except during weekday peak hours.

As work commute behaviour is closely tied to employers’ expectations, the Travel Smart initiative also includes the Travel Smart Network, where member organisations can draw on government funding to implement measures that help employees travel during off-peak periods, or use alternative modes of transport like walking and cycling. An example is EY (formerly known as Ernst and Young), which used the funding in an initiative to give breakfast vouchers to employees who arrive before 8am. Barclays Singapore, RSP Architects and SGX are tapping on this funding support to engage Travel Smart consultants, who research on employees’ travel patterns, and develop travel demand management action plans customised to the needs of the organisation and its employees.

Taken together, these travel demand management measures work hand in hand with physical enhancements to our train and bus networks, for a more pleasant and roomy ride.

When will transport infrastructure catch up?

No one wants a repeat of the discomfort in the early 2010s when the transport network struggled to keep up with demand. The current plans for Singapore’s transport system are hence not just to catch up with current strains, but also to ensure sufficient capacity and room to grow in the longer term.

Clearly, improvements have been made and more are in the works to ramp up transport infrastructure. At the same time, population growth has slowed, which means that the transport situation will likely continue to get better over the next few years.

That said, there is no end state, and no point when our public transport system has “arrived”. What matters more is that our transport system changes and grows with Singapore society, to stay relevant to changing travel patterns, lifestyles and needs.

Many of us take the MRT every day, but how much do we know about it? Take this quiz to find out!

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