It’s what lies within

From the Red Line
Published in
8 min readMay 18, 2024

Is there really that much space for further optimization of train space?

A while ago, transit twitter was all ablaze because people were complaining about the open gangways on New York’s R211 trains. It’s really quite a storm in a teacup because Singaporeans might find that the R211 isn’t really that much different from our MRT trains.

To be fair to the LTA, it’s not like they don’t know that they need to improve things there. One of the touted selling points of the CRL trains is that the gangways are wider — from 1.4m to 1.6m. How useful this actually is in practice, we shall see. Though considering how difficult it has been to get people to move in inside the same car, it may not be as useful as wider doors.

The bad future

A thing I’ve noticed about the R151 trains is how the electrical compartments on the car ends seems to have grown in size. Where on previous trains, the compartments may have been just large enough for a standard fire extinguisher; on the R151, the fire extinguisher compartment is not only larger, the panel it’s embedded in is also larger too. This may be a reason why the R151 train doesn’t have the 2-seaters on the car ends like on previous train orders— there simply may not be enough space for them.

source SGTrains

I wouldn’t be surprised if there wasn’t enough space for a standard wheelchair bay too, perhaps explaining why the wheelchair bay on R151 trains has been moved next to the window. To be fair, modern trains are much more complicated than their 1990s counterparts, as space has to be catered for communications systems and other electronics that we expect from modern trains.

Yet, the area under seats remains empty — and may also be a security risk as unattended items can be left below the seats. On some rows, there are indeed equipment lockers down there, but it raises the question of why more equipment can’t be moved away from car-end lockers and under the seats; that way the car-end lockers can be made smaller and free up space for more passengers.

An extreme example can be seen on the JRL mockup, where the size of the electrical cabinets relative to the inter-car gangway essentially creates a “tunnel” between two cars. Even if handgrips and grab poles are provided — and I’m not sure whether they will be, as the mockup isn’t so clear— it’s hard to imagine people might choose to stand here.

JRL Train Mockup (source Land Transport Guru)

“Kaizen” is a foreign word

Building “cattle cars” with almost all the seats removed may be justifiable on the RTS Link. After all, expected on-train travel times on the RTS Link will only be about five minutes. You can sit down, make yourself comfortable, then you’ll have to get off again soon. There are also other benefits towards a seat-lite approach with the RTS Link, as the security sweeps needed can be drastically simplified with lesser cabin furniture.

However, remember that initial plans were for the RTS Link to share specifications with the TEL — that means heavier, heavy rail viaducts, and if the fleet were to be shared, it would also have meant that there’s a need to flexibly adjust vehicle space between duties on the longer-distance TEL and short-distance RTS Link. That’s likely a reason for the flip benches as currently implemented, where it’s up to staff to unlock the benches so they can be switched between up and down modes.

I’ve long used flip benches as an example on the blog of how the LTA and SMRT appears to use “kaizen” as a foreign word applied only to improve maintenance processes and doesn’t really impact the customer experience. A mechanical modification to remove the locking mechanism can allow seats to be flipped freely at all times, allowing passengers to have choice, but it seems to me that nobody has thought of it.

And now that it is all but confirmed that the TEL will be extended to Changi Airport, TEL trains will have to accommodate airport passengers and their luggage; after all, they can be reasonably expected to ride direct TEL trains from the airport to hotels near Orchard Boulevard, Havelock, and in the Marina Bay area. What this means is that flexibility is now needed in the flip benches. Graciousness campaigns to teach the proper etiquette of flip seats can be implemented.

For what it’s worth, plenty of newer buses have flip seats anyway, so public education on the responsible use of such spaces is also welcome there. Flip benches can also be implemented on the LRT to clear space for wheelchairs and prams, as has been done in Macau.

source BennyChio888, Wikimedia Commons

A larger change than we think?

It is not always so easy, though.

The LTA released a video on the construction of the NEL C851E trains in Alstom’s factory in Barcelona, Spain. This more clearly shows what goes on behind the locker doors of the car-end electrical compartments.

still from LTA Video

This glimpse into the manufacturing process shows that the NEL (and CCL) C851E trains represent more of continuity than they do of innovation. Heck, LCD route maps and next station displays are de rigeur on all new and upgraded trains, except the C851E. For a small NEL fleet, this may be fine — and if the LTA so wanted, they could likely just undertake a system modification to remove the current LED lamp-based maps and replace them with LCD displays. They did that on the DTL trains, after all.

But making gangways wider and removing 2-seaters in favour of standing space may not be possible, when we’re not adapting designs enough to justify the relocation of electrical components that may justify a redesign of wiring systems. It’s a missed opportunity, without a doubt.

To be fair to Alstom and the LTA, there are benefits towards a more incremental design. The new hallmark features of the C851E trains include the new purple exterior, LED lighting, and automated track inspection equipment. Automated track inspection equipment need not be installed on all trains, and the older C751C trains can always be repainted and have LED lighting installed to maintain fleet commonality. I wouldn’t be surprised if other electrical equipment were also interchangeable too.

This is similar to how Taipei Metro designed the C381 to have a high degree of part commonality with the C371, even though considering the size of both orders, they didn’t have to. Still, we broke tradition once with the technological step change of the R151 trains, instead of just buying more from Kawasaki. It’s not hard to imagine we might do this again, especially if a new train order becomes part of a comprehensive upgrade kit including new train control systems and more.

And it also remains to be seen if SBS Transit and the LTA will see fit to remove some of the 7-seaters inside the newer NEL trains, as they have with the upgraded C751A fleet. Or perhaps they might prefer the R151 solution, where 7-seaters are reduced to 5-seaters more evenly around the train. Interestingly, though, the 2-seaters still remain, despite their documented impairments towards passenger flow inside the train. Even during the C751A upgrade, it appears CRRC Nanjing Puzhen couldn’t move whatever was installed under there.

source SGTrains

Or perhaps, if the LTA can get flip benches to work again, we should install flip benches here.

Then what?

Then what could we do with this additional space? Of course, there is the burgeoning PMA population — while not everyone needs a PMA and steps are being taken to limit PMA ownership, it has become quite a common sight to see a line of senior citizens in mobility scooters queueing for the lifts at MRT stations.

There are also efforts to make prams more welcoming for families — so families can load up all their things in a pram, take it on public transport, and thus do not need to own a car. After all, young couples repeatedly cite this excuse during arguments for COE reform — that they can use the car as a base camp especially when managing rowdy children or carrying many baby supplies, and thus deserve to own a car more than the professionals who need to travel to Raffles Place and MBFC. Buses also already have restraints to lock a pram in.

Perhaps, even, during off peak, we can even consider allowing full-size bicycles, following in the footsteps of KL and Taipei. While this may appeal more to the lycra cyclist and less the commuter cyclist (who might already own foldable bicycles which can be carried on the MRT at any time anyway), it can be a step forward especially as we expect people to take the MRT to leisure areas.

After all, Taipei places its cars with less seating not in the middle, but at the ends of the trains. These are marked out as defined spaces for cyclists and wheelchairs, with large empty spaces for them to maneuver their bikes. So will Vancouver, on the new Mark V Skytrain.

source mailer_diablo, Wikimedia Commons

Doing the same here will possibly require a lot of changes in habits, but I view this as a good thing. The thing about placing wheelchair spaces in the middle cars, especially on the medium capacity lines, is that the middle car tends to be the busier car due to how platform exits are placed. Shifting wheelchair spaces to the end cars, with accompanying messaging to get PWDs and senior citizens to move out there, may help to improve commuting experience, as the entire boarding process need not be paused to allow some old man to reverse his wheelchair out of the parking spot.

Or worse, passengers can’t move in because some PMA decided to park right after the train door. I’ve seen this plenty of times on the Circle Line in morning peak, as service ambassadors need to board the train to clear the wheelchair space for some senior citizen going to medical appointments at NUH — when at Kent Ridge, the lift is at the end of the platform anyway.

Ultimately, we do have a lot of space. Our trains are wider than the Type A trains of mainland Chinese metro systems. But we do need to introspect, whether we’re using all that space wisely. So far, I don’t think so.

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From the Red Line

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