From the Red Line
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From the Red Line

My LTMP 2040 Wish List

We’re approaching the end of the year, and getting closer to the launch of the five-yearly Land Transport Masterplan. (they’re calling this one the LTMP 2040. Ooh, aspirational.)

So now that I’ve finally had time to sit down, I thought about what I’d like to see in the realm of land transport for the next five years. I know this blog is mainly meant to be focused on rail transport, but just for this post maybe I thought I’d talk about the rest as well.

After all, in transport planning we need to look at the transport system as a whole, not just in a singular mode. Yes, that’s what playing Cities: Skylines taught me. (BTW, it’s a good game, try it if you have the time) Of course, I’m no expert, so take whatever I say with a pinch of salt.

So just like the LTA, I’ll be working on a theme of analyzing and giving my opinion on individual areas here. I’ll take a slightly different tack, though.

11, my favourite bus

No, not the actual bus service 11 from Kallang to Tanjong Rhu.

It’s interesting that the LTA documents released so far have a very big emphasis on “Walk Cycle Ride” — which sounds simply like their PR men’s way of saying “anything but the car”. I’m no fan of jingoism so let me get straight to the point.

As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t think very highly of the whole “8 in 10 households close to a train station” thing. What, really, is the point of being next to the train station exit, but then it’s a further 10–15 minute walk within the station proper before I actually see a train. Yes, while I understand that some walking may be considered unavoidable, I personally think it can be quite disingenious to do a bait and switch like this.

But then again, if you want to retain that level of coverage, the other option is to add more actual stations. Again, this won’t fly here because when you add more stops, it results in longer travel time for everyone else. Ultimately, be it whether you need to walk more to get to the train, or the train needs to stop more, everyone loses. But we’ll get to this in a bit.

On the other hand, this is Singapore. It’s hot and humid if it isn’t raining, so perhaps a walk in air-conditioned passageways is better than walking (or heck, cycling, but we’ll get to that in a bit) outside with only a metal roof above your head. And while there are companies that cater to people who cycle all the way to work, I doubt it would be a very popular option as a daily commute. Someone might only want to cycle to work in Tanjong Pagar from his Clementi home on Fridays, for example. The other four days of the week, he’ll still take the train.

Perhaps a better compromise would be “within 10 minutes of a train station”. You can walk, cycle, take a bus (or heaven forbid, drive) to the train station, but if you can get there under 10 minutes, then it can count. All this, of course, is with existing technology. There are a lot of new toys that we can explore as well, but I’ll look at those later.

Over the hills and far away

One thing heartening to see in the Public Consultation Document is a renewed focus on speed.

If you, like me, live in the west side, you probably know that it can take very long to get elsewhere. Having to cross the island twice every day isn’t fun, there’s a reason why a common joke says those who live in the East need a passport to go to the west, and vice versa. I’ve done it myself, back when I was doing my internship at a company in the far East (I live in the West).

A metric used in the Household Travel Survey 2016 results was the amount of journeys below 20km which were completed within an hour. Disingenious, if you ask me. But perhaps I’ve been spoiled by Hong Kong, for one, where getting from the outer towns of the New Territories, a journey longer than Woodlands to Raffles Place, can be faster than getting from the actual Woodlands to the actual Raffles Place. Then again, the ex-KCR network and the Tung Chung Line would be considered commuter rail everywhere else. So perhaps tweaking the metric would be in order. May I humbly suggest increasing the distance limit to 30km?

And yes, journey times can be a pain point for people. It would seem that the government’s decentralization strategy (google this if you’re lost, I haven’t time to explain) has been to group specific industries within a specified cluster. Just as some examples, banking is in Tampines/Changi, aerospace in Seletar, and tech in JID (near NTU) and the upcoming Punggol Digital District. This conveniently ignores the fact that people from all over the island work in all kind of occupations. No, the locals aren’t going to pick up and move just so they can be close to work.

But that’s enough bellyaching, how about a solution? Express tracks, the most common low hanging fruit, would of course sound like the best option. Problem: Fully 4 track lines are expensive. Very expensive. Thus, the other options would be to have stations with overtaking points (like Fort Canning and Mattar on the DTL), or reduce the amount of stations on a line.

Talk floating around on the internet indicates that the government intends to build a line down Holland Road from Tengah and Bukit Batok, providing one more link from the west side to the CBD. And for the east, maybe a second line through less populated areas to Sengkang and Punggol as well. Perhaps it might be good to take advantage of such routings, which passes through less built-up areas, to make this the fastest route to town. This can also tie in with the government’s rail reliability push, where more lines can provide alternate routes back home for those living in relatively isolated areas, like the northwest and the northeast.

Or we can even go all the way and also implement skip-stop services on the existing network, especially lines with closely-spaced sections like the DTL and the eastern end of the TEL. That’s an option worth considering especially with the newer, modern moving block signalling systems allowing trains to be even closer together. It may even be possible to add overtaking tracks on parts of the existing NSEWL.

New frontiers, old battles

Another thing pushing that “8 in 10 homes” goal ever further away is the amount of new development going on in this country, which of course needs public transport service.

Apart from comparatively smaller development projects like Holland Plain and Kampung Bugis, URA and HDB also have plans to develop bigger development areas like Tengah and what will soon be the Southern Waterfront. These areas will need public transport service too, but should that come at the expense of existing communities? And how will these new services be able to work in tandem with existing ones?

Let’s start with the redevelopment of Bukit Merah and the Southern Waterfront. If you look around Queenstown station, the old HDB flats in the area are being redeveloped into 40 floor blocks that make one think of Hong Kong. And with leases also coming up in the Bukit Merah area, there’s a high chance that things are going to go the same way there. Then there’s the old port facilities, which are being developed into what is called the Greater Southern Waterfront.

As these areas are largely right next door to the downtown area, one would assume that a natural extension of transport systems within downtown, such as personal, on demand transport service, would be the best way to provide service to these new developments. Yet, I personally hold great skepticism towards that approach, although it’s not like the Western fear that they’ll “stop funding transit!”. Let me explain.

Something of note recently that the LTA has also been pretty active on, is on demand bus services. There’s also plenty of activity in terms of autonomous personal transport, like the self-driving cars in one-north and those podcar things you see on the roads of NTU, as well as the talk about air taxis. To make these safe enough for a dense urban environment will require plenty more work, but I guess that’s for another blog to talk about in detail.

Yes, years ago all this would have been considered science fiction… very scary indeed. Why, and how? Consider this an unpopular perspective, but I’ve always considered road anarchy as a bad thing. And autonomous personal transport, even if shared, can still lead to road anarchy (or, as I call it, flying cars blotting out the sun). After all, one person in a 50cm by 50cm pod still takes up more space than one person standing alone.

Especially in a densely populated city like Singapore where every inch of land counts. I personally think this only works best within a town, to supplement or even replace feeder bus services and the LRT. But with really dense environments (again, Queenstown, Bukit Merah, Southern Waterfront), will personalized transport really be adequate, or should we also consider short-distance mass transit as well?

Then if we do choose to use short distance mass transit solutions, how would we then ensure that residents living further away still have an acceptable level of service? Do we explore lengthening trains on the existing network? Or denser bus services? Or perhaps even full-on monorails? What I would suggest would be that each new town has its “recommended” way of getting to town — while I admit decentralization is a thing, there will still be people who need to go to the CBD.

Holes as far as the eye can see

I’m no civil engineer, but one thing’s also noticeable in the document that they plan to explore greener methods of building and maintaining infrastructure. That’s a way forward, but I personally think we should also start thinking about less disruptive methods of construction as well.

Did you know that excavated soil from development projects locally is used in land reclamation? The conspiracy theorist in me thinks that perhaps that’s the reason why new MRT stations are designed to be so big (including the non-public areas of stations) is perhaps to provide an excuse to excavate the soil for land reclamation.

But now I’m thinking, what are the costs of these large stations? Newer projects seem to feature large, empty Grand Canyon-esque voids (I’m looking at you, Tampines East and West), I wonder what the air-conditioning bill looks like, and with global warming should we really be spending so much to air condition these not-so-useful spaces?

Another issue is that, as anyone who was living along Bukit Timah Road during the past few years should know very well, the amount of traffic and social disruption caused by plopping large worksites all over. Should we also consider how to minimize such disruption to people’s lives?

You can’t squeeze a lemon dry

While I know I mentioned things like more trains and express service, one more conversation I’ve been having with some other people in the know is how far the existing network can be pushed, though.

I’ve previously written about the lengths that the London Underground Victoria Line went to achieve running 36 trains per hour (or about 100 seconds between trains). And right now I’m not convinced that doing that in Singapore won’t backfire spectacularly.

As I mentioned in the last section, I’m not of the opinion that the spaces within our stations are well-used. And surely the LTA agrees, since they’ve embarked on a project to fill most empty voids on the NSEWL and thus provide more platform space. But as anyone who’s been to busier aboveground stations at peak hours will know, what we need is not more space — but more ways to get people on and off the platform.

Lengthening trains is also something we may need to seriously consider, especially on the lighter-capacity lines like the Circle and Downtown lines. Definitely, platform end furniture may have to go, and we may even need to radically rethink what the CCDTL train will look like. After all, there’s only so much that better signalling can do.

Call me pessimistic but I’m sure at some point the studies will have to be done. Especially with the Downtown line reporting an increase in ridership that I project will outstrip the Circle Line (I’ve gotten my hands on the data and will write about it someday, thanks LTA).

In summary

Well, that was long. I guess I’ll summarize my points here:

  • At train stations, providing enough exits is not enough — the trains themselves still need to be convenient to access
  • Embrace disruptive technologies like ride sharing and autonomous vehicles, but a clear line must be drawn
  • Explore the possibilities of pushing our existing lines to the limit to provide faster service with express stops, or all-new semi express lines
  • Transport service to new developments should be accompanied by enhancements to existing ones, so we don’t rob Peter to pay Paul
  • Infrastructure should be designed to be green as part of everyday use, not just during the construction process
  • But on the other hand, there’s really only so much we can squeeze out of the existing network — although, have we even tried?

That’s a lot of writing for me. Well, this is a wishlist for the brain trusts at LTA to ponder over after all, but I think I doth protest too much.

Maybe I’ll be a bit more constructive next time and discuss my ideas in separate posts.



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