Fixing Jurong East

I’m sure this is a topic close to the hearts of many of you, especially if you live in the West.

If you’ve lived in Bukit Batok, Choa Chu Kang, or Bukit Panjang and commute by MRT, I’m fairly sure many of you would have had to go through Jurong East Station. A sharp increase in the amount of people living in these new towns have also made the station more crowded than it can seemingly cope, and pictures of long queues at the station have been making their rounds on the internet.

Of course, this is a problem whether the powers that be admit it or not, so I thought I could explore the topic and see what we can do.

Back in the days of yore

Of course, as both LTA and I will tell you, Jurong East was not built to handle such a crowd. Really, it wasn’t. When it opened in 1988, the middle platform there (platforms D/E today) was somewhat of an oddity — towards the west, it led nowhere (to be precise, it did lead somewhere — a construction site), so it could only be accessed from the Clementi side.

What could MRTC do with this track? I probably wouldn’t know what they could have done with it before 1990, but I know what they did after — a branch line to Bukit Batok and Choa Chu Kang to serve the new developments there. There weren’t a lot of people using this branch line, and quite often trains from the branch line ran through onto the main East-West Line to Pasir Ris, so it was thought one track was enough.

Diagram A: Track layout of Jurong East Station, 1988–2011 (diagram by me)

Rather oddly, that school of thought persisted even after the Woodlands Extension opened in 1996, connecting the Choa Chu Kang branch line with the main North-South Line at Yishun, and the increase in train service that followed. Well, the 6-car trains were still not that full, they thought. And in fact, service was so light that it was possible to run through trains starting from Ang Mo Kio, going one round around the NSL, then joining the EWL at Jurong East, to head east to Pasir Ris. However, those were stopped in 2011 when the new platform (see below) opened.

Then, of course, the sharp population increases of the early 2000s came, and just like the Circle and Downtown lines, Jurong East was not able to handle the population explosion happening in Jurong West, Bukit Batok, and Choa Chu Kang. Already SMRT had to turn around every other train at Yishun station since they couldn’t all fit into the one platform at Jurong East, with NSL trains very often having to stop on the station approach to wait for the previous train to leave the platform.

How to train your dragon

Thus, the first attempt to rectify the situation. A project was proposed where an additional platform would be built for the North South Line, providing a second place for trains to unload and load passengers without having to wait for the previous one to leave the platform. This was accompanied by a renumbering of all the platforms at Jurong East, with the new platform being numbered A, and then increasing westwards.

Diagram B: Track layout of Jurong East Station, 2011 — present (diagram by me)

It was a great idea on paper, but not so much for execution. Due to its limited operating hours (7am-10am and 5pm-8pm), the use of the platform is strictly limited to rush hours when the increased service is needed most. But outside these times, as trains were progressively added to meet the rush hour demand, congestion can still be expected at platforms D/E.

The position of platform A, where a transfer through the station concourse is required to get to the westbound platform, also disadvantages passengers heading west — if you work in Tuas, or study in NTU, or live in Jurong West and work in the North, this is you. Somewhat helpfully, SMRT actually broadcasts which platform at Jurong East a northbound train will terminate in, but this also carries with it the issue that westbound passengers will “self-select” themselves out of the trains going to platform A. This reduces the amount of benefit the new platform can bring.

SMRT also has the curious practice of having trains leaving the North South Line use the EWL eastbound platform (platform B/C) to empty themselves out before returning to the nearby Ulu Pandan train depot. This actually holds up traffic on the eastbound line, because security requirements mean that staff must check every train going out of service before it can be given permission to head back to the depot. It takes about 3–5 minutes to do this check — but on the railways that’s a lot of time. Thankfully, they don’t do that during the actual peak hours.

But now you ask, how about trains coming from the depot? Well, as seen in the above diagram, they can either go to platforms D/E, or platform F. Platform F will commit a train to run all the way to Boon Lay, which is the nearest point that it can turn back east. That’s a run of 10 minutes one way, which means it can be more than 20 minutes before the same train comes back to Jurong East heading east.

On the other hand, using Platforms D/E to start an EWL train will not only hold up the NSL service, it can also potentially confuse commuters. In Singapore we don’t have anything like two or three services sharing tracks (unlike in London or New York, for example) and so it’s possible to just shut off your brain while commuting. And should SMRT do that, you could find yourself on the 5 minute run to Clementi instead of up towards Bukit Batok.

“my cup runeth over”

Of course, we cannot look at the issues with Jurong East Station without examining other parts of the network that it can affect. Running more trains between Jurong East and Choa Chu Kang brings with it the fact that more passengers are going to need to get onto the eastbound train at Jurong East to go towards the city.

In 2007, it was possible that all passengers coming off the NSL at Jurong East would be able to get onto the first eastbound train, even at peak hours. But in 2017, this isn’t the case anymore. More often than not, one can only get the second or third train. Or if you’re unlucky, number four. That’s almost 10 minutes of waiting on the platform.

Down the road, it’s even worse. Clementi, a major hub in itself, is often packed to the brim, and passengers are often queueing to the edge of the other platform. Only a select few can get on the train at Clementi Station. Hence, in order to accommodate these passengers, SMRT starts a handful of fresh, empty trains eastbound at Clementi station — but this takes up a train path that could have gone through Jurong East and cleared the crowd there.

Of course, if you’re conveniently situated to do so (live in Bukit Panjang/Choa Chu Kang? Work in the CBD?), you can take the Downtown line, which promises higher reliability, faster speeds, and lesser crowds (though that, too, is subjective). And that’s the answer LTA will probably give you if you write in to them — some yada yada about “providing additional options”, so on and so forth.

They’re not wrong — the idea is to provide alternatives so that if one lines goes up the spout, it’s still possible to get home. But those alternatives won’t be here for maybe the next 10 years. So we have to be creative with what we have.

A lamp, hanging from the roof of the tunnel

Enough about complaining. On my blog, I like to be constructive, so not only do I point out the issues, I also believe in offering solutions; whether the authorities take them into consideration or not is another thing altogether, and not for me to decide.

So what can we do? Well, the implementation of new signalling on the EWL (yes, no matter how much you and I are going to loathe it) should help somewhat with the bottleneck issue. More trains running through the area means that crowds can be cleared faster, and maybe the poor folks at Clementi might be able to get some reprieve — at least, until ridership shoots up again. But let’s hope that alternatives are here by the time that happens.

The recently-opened Tuas West Extension also gave us another present — Tuas Depot. I am hearing that after Tuas Depot fully opens (which will only happen after new signalling is in use), Ulu Pandan depot will no longer launch any trains onto the EWL, and all trains on the EWL will come from Tuas Depot.

Well, newsflash, Tuas Depot is 30 minutes away. This means that to make the peak period of 8am to 9am, trains would need to leave Tuas Depot between 7.30am to 8.30am, and probably would be quite full by the time they reach Jurong East. Cold comfort, I’m sure, which means that Ulu Pandan depot and its central location is still key to ensuring everyone still has space along the NSEWL.

Nuke and pave

Operationally speaking, the best option of course would be a complete redesign of Jurong East Station and the areas around it — or what we tech-inclined people call the “nuke and pave”. Of course, this would come with years of pain, including line and station closures, so it may not be desirable as a fix in the short term, but we’ll explore it anyway.

Diagram 3: What the “nuke and pave” could look like (diagram by me)

The above is what I would propose if the opportunity came up to completely reorganize Jurong East Station. It looks simple, but would in fact increase throughput on the NSL and EWL — again, though, at the expense of a small amount of transferring commuters. You can’t please everyone, but you can make things less painful.

I would move the EWL Eastbound platform to where Platform A is now, using both middle tracks for the NSL. Trains could enter platform B/C through a connecting track from the NSL, empty themselves of passengers, then proceed forward into what the railway industry calls a “reversing siding” — basically like performing a 3-point turn. Afterwards, the train would move forward into platform D/E, where it collects passengers for the southbound ride.

In off-peak hours, only platform A, B, E, and F would be in use, and in peak hours, southbound trains would swap around and collect passengers at platform D instead. This would help crowd management by splitting commuters based on which direction they may want to go, much like how Bishan station on the NSL is designed.

In fact, this is the solution used at Tanah Merah on the other side of the island, as part of a project to raise capacity along the line to Changi Airport Terminals 1/2/3. It sounds rather boorish since everyone will be forced to leave the platform, but we’ll see how it works at Tanah Merah.

A less extreme option would be to retain the spaghetti mess of tracks as in diagram B above, but adding the crossover on the Clementi side from the westbound to the eastbound track. This allows trains that would otherwise have had to go all the way to Boon Lay to reverse direction to just do so at Jurong East instead.

In closing

As such a major interchange hub, Jurong East station is pretty underequipped to handle the amount of traffic that goes through it today. Of course, the best option would be for LTA to open up more options for those travelling from the west to the central area, just as how the eastern side will get the DTL3 in a few weeks’ time, and the TEL in 2022. But that opening up will take time, so we’ll have to grin and bear it (or take the DTL) in the meantime.

I know this is a long piece, and I seem to have ended up rambling, so once again I’d like to thank you for reading, and all questions and comments are of course welcome.

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