From the Red Line
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From the Red Line

Change is in the air

At least three new bus interchanges are likely to open in the next 12 months. What does this mean?

These new interchanges are mainly designed to serve new developments. Because of this, changes will have to be made in order to provide public transport service to the new developments, and here’s what I would think can happen.

That said, the fundamental constraints of manpower still remain; it’s not likely to get any better considering our heavy reliance on foreign bus drivers even if the borders have been reopened. This shouldn’t be surprising — things are at the point, after all, where we specifically design dormitories as part of our bus depots. There are initiatives to hire and retain locals, though, so let’s see how far they go.

The issue of expanded service availability, though, will just further compound any problems with increasing the manpower and vehicle productivity of public transport service unless drastic measures are taken. Nothing should be off the table, especially considering how new MRT lines are opened nearly every year and it becomes more important to consider how both bus and rail systems interact with one another..

Through running

This is the first both chronologically and when moving from east to west, with recent progress updates showing a site very substantially complete. Tampines North bus interchange may open sooner than we think; there’s a good chance it might even be opened this year as mentioned in the linked Facebook post.

Some said that when Tampines North bus interchange was announced, it was likely to serve as a direct replacement for the current Tampines Concourse terminal. I don’t think so. Like as in Woodlands, the opening of Tampines North interchange presents an opportunity to rejig the many routes in the area and reduce reliance on the single Tampines Bus Interchange and its surrounding roads, by providing other transfers to the DTL stations at Tampines East and Tampines West.

Such a review could consider using not only Tampines North, but perhaps also Changi Business Park bus terminal for several services. In order to access Tampines MRT, these services could use bus stops along Ave 4 and Central 1. This model is similar to the bus stops outside CCK Lot 1/Keat Hong CC, which is the main boarding point for the south loop of 307 and some other services which need to loop out from CCK bus interchange the long way, leaving the interchange (largely) empty and then boarding passengers only here.

It could also open the door towards redeveloping the existing Tampines Bus Interchange as well, as Tampines Concourse can be further expanded to serve as a temporary home for what remains after the reroutes and through-running is in place. Such a major service revamp would probably be done in a phased manner similar to how the opening of Joo Koon bus interchange was handled.

Slide over

Is there congestion at Serangoon Interchange? With the apparent uproar from the 506 amendment, there may be. And that’s also not yet considering how 81 and 82 loop outside the interchange. Though that may be a better thing as well considering how awkward it can be to get to the interchange especially from the NEL.

Caution has to be advised though when deciding what to send to Bidadari Bus Interchange, likely to open in early 2023 based on guessed TOP dates of the BTO development above. Previous plans call for only five services but I think there can be more. There’s a good chance that internal feeders might be needed within Bidadari estate, or that some services like 142 could also be redirected from Toa Payoh. There’s also a chance that it could serve as a major waypoint along the Outer Ring Road System, but I think it unlikely.

As such, the best possibility for Bidadari could be to look southwards — as the first bus terminal heading northwards out of the CBD, there’s quite a lot of possibilities to run feeder bus services out of Bidadari interchange to serve the areas around Serangoon and MacPherson Roads, perhaps Geylang Bahru as well. It could be quite possible to shorten bus routes like 107 and perhaps 125/140 to Bidadari, allowing more suburban sections duplicating the MRT network to be removed whilst preserving connections in the outlying central area.

I guess we always need more bus hubs in the central area, apart from Geylang Lorong 1 and perhaps St. Michael’s. Bidadari isn’t that central but it can still work. More bus hubs could play host to additional services that help to resolve the connectivity gap from DTL3 and perhaps TEL stations anyway.

The West is full of opportunities

Two of the new bus interchanges are in the West — Tengah Boulevard and Venture Drive.

The story here, though, starts with the second-generation Jurong East Temporary Bus Interchange — a smaller affair than the first one and possibly a lesser-capacity one too. The first one was capable of playing host not only to its current workload, but also to bus services 78, 79, and Causeway Link services.

Some think these leftovers could also be sent to Venture Drive. But Venture Drive is a relatively large terminal and it might be argued that it’s wasteful to have such a large terminal facility only for some services.

This feels like only one half of the puzzle. The other half is likely to be Tengah Boulevard Interchange, which while potentially not opening within our 12–month window, will presumably be quite busy in terms of bus connections in the intervening 4–5 years, before the JRL will be able to link the upcoming Tengah BTOs to the MRT network. It is likely that high-frequency “feeder” bus services (face it, these won’t be actual feeders with fares capped at 3.2km) will have to be put in place to do the job of the JRL while that’s under construction.

These bus services will thus need a place to terminate at Jurong East, if the intention is to parallel the JRL. Venture Drive interchange will likely be what plays host to them on the Jurong East end. But this cannot be done lightly — due to the remote location of Venture Drive interchange proper, a situation like the CCK Lot 1 bus stops is likely to happen, with 78, 79 and whatever Tengah services travelling largely empty between Venture Drive interchange and the bus stops along Jurong Gateway Road.

It may be easier to have those services terminating at Jurong East interchange to skip the Jurong Gateway Road bus stops and conduct alighting activities only at the interchange. This could create a case for bus lanes along Jurong Gateway Road, or they could take the easy way out and just send all new Tengah bus services along Boon Lay Way and make passengers walk out to Venture Drive.

Atomic principles

The above proposals sound very nice and good, but the issue here is that all constraints are local. The Bus Contracting Model as it currently stands reduces the ability for small operators to have backup resources to manage any increase in service level. In other words, something else must be cut within the package itself if resources must be redeployed. That constraint is unlikely to be buses given how we have a surplus; that constraint is manpower — to the point where there are proposals for taxi drivers to be trained as a “reserve corps” of bus drivers.

We saw this fact play out when Go-Ahead express and city direct routes had to be stopped during the previous Delta wave owing to a lack of bus drivers. Why only Go-Ahead? I’d wager that that’s because they only hold the Loyang package, which means they have nowhere else to redeploy resources from. This is unlike larger operators like SMRT and Tower Transit, unless Go-Ahead was able to subcontract out the routes to other public bus operators or even private operators.

That was temporary though, so what about a permanent change like the opening of new bus terminal facilities with accompanying new bus services? Atomicity means that whatever package a new facility is assigned to, that package might have to see reductions in service levels elsewhere in order to be able to operate the new bus routes if the operators are unable to eke out the required bus drivers for them. Actual vehicles aren’t a problem, the LTA has plenty of spares.

As an example of the latter, it’s possible that MP Giam cannot seek relief from cutting short service 66; as it’s operated by Tower Transit who would need to reallocate drivers back to their own services in the Bulim package in the west. With Service 228 in the Bedok bus package, under the principle of atomicity, it would only benefit from resources freed up when 506 was shortened; and there’s also a good chance that those might also have gone to preserve service levels of other bus services.

Don’t say you weren’t warned

If this needs to happen, now is the time for the LTA to start talking about it especially as they start to throw numbers around with headlines. Apart from bus scheduling, it is also necessary to talk to train service schedulers in order to provide the extra capacity for passengers who are displaced after the termination of bus services. All the more as the $173 million of rail reliability subsidies paid out last year needs to show results.

To be clear, more bus interchanges and terminals isn’t a bad thing. It shouldn’t be, as how the opening of Joo Koon Interchange in 2015 reduced bus congestion in the Boon Lay area by shifting bus traffic headed for the industrial estates to Joo Koon and its new bus interchange.

Likewise, some local services could be operated out of an expanded Queen Street terminus; even the bit of Newton Circus hawker centre carpark used by Causeway Link could also be used by public buses as well. And perhaps a bus hub for Mount Pleasant too. These new bus interchanges and terminals are likely to provide a lot of new opportunities, but are we in a position to be taking advantage of them?

I’ve long believed that with new MRT lines creating excess capacity towards the CBD, thinning out some of the bus traffic along the major CBD arterials might even improve the bus travel experience. With less buses and no need for staggering stops to manage bus traffic, people may board any bus along the corridor from any bus stop.

There are a lot of benefits, both fiscal and service-related, from cleaning up the bus network, especially as new working patterns set in and demand towards the CBD decreases. But to do this, many current bus passengers may find themselves having to switch up their travel patterns. Given that the alternative to reducing operational expenditure (such as by running less bus mileage) is to raise fares, such changes amidst a push to the rail network may be a de facto fare increase.



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