From the Red Line
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From the Red Line

30 down, 6 to go

It took us 30 years, but we’re finally starting.

Let’s see if this project is still carried through, especially if the Malaysians call an election before trains start running in 2026.

Many fits and starts and general elections later, we have finally reached a deal with the JB-Singapore Rapid Transit System. The ministers met at the Causeway on 30 July to sign the final agreements, which I presume is going to look a lot like the Korean DMZ. Did they hire blue tents for the occasion and put up a few military guards, so we can pretend we’re on holiday at Panmunjom?

More importantly, both governments have officially announced that the RTS project will be shifting to “LRT technology”, which closes the door on the involvement of TEL systems in the RTS. I don’t like the meaning of the term, but it is what it is. What could this mean for the project?

The ousting of Pakatan and the change in federal government may actually have helped the prospect of the cross-border railways. After all, PM Muhyiddin and Transport Minister Wee both have their constituencies (and thus, one assumes, support base) in Johor state, which is heavily reliant on the Singaporean economy and thus cross-border links, whether they like it or not.

Furthermore, political chaos and gridlock has left the Johor Sultan considerably not amused. One can assume that given the real estate business interests held by the sultanate, the sultanate would then have a personal interest in ensuring that the cross border rail links proceed, in order to increase the commercial attractiveness of living in Johor (and thus investing in Johor property) and working in Singapore.

In any case, the timeline is ambitious — start construction work next January, and have systems installation, testing and commissioning work take place in 2025 and 2026. This would mean that it would proceed at roughly the same pace as our JRL Stage 2. Given that the engineering design for the RTS was already done in 2018 before Pakatan took power, leaving everything as is would mean that they can just take the existing design and start work immediately, no questions asked.

But of course, in the name of austerity, things had to go. Though it has to be said that isolating the RTS from the TEL would mean that it has to be completely self-sufficient. Do I think full isolation makes sense? It’s a debate raging in my own mind.

On one hand, the Waterloo and City line exists. Due to its age and legacy, it isn’t really connected to the rest of the Tube network, requiring vehicles to be lifted out by crane for heavy overhaul. They do use 1992 Tube Stock like the Central line, but while the initial technical parameters were similar, they’ve diverged considerably in the intervening years.

On the other, relying on the TEL’s facilities for vehicle maintenance and overhaul, as well as sharing a fleet, allows for the RTS itself to be built cheaper. There are ways around some of this, though, which I’ll get to.

It remains to be seen on just what the Pakatan administration meant by LRT technology — a vague term that means different things to different people. The TEL is officially designated a “medium capacity system”. You know what else is a “medium capacity rail system”? Malaysian LRT.

Example of KJL trackwork (source: Foo Win Kit on youtube). The track to the left connects to the Sri Petaling Line, explaining its more traditional design.

There’s two ways this could go. One way is that the Kelana Jaya Line is undergoing a fleet expansion to cater to additional capacity, and it would not be difficult to simply top up an order with the Bombardier-Hartasuma consortium for more trains for the RTS. However, the Innovia 300 vehicles used on the Kelana Jaya Line would present interesting engineering obstacles, such as a different platform height requiring the RTS platforms to be modified, requiring the modification of power system designs as the KJL uses a four-rail power system, as well as installation of linear induction plates. You can see how this differs from our MRT trackwork in the picture above.

The other is the LRT3 project, delayed to 2024. LRT3 will apparently operate similar vehicles to our JRL. This delay would present an opportunity for the RTS to add on to the LRT3 vehicle order from the Batu Gajah factory, pleasing stakeholders up and down Malaysia. Presumably, given the good doctor and his cost cutting, there would have been a good price for LRT3 vehicles to be used on the RTS, especially if materials were already ordered but now no longer used for the downsized LRT3 fleet.

Based on info from Wikipedia, the LRT3 fleet should be quite similar to our JRL trains with 19m long, 2.7m wide cars. A 4-car T251 is 93m long — we must presume RTS platforms are designed to the same length. Adding 1m at each end would not be that difficult. With a 95m long platform, you would then be able to run 5-car LRT3 trains, or without modification 5-car Innovia 300s, which could presumably get you capacity close enough to the T251s.

Of course, though, it has to be said that such changes mean they lose commonality with the T251 fleet. And even if they did order KVLRT-like vehicles, the sheer geographical distance means that the RTS will basically have to act as a standalone system, with no chance of sharing spare parts and other technical knowledge. That’s a price to pay.

I wasn’t convinced at first, but apart from the trains, “LRT technology” may represent an interesting opportunity to cut construction cost too. LRT3 in the Klang Valley is using “U-shaped troughs” that can be precast offsite. Presumably, compared to the segmented box girder typically used in Singapore MRT projects, the U-shaped trough is lighter and thus does not require as much material or structural support. I’m not sure how much can actually be saved with precast construction, since for the most part the segmented box girders are already cast offsite in Singapore projects as well.

The Malaysians also made a big deal about building a “depot” in Wadi Hana, just north of the Bukit Chagar RTS terminus. Well, in fact, since transferring vehicles to Mandai Depot too regularly would be a pain in the ass, there was planned to be a light maintenance facility at Wadi Hana already.

Maybe they’ve been able to expand the scope of works that this RTS facility can handle, but I wouldn’t be surprised if heavy overhaul work is still contracted out to the TEL operator and done at Mandai Depot at the end of the day, to keep the costs of the Wadi Hana facility down. Even if they are different trains, this doesn’t sound as crazy as it does at first glance; in fact, it’s exactly what Toei Subway does. The linear motor-powered Oedo Line trains have their heavy overhaul work done at Magome Depot along the Asakusa Line, and since they can’t move without linear induction plates, not present along the Asakusa Line, they’re towed there by Class E5000 locomotives as shown below.

Toei Class E5000 (source: Wikipedia)

All these technical wizardry, however, does not change the fact that the massive terminus/CIQ buildings at each end are likely going to be the main driver of costs, land acquisition issues aside. It doesn’t help that the Bukit Chagar terminus is likely going to have to include massive park and ride facilities — although, as I said before, KTM’s electrification project should introduce Komuter services in the JB area, and the development of the BRT should hopefully be able to allow more people in Johor to ditch their cars and take public transport to Bukit Chagar. Such developments might allow the RTS contractor to reduce the amount of park and ride provided and thus reduce the size of the Bukit Chagar terminus.

At the end of the day, I now don’t think that “LRT technology” is that much of trouble. There must have been some compelling enough proposals for LTA and MOT to even consider entertaining in the first place, given that they will be paying 61% of the nearly RM10 billion cost of the RTS. I don’t see why it wouldn’t be reasonable to proceed with “LRT technology” if Malaysia had developed their proposal more concretely than the political soundbites we’ve been getting, and demonstrated they would be able to mitigate the issues raised by such a change.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that they could throw us a large surprise and use some weirder gadgetbahn solution. But given what Malaysia has done and what they plan on doing, the KJL or LRT3 approach would be quite reasonable for the RTS, and one I would support, albeit hesitantly.

The next step from here would be to actually get shovels in the ground, and we have half a year from now for that to happen. Interestingly, though, divorcing the RTS from the TEL actually opens the door to not retaining SMRT as the TEL operator should their performance be unsatisfactory at the end of the current contract. After all, holding the RTS operating concession wouldn’t give them an upper hand for TEL.

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A blog on transport issues in the Garden City of Singapore. You can say that I love controversy. Posts can get technical! Abuse of comments may be blocked. Subscribe to Telegram for updates: https://t.me/ftrlsg

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Sometimes I am who I am, but sometimes I am not who I am not.