From the Red Line
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From the Red Line

Never forget the chaos factor

One sinkhole can cause so many problems.

On the 15th of November 2022, a sinkhole developed near the junction of Farrer Road, Holland Road, and Queensway. It wouldn’t be fixed until the 20th or so.

The resulting traffic jams were legendary. Usual CTE and PIE evening peak jams aside, almost all of Farrer Road and North Buona Vista Road were reporting some of the worst traffic conditions Google can muster.

GMaps screenshot I was sent on 16th Nov

Skip stop

And because car infrastructure is bus infrastructure, the resulting lane closures and diversions affected buses as well.

It got even worse, with Commonwealth Avenue appearing to be implicated as well. Bus passengers may well have been fuming, even in their bus lanes, as the EWL sailed over their heads. This has a simple explanation: as we see in the Google Maps traffic overlay above, the jam got bad enough that it went all the way back to Queensway at the junction of Commonwealth Avenue. It probably doesn’t help that the heavy usage of that junction means a sizeable turn lane has to be provided.

On paper it looks very innocuous. Some bus services are skipping 11091 Leedon Green and 11081 Viz Holland bus stops and have to take detours around the incident site. That’s it. But let’s look at the actual routes to see how many people are affected by this one diversion.

Unfortunately, the comprehensive bus network has come back to bite us. Someone wanting to take a bus from Bukit Panjang station to the Mandai Road industrial estate, with 961 impacted, is pretty much left at the mercy of Service 178 — not counting Service 170 due to the extremely low service level south of Kranji station. And they couldn’t be any further away from the sinkhole at Farrer Road.

This is a very extreme case, but it shows us how long routes can be adversely affected by traffic conditions. More visible but less headline-grabbing is bus bunching, when a bus gets so delayed that the next bus has caught up to it. Regulatory measures under the Bus Contracting Model have attempted to address this, but it’s still happening and likely cannot be eliminated even with paint and perhaps signal priority too.

The issue is with route design exposing the bus network to this kind of external factor in the first place, introducing high levels of chaos and unpredictability.

EDIT: To add, this is referring to external issues affecting the bus network, which obviously doesn’t happen on the rail system due to its grade separated nature. Buses can and do experience mechanical failure like trains, but that’s not within the scope of this post. And if a tree were to collapse on Lentor Avenue shutting down the NSL, we’d have much bigger problems.


Unplanned closures of such a scale are thankfully rare in Singapore, but planned ones are seen more often. I’m thinking, in particular, events like National Day, New Year’s Eve, and F1, where a large part of the road network in the Marina Centre area shuts down. In fact, since you’re reading this after the public transport arrangement are announced for New Year’s Eve, you should already be well aware of the scope of disruption.

Even if you wanted to rely on a printed timetable, due to the change in travelling time caused by the detours necessary to route around the road closures, it’s not a guarantee that the timetable might be reliable. The bus could be early, the bus could be late; with more than 10 minutes between buses it can get messy really quickly. With Marina Centre terminal also involved in quite a few of these closures, many if not all services that regularly terminate there are forced to loop, which means an opportunity to recover from delays encountered on the way to town is also missed.

Service 195 is the hardest hit. As the only loop service operating out of Marina Centre, 195 doesn’t have any other terminal it could use to base drivers out of. It is thus forced to relocate to Kampong Bahru Terminal (and formerly New Bridge Road Terminal) during such major events. This makes it a totally different bus service; one hopes existing service levels were retained, but I might not count on it.

We can’t really run away from some of these inconvenient facts if we want to preserve any notion of public transport accessibility in the CBD. Now that TEL3 is complete, no new MRT stations are planned in the CBD, at least within the next 10 years before work really gets underway on the 9th MRT line. Even that might only see new stations in Marina South with passengers advised to transfer back to the existing network in order to get to Raffles Place and the Civic District.

The answer, as always, is thus to compartmentalize the bus services within the CBD such that reliable service can still be provided to those who need to use the outer reaches of the bus services. For example, someone trying to get from Marine Terrace to Bedok on 14 or 196 should not be affected by what’s happening halfway across the country. While they might not be taking a bus with 14 or 196 shown out front, at least there should be a predictable bus that goes between Marine Terrace, Bedok, and probably Paya Lebar as well.

To the nines

And as we see at Farrer Road, this isn’t even just a CBD issue alone. Large scale road closures have taken place and will continue to be implemented in the Loyang/Pasir Ris area to construct the CRL stations in the area, as well as a new viaduct along Loyang Avenue for through traffic to Changi Airfreight Centre.

For now it’s a bit excusable that we have to try to force buses through the area somehow since Pasir Ris and Tampines are still the nearest possible access points to Loyang and Changi North via public transport. But come 2030, much like how Jurong Pier station will become a border station for Jurong Island the year before, it might be timely to consider how Aviation Park and Loyang stations can better serve the vast area that is Changi — both the existing Changi North area, as well as the upcoming Changi East industrial zones north of T5.

While it may be possible for the traffic diversions to be planned in such a way that buses can return to the full length of Loyang Avenue before other traffic, the short term pain of rerouting to other congested roads will still have to be dealt with. Likewise, even if Loyang Avenue can be reinstated before 2029 as a bus corridor, there’s still the question of accessibility to the stops along that corridor from nearby developments. If you want to know what this looks like, just drop by Marine Parade Road, significantly diverted due to TEL4 construction. These diversions can also add delays.

With more incident-prone stretches of road, schedulers may be forced to assign more time for a vehicle to clear that area. These add up. It’s why on days when nothing happens in the area, buses are to travel very slowly because they’re timed to deal with worst-case situations. Some of this risk can be reduced with bus lanes, or mitigated with some form of signal priority, but it won’t totally go away as long as buses travel on roads.

But it’s not just road diversions or private-vehicle congestion alone that causes a problem. Too many buses in one place can also be dangerous. As Yishun, Woodlands, and Tampines interchanges demonstrate, it will also be necessary to reduce reliance on singular large bus transfer hubs, taking advantage of new MRT development to construct facilities around them. A facility designed for 50 buses an hour may be ill placed to handle 70 to 80, which to me seems to be a realistic surge load that could result from heavy road congestion at some place like Lentor Avenue.

And through all this, things like air conditioning has to be kept running for the comfort of bus passengers, which means energy usage. All the more so as we electrify and that energy becomes more precious due to limited battery range.

No good answers

Eventually, the music will stop, and we’ll have to face reality. We’ll have to ask ourselves, what is the role of the bus network, especially in light of the expanding MRT network, rising operating costs, manpower issues, and range questions arising from the upcoming mass electrification of public buses. This is something I’ve been going on for quite a bit in 2022, but I feel it necessary to approach the end of the year with a warning for what’s likely to come in 2023.

Remember the frequency-ridership spiral? The LTA seems pretty intent on riding it the long way down, all the way to the bitter end. A poke around the Transitlink Guide or service information on Land Transport Guru shows how far we’ve already fallen. The guideline of bus services having no more than 15 minutes wait time in peak hours is barely holding up. That’s also at the expense of late evening service, where waiting times up to 25 minutes appear to be becoming more and more common.

This could be likely because political considerations in perceived benefits of retaining bus services mean we can’t make the most out of the MRT infrastructure we’re spending billions to build, or to redirect resources to improving other routes serving communities without MRT service. Should residents and their local grassroots continue to insist on direct bus routes, they may be forced to continue to run trains and buses at lower frequencies because we can’t fill them. There may be nothing wrong with cutting frequency here, but will that really deliver the pace of change needed to adapt?

I personally think our bus network will eventually have to look more like London’s. There is no equivalent to a service like our 51 or 61 in London; in fact the longest non-express route there is a mere 16.86 miles, or around 27km long, in a single direction. Time wise things are more forgiving as well, with all non-express bus routes taking under 2 hours end to end — though likely to be cold comfort to the 966 drivers I see daily who likely already have bladder issues from having to hold it in all the way back to Woodlands.

The LTA must thus consider these as well. The upcoming factors affecting bus operations mean that they must think about how to reduce the chaos factor and attempt to make journeys more predictable. This helps to save resources by reducing timetable margins as buses are exposed to jams for lesser amounts of time.

Likewise, it can use this opportunity to also plan a bus network that pushes longer journeys to rail where possible and reduces long distance through traffic. The containerization inherent in the BCM bus packages, in fact, helps to achieve this, as a singular long route can be split and broken into multiple packages that are easier to administer and staff, as drivers need no longer travel cross country.

I’d hope that the effect of all that may just be, that the next time a rich man’s mansion wall collapses in Bukit Timah, the bus rider in Tampines won’t have to wait 30 minutes for a bus to the town centre.



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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