From the Red Line
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From the Red Line

24 hours, or the lack of it

For special events, it might be worth it to have exploratory service increases.

Night buses probably won’t be missed, but things change when there are special events. For example, on New Year’s Eve 2019, MRT services were extended past 2am and some residential feeder buses were even extended all the way out to 3.30am. It’s a bit silly that SMRT didn’t extend their night bus service at the time, resulting in the paradox of the SMRT night bus service ending before the MRT closed. However, SBST did.

And back when the Standard Chartered Marathon was a thing, SMRT was even able to push out first trains to start around 2.30am to 3am — albeit that was in 2015, almost a very different time from now. After all, 2015 was basically two transport ministers ago, and priorities have significantly shifted since then; from both maximizing maintenance, to minimizing cost.

It’s already there?

I say “exploratory” here because I suspect a lot of the changes I propose here can be done with minimal incremental cost, by using resources that are already mobilized for such special events under current practice.

Let’s take Service 941 as an example. If extended services during special events means that the last bus leaves at 3.30am and it takes an average of half an hour to complete the route, it means the last bus returns to Bukit Batok interchange at 4am. The first bus is then scheduled to depart at 5.30am every day.

In order to operate later services on days like these, it might be said that the rosters already have to be prepared in a way that extra drivers are rostered to operate the additional late-night service. If drivers are already rostered to operate the third shift, what are they doing during this 90-minute gap in service?

While I understand that some drivers might be sent home to rest and their AM shift replacements can just head straight to work, if there are drivers just spending their time in the interchange or depot breakroom waiting the time away, there may be no harm sending out some additional trips in the dead of the night at a very low frequency. That said, what feeds them?

In a similar vein, there may be no harm keeping train services operational in this short period. Perhaps the MRT may shut down at night and open later on the actual public holidays, but what maintenance are you realistically going to get away with doing in a shortened maintenance window of 2–3 hours? Setting up and dismantling the work areas is going to take a significant amount of that time already.

The inverse is done with the overnight train service run for the Standard Chartered Marathon — close at the usual time of 1am, open at 2.30am. The point still stands — what are you going to get done in 90 minutes? It’s likely that even if you wanted to get work done, control rooms and stations would have to be staffed. Maybe the NSEWL can close to minimize rostering of drivers and inconvenience to residents, but it seems odd to not just leave the automated lines open to run overnight service on special occasions.

Do or do not

It is easy to say that Taipei and Hong Kong both operate overnight service for the nights that matter, and that we ought to follow suit. Of course, as far as I know, we don’t do it for events like the New Year’s Eve — that’s why I’m even writing this post.

But interestingly, overnight train service was operated on the 25th and 27th of March 2015 to cater to mourners leaving Parliament House after paying their respects to the late LKY, during his lying-in-state there. Although I guess the death of the key founding father of the nation is an event that only ever happens once in the history of the nation, so that might be a one-off thing.

What we should look at, though, is this remark from the 27th March update:

Commuter traffic data indicated that our MRT trains which were running between midnight last night and 6.00am this morning at reduced frequencies of 15–20 minutes, were on average carrying less than 10% of its maximum capacity. Many commuters also took alternative travel modes such as private cars and taxis. We expect lower demand for public transport tonight compared to last night. Hence, tonight, the slightly extended hours of operation of the trains and feeders, and full-night operation of the 13 Night Bus services, should be able to meet demand.

While at first glance this sounds grim, to me it sounds like this should be used to write off any proposal for overnight public transport during festive seasons. There’s only one Parliament House, but the URA pulls out all the stops during New Year’s Eve with events all around Marina Bay— one might think it’s the lack of any later public transport that prevents them from going even bigger.

It might be worth it to try again, at least for the New Year’s Eve, if not Lunar New Year Eve as well. And perhaps for marathon day on 4th December. With about 50,000 participants expected over two days, it may be possible to bring back at least an earlier opening for the benefit of marathon participants so that they won’t have to ride the marathon shuttle bus.

Maybe even introduce some kind of framework where organizers of major events can also help offset the cost of providing extended public transport to get to and from their events. This could be useful even at the Singapore Indoor Stadium or something; events with sufficient critical mass could last longer into the night if extended transport service can be arranged.

Specially choreographed

Maintaining overnight train services on a long-term basis is also not very effective, especially when service changes come into play.

A lot of preparations goes into works-related service changes, from drawing up of shuttle bus routes, to hiring queue marshals, even to paying for tentage to provide sheltered shuttle bus waiting areas. The expense of all this means that it should be avoided where possible; so there may be not much of a point in pushing back service hours if we need to reclaim them through such methods anyway.

Sure, the implementation of CBTC and the bi-directional operations it enables allows for shuttle services to be implemented effectively and not in the weird way it was done back in 2011. This is a good thing because trains are bigger than buses, and logistically it’s still easier to keep train service running compared to choreographing a bus bridging service.

Even in unplanned incidents, this is useful as well. The ability to keep trains running on the opposite track prevents the need to activate bus drivers to operate free bridging buses — since, technically, train service is still running.

Still, the main limiter here is infrastructure. During the January 2018 single-tracking works on the NSL, a shuttle service was operated between Orchard and Marina South Pier.

image drawn by LTG, amended by me

OK, I lied. The above image actually shows two separate shuttle services being operated. It’s quite acceptable to not bridge the gap between City Hall and Raffles Place as the unaffected EWL already does so, but this can only happen here. And considering the placement of the crossover between Newton and Orchard, which only allows southbound trains to cross over to the northbound track, what if works affected the northbound track instead?

This could be fixed, but might involve digging up land to add crossovers between tunnels, which means it’s not something to be done unless one really wanted to make a commitment to running that much night service.

The right conditions

Let’s say you really wanted to make late night public transport service a political issue. Where do you start? You start by asking for later last trains, and if possible, earlier first trains, alongside extensions to feeder bus services as is done on special events. These are quick wins that mean more people get to use public transport when getting to early-shift or late-shift work.

And they’re easy to implement, too. SMRT has them on all its lines except on the EWL. Southbound train service to Toa Payoh or Ang Mo Kio are still available even after the last train to Marina South Pier; an additional train to Springleaf runs behind the last train to Woodlands North; and on the Circle Line there are a varying array of destinations on the HarbourFront end of the line.

Where this does not happen is the EWL and the DTL. The last train to Expo leaves Bukit Panjang station at 11.35pm — after which, the station only permits exit for arriving passengers. If you wanted to go to Al-Azhar in Beauty World for supper, you wouldn’t be able to take the train, and would have to use bus services. This works, though, in a CBD-centric model; the last trains leave Fort Canning station in both directions at 12.11am. But we can still see how useful (or not) this can be.

Maintenance time can potentially be clawed back through smarter maintenance practices and perhaps changes in technology. Works trains usually run after the last train here — perhaps a legacy of the Clementi train accident in 1993. But that was a diesel locomotive, and it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect that battery-electric locomotives can be brought in as well. Battery electric locomotives should be able to move under traction power and with no fuel tank, there should not be that much of an oil spill risk.

So if we can allow battery-electric locomotives and their wagons to travel between trains in service, why not do that and allow for later partial service to be run? And then perhaps the virtuous cycle then gains political support at high enough levels to justify paying for the construction works needed to add missing crossovers; they’ve done it at Canberra, they could do it again especially if NE2 is to be built in a similar way.

But all this investment really can only be justified when the numbers are shown. Short of a significant, immediate, and lasting drop in usage of private hire services, I don’t think that will happen — and even if it did, increasing service in the daytime would probably come first.



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