Just bury or raise it already
I can’t believe we have to have this conversation, but here we are.
A long time ago I used to ask myself why the KTM tracks through Singapore were removed. Yes, the tracks were old and decrepit with good ol’ token signaling; yes, they could be upgraded (and allegedly KTMB drew up plans in the late 1980s), so why not?
Even at that time KTM still operated the Jurong Line for freight use; it could presumably have been upgraded to a commuter line providing rail service for freight workers; they could have accessed the MRT near Clementi (for which a station could be built), or the KTM mainline at Bukit Timah. In fact, the land for said Jurong Line was even leased from the Singapore government, so it would be a lot easier to upgrade that for commuter standards. Why not?
This may be somewhat related to high-intensity bus lanes or even trams. It all boils down to the question of whether a facility is separated from foot passengers and the roadways, and why it’s important for good service levels. Melbourne and Tokyo are doing the same, anyway.
Back in the days of yore
The most simple explanation for this bit could just be “Mahathir will be Mahathir”, but I’m afraid it may be a lot more complex. Before the KTM service shut down in 2011, it was pretty common to hear stories of people attempting to take a short cut across the railway tracks (since they weren’t fenced) and then becoming roadkill for a Class 25 or something.
There is also the second part to consider — that being the Singapore Government Railway built in the early 1900s, connecting to ferries across the strait to Johor Bahru. Eisen Teo’s book is a good reference in that regard. With traffic not being that bad at that time, you thus find it quite reasonable that the decision was made to build level crossings (manned by guards up till 2011) compared to grade separations, most notably at Choa Chu Kang Road. On the other hand, the newer 1932 FMSR-built section between Bukit Timah and Tanjong Pagar appears to be largely grade separated, fortunately; not sure if that was a decision of the colonial authorities or changes were made post-independence as the areas closer to town densified, again highlighting the importance of grade separation.
But that’s just one of many problems. While land may not be an issue given how we’re using the rail corridor as a very long park connector, even the iconic steel bridge across Bukit Timah/Dunearn Roads was built only for a single track, which means a potential double tracking and electrification project would require rebuilding that stretch to accommodate two parallel tracks, one up (towards the Causeway) and one down (towards Tanjong Pagar).
Also, how would such a line be electrified? KTM eventually electrified at 25kV AC overhead line, so we can assume they would have proposed something similar for an electrified network in Singapore. But when overhead line was initially proposed for the Singapore MRT given that the engineers who designed it also largely worked on the HK MTR which used overhead line — overhead line was rejected for being unsightly, and that’s why we used third rail power for the MRT Initial System. Retaining grade crossings with overhead line basically means you would have to impose height limits for vehicles, and run the risk of a noncompliant vehicle hitting the overhead line and impacting train service. One more point for grade separation.
So along the KTM line, tunnels would have to be raised in internal height, bridges would have to be replaced, maybe even new rights of way built within the old 1900s-era alignment from Woodlands to Bukit Timah — all without disrupting service. Security requirements would also mean alarmed fencing and patrols needed around it so things and people don’t get on the track. You’d basically be building yourself a whole new MRT line with the amount of work that had to be done, hence why electrification and double tracking from Gemas to Johor got a turn in the hot seat during Hatter 2.0. And fresh off the MRT building experience, were we even in a place to contemplate such a project?
On trams, again
Trams also present a lot of the same problems. They largely run in the median of roads, stop at the same junctions, have level crossings, and even obstruct other vehicles like cars and buses. There are plenty of cases where junctions have been reduced to left-in-left-out because the tram tracks are in the way. You may also want to consider why Melbourne, a city full of trams, implemented the hook turn on such a large scale? And could we even spare the space to allow vehicles to make hook turns? It may be possible, but I digress…
Hong Kong Tramways get away with it because of their small double decker trams, with the horizontal footprint of a minibus, which they’ve been using since the 1900s. If they need new ones, they build in house. A tramway solution in Singapore, on the other hand, would likely involve something like the Siemens Avenio, Alstom Citadis, or Bombardier Flexity vehicles, all of which are much longer and wider than the typical HK Tramways vehicle at a minimum of 2.3m wide and length in the double digits.
Of course, to make the most of such vehicles we would need to get all door boarding and things like that right — I’ve said this before — but after binge watching SG Road Vigilante and convincing myself that local drivers suck, I’m not even sure if we should even bother especially given the complexities of implementing all door boarding within our fare system. The simplest way to resolve said complexities would be to fence off the tram stops and place faregates at the entrances, but that takes up even more road space. You might then want to place fare control near the underground/aboveground passenger walkways — so if you’re already building vertically, why not add some more and put the tracks themselves above/below ground as well? Then you’ve built yourself a light metro line.
On the topic of overhead lines, there are solutions but they risk supplier lock in. Alstom sells something they call APS, a way to allow trams to draw power from a powered rail in the ground that doesn’t get in the way of pedestrians. Or maybe the vehicles can even carry batteries that can be quickly charged at stops or at the tram terminals, which is apparently the concept being used for electric buses here.
The same applies for bus lanes or what some quarters call BRT, by the way. Remember the BRT Standard? A good BRT with grade separation (like the Sunway BRT) is no different from a light metro, a bad BRT with road junctions gumming up the works and holding up buses behind it means you’d be better off with the status quo of bus lanes anyway, especially with the chronic congestion in Singapore. Not having intersections for pesky cars to get in the way means you can run better service — be it with larger vehicles or higher frequencies.
Or you can just not give a shit, like how Odakyu keeps its crossing outside Shinjuku station shut pretty much throughout the peak hour because of the sheer density of traffic. That creates urban accessibility issues, though, and I’m not sure if underground pedestrian networks can mitigate this for pedestrians. A car-lite society discourages car use, anyway, so the roads can be left hostile to the car.
Within their Jurong Innovation District project, the JTC presents a very interesting idea, one that the Asimov roleplayers from the current situations might enjoy:
See those pods to the right of the picture? The JTC website calls them mere “autonomous vehicles” but they look like driverless PRT pods to me. They also appear to run on an elevated guideway, above the roads, with only pedestrians having the possibility to interfere. What I actually think of the PRT concept can be put aside for now, let’s look at what it means in the context of grade separation.
This can mean that these vehicles are going to be chock full of the sensors needed for a driverless car on public roads. They would have to be able to detect people and things, and if necessary jam to a halt as quickly as possible if something goes wrong. Another picture on JTC’s website shows them descending down into a pedestrian plaza — but it appears that such pods never actually see a road. Roads can be far more challenging, both in terms of safety and navigating driver behavior, than just pedestrians who walk relatively slowly and can leap out of the way fast enough on hearing a warning siren.
Furthermore, with grade separation and thus no pesky car junctions to cross, such a PRT system would be able to scale up massively and increase the amount of vehicles available to deal with demand on short notice, without fears of congestion. So if JTC finds good reason to keep their PRT pods out of the way of cars even if they should be capable of operating through mixed traffic junctions, why can’t you?