Let’s be honest about Punggol

From the Red Line
Published in
7 min readJun 1, 2024

Is the opening of the Punggol Digital District really going to make the NEL any worse than it already is?

According to MOE’s Education Statistics Digest 2023, just under 10,000 undergraduates were enrolled in SIT in AY2022/23. These are old numbers, and by the time classes start at Punggol in September, SIT’s student body may have passed the 10,000 mark. And this number of course doesn’t include graduate students, though considering SIT’s focus on industrial, work-ready degrees, I don’t suppose there are many graduate students there.

What does this mean for transport? Will Punggol residents find things worse than they already are? Long story short, I don’t think so.

Held together

Let’s look at what will happen in September first. According to SIT, almost everyone across the six campuses (SIT@Dover and the five polytechnics), will not move to Punggol in one shot — they “hope to finish the move by 2025”. I can speak for Dover campus, where there are plenty of laboratories with specialised equipment under Engineering and Food/Chemical Sciences, which will probably incur downtime when they are to be shifted. The need to fit out these laboratories — we’re talking large, sensitive machinery, in some cases even clean rooms — may mean that certain courses may not be able to move to Punggol in 2024.

According to Lianhe Zaobao, the Information Technology and Business, Communication and Design clusters, will be among the first to move to Punggol — which makes sense. These make up just under half of the AY2022/23 intake, so it may still be a sizeable group. Plenty of the undergraduate courses in these two clusters are also three-year programs, which means less than half the overall student body, at most, will be in Punggol in 2024 when the MRT station hasn’t yet opened and they have to take the LRT or buses. And it’s not likely that everyone has to travel to the SIT campus in peak hours anyway with online lectures being a thing, some may only need to go to PDD during off peak hours.

Similarly, with the office components only expected to receive their Temporary Occupation Permit from September, it can be expected that office tenants will need some more time to fit out their spaces; this could be a further month or two, which means the first of the 28,000 office workers might only start work in PDD in October or even November.

source SIT

I don’t think this will be a Republic Polytechnic situation. RP has ~14,000 students and around a thousand staff. It is under these circumstances that Service 902 may be justified, and in these circumstances that TEL Woodlands North station and its early opening under TEL Stage 1 may be justified (apart from the initial “RTS Link by 2018” plans).

Perhaps it may be closer to ITE College West, with 8,000 full time students. But ITE has plenty of bus services along Bukit Batok Road, and Teck Whye station has 2-car LRT trains — in two directions — calling every 5–6 minutes. SIT’s Punggol Campus will have almost nothing. While a since-deleted sentence on their website claimed that Teck Lee station would open in August 2024, the Punggol West Loop still runs 1-car trains — 1-car trains full of residents coming from Punggol Northshore. At least getting to SIT means going the other way, but 1-car trains are 1-car trains.

Bus connections can be implemented to supplement the LRT — just look at the Service 84 amendment. But if students gravitate to one mode over the other, it makes things more complicated. It may turn out that SBS Transit may be forced to eke out as many vehicles as they can in the short term to enable 2-car trains on the Punggol West Loop — and that the first few new 2-car trains that enter service must be used for capacity expansion, not for replacement of older trains.

But these are short term issues. Those 2-car LRT trains will be coming in at the end of this year. And come 2025, the concerns about public transport capacity will become moot as Punggol Coast opens, which brings us to the next point. Perhaps, if SIT is lucky, Punggol Coast MRT can open before exams in late November/early December, maybe also just in time as office tenants finish their renovations and workers can begin work there.

What goes down must come up

In the longer term, the Punggol Digital District will create up to 28,000 jobs, and along with a projected student population of 12,000, result in a total daytime population of 40,000. As a car-lite district, most of these people can be expected to travel by train — easily pushing Punggol Coast to among the busier MRT stations.

source JTC

People can be forgiven for thinking that this will push the NEL past breaking point. My answer is that it won’t — in fact, as SIT and other companies move to PDD, people who previously commuted down to Serangoon and southwards may actually end up using trains in the opposite direction, going up to Punggol Coast instead. It may thus slightly help the situation.

People going to PDD are actually swimming against the tide, at least on the NEL, and perhaps on the LRT too. After all, you have to pass PDD to get to Punggol Northshore.

The videos speak for themselves. The nature of Sengkang and Punggol as bedroom communities mean that many residents are leaving in the morning. The trains have to go back to Punggol somehow after ending their southbound trips at HarbourFront — and in addition to the videos, my experience also shows that northbound reverse peak trains was always nearly empty. Punggol Digital District will fill up those trains, not the already-full ones heading south in the morning.

But what also matters is that SBST must take advantage of the opportunity to add more service — and it’s in the LTA and Transport Ministry’s interests to pressure them to do so. When the C751C and C830C trains were introduced, schedule changes were also made to run the new trains, reducing wait times and increasing capacity. The C830C allowed SMRT to decrease waiting times from 3.5mins to 3.2mins, and as more trains were delivered, down to 2.5mins today. And not long after the C751C trains were introduced in October 2015, a schedule change in January 2016 made use of these new trains. Like CCL, as more trains were delivered, the NEL managed to eventually deliver today’s 2 minute service.

Yet, similar parties have not been thrown with the C851E — potentially pointing to infrastructural bottlenecks that may only be fixed with the opening of Punggol Coast station, before they can increase service. Politically, any small win should be celebrated — with talk of a general election coming, it may be necessary for the Transport Ministry to look like they’re Doing Something, especially with record-breaking LRT ridership.

Simply adding two extra trips in the morning peak hour will do everything the Travel Smart Journeys scheme does, and maybe more. Evening peak service will also need more than the current 2.5 minutes as well, considering that SIT’s focus on continuing education is likely to see plenty of adult learners taking modular courses and part time degrees that take place at night, and thus will have to travel up to Punggol in the evening peak. Only these may come into conflict with the northeastern resident returning home.

But is it necessary?

I think what we’re going to see in Punggol is going to be very similar to what we see in Boon Lay, where there are heavy cross flows between passengers heading out from Jurong West residential estate to other parts of Singapore, and those going onward to Jurong and Tuas industrial estates.

But perhaps there are some differences. Jurong and Tuas are large enough and can provide enough jobs for someone who lives in Jurong West to have a pretty decent chance of taking a westbound train instead of heading east to the CBD. Despite the JRL placing three more stops in the estate, Jurong West is also a smaller estate too. But with only a daytime population of 40k — much lesser than the working-age population of Sengkang and Punggol — PDD is much less likely to, which means that only a small handful of people may be heading north instead of south. Will it be enough, though, to provide visible relief?

It also has to be said that Punggol Coast station is within walking distance of Northshore BTOs as well; though I must point out that residents there were likely already taking a bus to Punggol interchange anyway, so letting them use the MRT station just converts them from an interchange passenger into a through passenger.

Ultimately, though, this is an issue of perception. While SBST will definitely need to pull things together on the LRT side and run all the service they can at least in 2024, that problem will be solved the earlier the MRT station can open. But it is not enough to open the MRT station — that must be accompanied by a clear increase in service. It is thus important for the LTA to realize that it does have that headroom, and to make good use of it.

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From the Red Line

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