From the Red Line
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From the Red Line

Is TEL3 working?

The numbers are out; what do they show?

It’s been two months since TEL3 opened on November 13, and the LTA’s monthly statistics dumps also dropped recently. I had to wait for the December dumps before writing this post, because the LTA’s statistics for November don’t have TEL3 included in them.

The numbers here come with two disclaimers — firstly, for some reason the LTA is reporting higher numbers than me in the news. Perhaps they may be double counting passengers changing between train lines within the paid area, which is data that doesn’t surface in origin-destination farecard data. And they may have a way to assign rides to sections of line that’s more precise than mine. Or other reasons.

Secondly, TEL3 opened one week before the start of the December school holidays. With ridership slow to pick up, there may have been lesser passengers on the line in the week between. Not to mention that in the last week of November and in December, it is also possible that many are taking long holidays since they haven’t over the last three years. If they’re taking holidays, they’re not going to work, which means less demand on the public transport system.

In short, whatever numbers we see in December could indicate only the beginning of encouraging trends. Weekends may also be skewed by the need to get people out during the New Year’s celebrations, at which half a million were expected to attend. But the real test will come now, during January 2023, when the holidays end, schools reopen, and people get back to work.

Press coverage was devoted to the increase in footfall at Great World City and Tanglin Mall, the two shopping malls along TEL3 now made accessible by new MRT development. Naturally, they’re quite happy with things.

This is even despite the fact that Great World City, at that time, still lacked proper access from the MRT station to the mall proper — the Exit 2 underpass opening only on the 20th of December. Before that, this was the walking route:

It’s not that long, actually, and the few times I went that way, seems to be quite well used even counting the fact that you had to walk past the cars on a roped-off section of the driveway of Great World City itself, at least before 20th December.

So what does this actually translate to? Well, Great World station only saw around 5000 passengers on an ordinary day in December, both entries and exits. That’s relatively decent considering the station location among private housing, though one might think it could be higher.

Orchard Boulevard, however, has not been so lucky, taking over the mantle of least busy TEL station from Lentor at only approximately 3000 daily riders. So did Tanglin Mall matter? Probably not. But that’s quite understandable considering the locality of the station, especially considering that they built Cashew and Lorong Chuan station, both in similar locations.

But these are just two examples. It’s still useful to note that in December, all non-interchange TEL stations don’t seem to have broken the barrier of 10k daily users in December— which is roughly what Fernvale LRT station got. Yes, you heard that right, the average TEL station appears to be less busier than an LRT station. Woodlands North previously did, but that may be due to RP, and now that classes have resumed at RP, we can probably expect that number to go up again.

Light at the end of the tunnel (updated to fix typo)

The good news is that ridership has grown along TEL2, likely as a result of the TEL3 opening. As we see above, daily average ridership on weekdays has increased at Mayflower, Upper Thomson, and Springleaf, generally defying the downward pressure on demand caused by the December holidays. And at least Mayflower station may be well on its way to breaking the 10k mark again. Weekends are also looking up as well, with usage of the TEL1/2 going up across the board, but that could also be due to the festive season.

The idea behind TEL3 was that new routes provided by TEL will take pressure off old interchanges and other stations near the TEL stations. Is it happening? That said, any numbers here have to be weighed against the overall decrease in demand during the December holidays.

The short answer here appears to be “yes, sort of”, with a drop in users interchanging at Newton station (which we can see due to the unpaid link) that can’t really be easily explained by the December holidays — from 72k to 61k daily users. This probably means that there are passengers using the TEL and thus not changing at Newton station.

Orchard, though, has seen a significant increase in ridership from November, but that may not just be TEL alone. The opening of the TEL will definitely have helped the root cause, which is more people visiting the Orchard area during the festive season, by providing additional capacity to relieve the NSL. What’s also not modelled is the impact of the TEL on the Circle Line Extension, as that now becomes an additional possible route instead of piling everyone on the DTL.

Yikes again

Special mention goes to Maxwell and Gardens by the Bay, highest ridership stations in TEL3 in weekdays and weekends respectively as seen above.

These conclusions are probably premature and it will probably take time for ridership to grow, but the LTA does themselves no favours when they continue to run TEL service at such low levels. More aggressive steps may be needed in order to more quickly grow ridership on the TEL. After all, running less service doesn’t save as much money as often thought; all the more so in Singapore where 7 out of 9 rail lines are supposed to be able to work fully-automated.

As at time of writing, TEL train frequencies still remain at 5 minutes peak and 6 minutes in off peak. (edit: Fixed typo, I mixed the two up). It can be improved. But will it, especially when it’s clearly becoming a fact that the CBD-bound peak hour crowd just isn’t really coming back?

This is all the more so where the Thomson Line was originally conceived in the last decade as a second trunk line to relieve NSL capacity towards the CBD direction. Many of those assumptions made at the time may no longer hold true especially as Grade A office space is freed up due to multinationals, more commonly based in the CBD, embracing flexible working policies. I’d still go to the office when I can, but I’m not the average Singaporean, and it is a fact that there are lesser commuter flows towards the CBD.

EDIT 3: I realized that the numbers presented here likely means that TEL ridership growth stages may be lesser than the DTL even after accounting for the holiday season, which means there could be much more work to be done here. We shall see what steps the LTA chooses to take.

Instead of operating half-empty express buses and halving the frequencies of trains on the TEL1–3, it probably makes more sense to have those buses operate feeder service to the TEL stations and then passengers can take TEL downtown. It doesn’t really help that the terminating stops for City Direct bus services is right after Shenton Way station; taking a bus to the TEL could easily be time-competitive to a City Direct service.

Many of these express bus routes are “interlined” from local buses in order to provide these direct services to the CBD. With TEL3, it is timely to reconsider their need, and whether they should be stopped so that the buses and their drivers can be redirected to keep local services served. Why? An alternative option is open by the TEL for Woodlands and Ang Mo Kio residents, and the few Yishun residents within range of existing bus services. There is a need to boost bus connections to the TEL stations as well, as described before.

And if demand still remains for a one-seat bus ride, Premium services can be introduced at the initiative of private operators. Cost-benefit comparisons may become more realistic for such cases. This, in fact, was what happened after several City Direct services were stopped in end-2018, where private operators filled in the gap. A&S Transit will also take up the mantle of providing night buses as well, in a similar fashion.

But there are two main issues here. Firstly, the data is unreliable. I elaborate more in this Google Drive folder, and invite any other budding researchers and data scientists to try to make head or tail out of this info. Or better yet, someone with access to the On-Request Datasets, including the far more precise farecard records, can derive a much better insight than I can.

That unreliability means that any numbers posted could be even lower in reality. Not just for TEL, but also for rail ridership in general. Considering how numbers-driven the civil servants can be, if the numbers paint a different picture of the demand compared to what is actually being carried, it may not be a good sign. Either they think trains are emptier than they actually are, which helps in justifying the lower frequencies, or they’re fuller than they actually are, which means they might be led to think parallel bus services still have a part to play in relieving rail congestion.

Of course it could also go the other way, that the current numbers are considered to be correct and I’m the one that’s misinterpreting them. But the issues with the dataset do raise questions in any case.

The second issue is the fact that the TEL is essentially still a work in progress and will continue to be until the opening of the ECID and Stage 5 in 2025. Work in progress means a certain level of instability, which we can see in several major disruptions — as if it were at least one for each stage. In the name of building system stability and reliability, they may not want to run too many trains at this point.

That’s fair, but perhaps the 5 minute schedule might still be on the low side, and the continuing system reliability issues also raises the question on whether any more service changes might be necessary for systems integration activities for the remaining two stages for them to make sure that they don’t break anything. We can’t run away from this, but it might be worth asking if construction delays allow for some of the work to be frontloaded into a previous stage.

Finally, of course, while not an issue directly within the LTA’s power to solve, it is of paramount importance that the MND place an emphasis on developing the land around TEL stations in order to grow the usage and justify the investment into the rail line. Not just what was mentioned in the previous blog post, but there’s plenty of potential around Havelock and Bright Hill as well. At least Lentor and Woodlands South are being built up.

Author’s note: I can only do so much with the data that’s been presented. If the authorities wish to point out inaccuracies or other claims that need to be questioned, do drop me an email.



Here to make you think about 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:

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